The first reading for Sunday June 2nd (Deut 5:12-15), begins, Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy… Historically, the sabbath day was a day of rest, based on Genesis 2:2-3

On the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

Today, we generally understand this commandment as meaning ‘set aside a sabbath day from the way you go about the other days of the week and do something special to worship God.’ For many, that means going to church on Sunday morning and socializing with friends and family for the balance of the day.


An intriguing question is: what does it mean to keep the day holy. Part of the answer comes in the gospel (Mark 2:22-3:6) But in Jesus’ Semitic way of speaking the answer still feels elusive.  

One sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.

The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?"

The Pharisees had read Deuteronomy as prohibiting any activity on Sunday that involved effort such as picking and husking corn.

This was the second time that Jesus had violated the Pharisees version of the sabbath law. In Mark’s first chapter Jesus and his disciples had gone to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded …Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit…. Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. (Mark 1:22-26)


And he said to them, "Have you never read (in 1 Samuel 21:4-6) what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, ... and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions."

The point Jesus seems to be drawing from David's example is that the rules of the sabbath are intended to focus our attention on love of God, not punish people in need. Jesus’ disciples were hungry. The disciples seem to have lived off the land, following Jesus’ edict in Luke 10:4 to take neither purse, nor bag nor sandals. Consequently, they were hungry.


Then he said to them (the Pharisees), "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath."

To underline his point, Mark tells us that, Jesus then

… entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.

They (the Pharisees) watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.

And he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come forward."

Then he said to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?"

But they were silent.

He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart….

Many details in this vignette fly by. For one, as early as this second chapter of Mark’s gospel Jesus was already known as someone who cured people and he had attracted the attention of the Pharisees. The good news of Jesus’ work had spread, probably because even in the first chapter he had driven out daemons, cured Simon’s mother-in-law of her fever and cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons (Mark 1:28) Another detail is that Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man, lord of the sabbath…a remarkable claim of divine authority and something that would have upset the Pharisees.


But the Pharisees had misperceived what constituted worship of God. They separated the love of God from the love of neighbour.

and Jesus said to the man, "Stretch out your hand."

He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

With this miracle, Jesus offered the Pharisees another chance. He showed them his divine healing power as a proof point of his divine power and relationship to God. One way to read the healing is that he wasn’t trying to humiliate the Pharisees, he was trying to persuade them. But they would not listen.

In his ministry, Jesus stressed love of God, his father… and the second commandment being like it: love your neighbour. The situation that Mark describes in this gospel shows Jesus doing both. He loved the man with the withered hand…and the Pharisees whom he tried to bring alongside with this cure.


The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

The Herodians likely saw Jesus’ popularity as a threat to the temporal power of Herod. They did not usually get along with the Pharisees, whom they regarded as religious ‘fanatics’. But they came together in their opposition to Jesus.


Back to holy. Jesus showed that holiness is caring for others as well as God. He cured the man with the withered hand in the place of worship. By serving God and “his neighbour” in the synagogue, Jesus demonstrated holiness.

Another dimension of holiness that Jesus showed that day is confronting hypocrisy. It is tempting to identify potential hypocrites in and around the church, but it may be that Jesus was inviting us to consider our own duplicity. Perhaps we are satisfied with showing up at church rather than giving our full attention to worship. Maybe we harbour a grievance towards someone in our hearts that keeps us from seeing that person as a child of God. It could be that we withhold our prayers from someone who we consider unworthy – Vladamir Putin? Benjamin Netanyahu? We may use the planet’s resources in a selfish and excessive way. Holding up a mirror to ourselves might be helpful.

It is important, however, not to beat ourselves up over this. Recall that Jesus said, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17) … even the Pharisees. This is also what it means to keep the sabbath holy.


  • ·Do you think of your enemies or the world’s “bad guys” as deserving your prayer?
  •  Was Jesus trying to persuade the Pharisees when he cured the man with the withered hand, or was he just trying to show their hypocrisy?
  • Do you see significance in the fact that Jesus cured the man’s hand in the synagogue…a place of worship? Do you see the man's healing as a form of worship?