Jesus got in a lot of trouble. He got in trouble because of what he said, true. But he got in a whole lot more trouble because of what he did. And of all the things he did that got him in trouble, the one thing that got him in hot water more than anything else, was his behavior on the Sabbath. People everywhere he went would confront Jesus about why he did not rest on the day of rest, why he did not honor the Sabbath.
And it’s easy to understand why people criticized Jesus for not resting on the Sabbath. It’s because Jesus didn’t rest on the Sabbath, quite the opposite it seemed that week after week the day of rest would find Jesus a blur of activity. Some Sabbaths Jesus would spend all day teaching in the houses of worship. Other Sabbaths Jesus would heal people of every imaginable ailment of mind or body or spirit, spending all day ministering to every single sick person in an entire town or city until he was exhausted at the end of it all. He sometimes even was seen to lead people to harvest grain to feed themselves, doing actual literal manual labor on the Sabbath. You can call what Jesus did on the Sabbath many things: you could call it transformative teachings, or social mobilizations, or outright miracles, you can call it many things but it isn’t rest.
Understand, taking issue with Jesus because he did not rest on the Sabbath is no abstract theological quibble, this is no disagreement about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. To honor the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. Resting on the Sabbath is right up there with “thou shalt not kill”. It’s part of what marks someone as a follower of God. So what are we to make of this man Jesus? This man who works on the Sabbath? How are we to understand this man of God who seems to ignore one of the Ten Commandments? Maybe he’s saying the rules just don’t apply to him? Or maybe he’s saying there’s something wrong with the rules and nobody should have to follow them? Maybe he’s saying there’s something wrong with those who do follow the rules?
To understand why Jesus behaves the way he does on the Sabbath, we have to recognize that he was somebody who knew his Bible. He knew the Bible deeply, he knew it backwards and forwards. He knew the Bible like a mother knows her daughter, or like a poet knows her poetry. He knew the soul of the Bible. And when Jesus was in trouble with people for how he was behaving, when Jesus was thinking on his feet, trying to explain himself and God through scripture, he would quote the book of Deuteronomy. More than any other book in the Bible Jesus quoted Deuteronomy. It seems to me that Deuteronomy influenced Jesus more than any other book in the Bible. So what is the book of Deuteronomy?
Deuteronomy is a book of laws. It is a book of laws covering every aspect of human life from matters pertaining just to an individual to things that affect whole nations. Deuteronomy speaks to what a person should eat and what they should wear, how a person should structure their family life and what is owed to someone when they’ve been wronged.
And what frames the laws that govern the people of God, what opens up the book of Deuteronomy and serves as the guiding star for its morality, is none other than the Ten Commandments.
Do not worship any other gods.
Do not make an image of God.
Do not use the name of God lightly.
Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Honor your parents.
Do not kill.
Do not commit adultery.
Do not steal.
Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Do not be jealous of your neighbor.
The Ten Commandments. They are a moral code so simple that we can teach children to memorize them, and yet they are so deep that a person can spend their life trying to sound their depths and still not find the bottom of their meaning. Take the fourth commandment, as told in the book of Deuteronomy.
Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 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.
The fourth commandment tells us not only that we are supposed to observe the Sabbath, but how we are supposed to observe it, and why.
First—for six days I may labor and do my work, but no longer than that. On the seventh day I must rest from labor. Second—with my responsibilities for what I must do laid out, the commandment continues that none of the people around me are to work either. Whether those people are as dear to me as a son or daughter or they are under my employ makes no difference. I must see to it that no one of my acquaintance is made to work either, extending even to people who don’t worship God, and as if to make the point total, even beasts of burden. Third—on the Sabbath I am to remember that I am only free to cease from work because God freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt—my responsibility toward others is grounded in what I understand to be God’s goodness on my behalf.
The commandment to observe the Sabbath is rounded to an elegant totality—God has set me free, so I am not allowed to degrade myself with unceasing labor as if I were a slave, and neither am I allowed to make anyone else work as if they were a slave. The Sabbath is a not a practice only for the people of Israel, as if they alone were people of dignity and deserving of rest. Rather the commandment to observe the Sabbath is as a revelation that God is a God of liberation, that the God who frees women and men and will always abhor anything that seeks to keep them in chains. The Sabbath is a day to revel in what it means to be free, the Sabbath is a day to insist that all people taste their fair share of the goodness of rest.
At least, that’s what it says in the book of Deuteronomy.
And so it is easy to understand why Jesus, who quotes the book of Deuteronomy more than any other book of the Bible, it is easy to understand why Jesus behaves as he does on the Sabbath. On the Sabbath Jesus sees hungry people and he goes to harvest grain so they can eat and someone objects—Jesus, you can’t feed hungry people on the Sabbath! Jesus replies in word and deed—hunger is a chain as strong as steel that binds people hand and foot, and I’m supposed to wait until tomorrow? The Sabbath is a day to break all chains.
On the Sabbath Jesus sees a woman struggling under the bondage of a sickness that marked her as a social outcast, and Jesus goes to heal her of the disease and someone objects—Jesus, you can’t heal people on the Sabbath! Jesus replies in word and deed—this woman has been bound up for 12 years in a chain of pain and stigma, and I’m supposed to wait until tomorrow to set her free? The Sabbath is a day to break all chains.
Today we are again in much the same place as in Jesus’ day, the ability to take leisure and rest does not fall to everyone equally. The labor of raising and educating children, ceaseless as it can be, is too often not valued as equal in our society to other forms of labor. People who work with their hands are often paid so little that they must work several jobs all at once. Immigrants and those not born in this nation must toil in a shadow economy. The Sabbath is not intended for leisure, and thank God because leisure can be wearisome and isolating when it is part of an endless cycle of working to enrich ourselves and playing for our own pleasure. We honor the Sabbath when we remember that God is a God of liberation, and God has set us free and intended us for more than ceaseless labor, and that because God has made us free, all the children of God must be free as well.
If you want to taste something truly sweet of the Sabbath—find a way to be of real service to someone else. Help lighten the load of someone who is heavy burdened, and you will know refreshment and delight beyond the dreams of avarice. If you abide by the law of God as found in the book of Deuteronomy, if you follow the fourth commandment, if you honor the Sabbath and keep it holy as Jesus did—It will be as if you have walked back through the gates of the Garden of Eden, where the only thing demanded of humankind is that we delight in the goodness of what God has done. If you serve others, it will be like you are in the Garden of Eden, walking a sabbath’s day journey beside someone whose voice you’ve always known.