Proper 4, Year B, St. Philip’s Church, Donelson

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mk 2:27-28).

Our Gospel today puts the sabbath front and center: in fact, these two stories are doubtless grouped together in Mark’s Gospel because they both deal with the sabbath. The sabbath, of course, is the seventh day; in our calendar, Saturday. It’s the day on which God rested after the work of Creation; as it says in Genesis, “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it” (Gen. 2:3). When God gave Moses the Law on Mount Sinai, observing the seventh day was a part of the Commandments. So in Exodus, “The seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall do no work” (Ex. 20:10). God rested, and so all the People of Israel are commanded to rest from work on that day in order to be reminded of the holiness of God.

There’s even more to the sabbath, however, in the version of the Commandments found in Deuteronomy. There God’s People are commanded to rest, just as they were told in Exodus, but the reason is different. In Deuteronomy the emphasis is on God who saved the People from slavery in Egypt, not on God who rested on the seventh day. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15).

You see the point: sabbath practice is intended to put the People in mind of their own time of slavery. It’s a concession of rest to those who are in need of help from those who were given no rest themselves by their task masters. God’s provision of the sabbath is humane, rooted in his great victory at the Red Sea, intended to address actual issues as the People of Israel moved out of the wilderness into the land of promise.

Jesus interaction with the Pharisees is very much in this humane tradition of interpretation of the sabbath: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). Here we don’t so much see Jesus as radical innovator as thoughtful conservator. Jesus looked toward Israel’s own history for precedent, in the story of David eating the bread of the presence. Not only did David break the rules of the sabbath, but he also ate what was reserved for the priests (also forbidden).

When Jesus healed the man with the withered hand he was appealing to the same common-sense interpretation of the sabbath rules that had guided David’s behavior. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (Mk 3:4). The answer to that question is plain in the Law’s own terms: to do good and to save life. Jesus is not overturning the Commandments but following well-established precedent in interpreting them.

If Jesus had only done this, however, he would have been quickly forgotten: another humane interpreter of the Law like others before and since. Part of each of us wants Jesus to be just that and only that, perhaps: someone we can understand, explain, and enlist in our own cause. Whether we see him as a radical who overturned the Law or as the conservative who simply interpreted the Commandments, we really haven’t gotten to the heart of the matter. We’re still trying to domesticate Jesus, and to define him in our own terms.

What’s really radical is what Jesus says at the end of chapter two of Mark’s Gospel, in the second part of the saying: “the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mk. 2:28). Jesus is “lord of the sabbath”; he’s not merely an interpreter or even the one who overthrows the Law because he’s the One who originated it. He’s like the figure of “a son of man” who appears in the vision of the prophet Daniel and is given “dominion and glory and kingship”. All nations will serve him; “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14). That’s a claim that cannot be tamed.

It’s this moment in our Gospel that lifts our eyes from consideration of the sabbath and fixes our eyes on Sunday, the day of Resurrection, and the Son of Man who fills it. Here we have the heart of the conviction that led Christians to observe Sunday rather than Saturday. We follow the “lord of the sabbath”, the One who’s Resurrection has reset the pattern. We live in a new age and we follow the king.

Today at St. Philip’s Church we celebrate the sacramental rite of Confirmation and Reception. It’s a great day for our confirmands and their families, but also a great day for all of us. On this Lord’s Day, on this day of Resurrection, we renew our own baptismal vows and remember who it is we are following. He is “lord of the sabbath” and our Lord as well; he’s the ruler of all things because he has risen from the dead.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee