Jesus proclaims Himself Lord of the Sabbath.


At issue in today’s Gospel is no ordinary law. “Keep holy the Sabbath” was one of the Ten Commandments. It had come straight from God. We might be tempted to think that Jesus, as God’s Son, claimed an exemption for Himself: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”. But St. Mark’s presentation of the story makes that unlikely. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ statement is simply “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). We see the same note struck in Jesus’ approach to another of the Big Ten: Honoring father and mother. When told His mother and brothers were outside, He didn’t tend immediately to them, but included all of His followers as family (Mark 3:31–35; Matthew 12:47–50).

We see Jesus coming into conflict not with the commands of God but with an established understanding of God’s command. Christ loved the Sabbath because it came from the heart of His Holy Father whose unfathomable generosity and righteousness is expressed in the Sabbath command. The Sabbath expressed God-given freedom and release from bondage and Jesus embodied the very heart of God in that respect. He Himself was all that the Sabbath stood for and expressed, only He said it better than the Sabbath and in Him the truth in the Sabbath plumbed greater depths. So the story is mainly just an incident in Jesus’ ongoing conflict with the religious purists of His day, or does it tell us something about how law fits into God’s scheme for humankind? I think it’s the latter. Law is important, and we owe it respect. All social organizations require rules, some arbitrary, but nevertheless useful. We follow them not so much to avoid penalty as because of what we have already been given – by society, by the Covenant, by the Church. Much of the body of Jewish law – of which the Sabbath observance was a key feature – described how a people chosen by God should behave – not so that they would thereby earn God’s favor, but because they had already received that favor. It’s how a grateful people respond. And that’s precisely the point for us, who are the new Israel, to whom God’s Spirit has been given.

It takes no stretch of the imagination to hear the Pharisees telling Jesus in today’s episode: “We’re a people of the Law”, when His disciples picked that grain. These leaders should have known that the disciples were guiltless and they would have known it if they had understood Hosea 6:6. It wasn’t the case that Christ’s Messiahship trumped the Pharisaic authority. It wasn’t a case of them saying, “Here’s our authoritative ruling” and Jesus saying, “I’m the Messiah and I outrank you so your rules don’t apply to me or mine.”  He said something like, “If you had understood Hosea 6:6 you wouldn’t have made such rulings.” Their conflict was not with Jesus alone but with the God of the prophets. Their conflict was not with a new interpretation but with an old and abiding truth. With all of the wonderful things that Jesus did to show that the Kingdom of God had truly come, all the Pharisees could do, time and time again, is point out one thing or another that they could complain about. It is not dissimilar to our present times. I know we all have limited control, if any, over the words and actions of others, but we do have total control over our words, our actions, and our spiritual direction! It is never too late to take a good long look at the words and actions of our Lord. He is the way, the truth and the light over all. If we believe that He is “Lord of the Sabbath” and Word of God, then we should be doing everything possible to have Him dwell in us! That takes far more concentration than finding faults in others, in their actions, or in their lack of replies to our prayers. Love the Lord and love your neighbor. That is His command!

 

In the final analysis, and to paraphrase Mark’s account, “Law was made for humanity, not humanity for the law.” Figuring out what that means for us in our everyday lives is not easy. Remember that the call to repentance – in Jesus’ time as well as now – means reevaluating our priorities, our values, and changing them if necessary. It would seem that the one sure law that bears no exception is the law of love – of God and of neighbor (Luke 10:25–28). Recall St. Augustine’s famous phrase: “Love, and do what you will.”

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