One theme that winds through the scripture readings for June 3 is the Sabbath day and what is means.
The first reading comes from Deuteronomy 5:12-15, a sermon of instruction given by Moses to the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. Moses knew that he would die before they crossed over. They would have to continue on without him. They had spent 40 years in the desert with Moses as their leader, being formed as God’s people and were about to achieve part of God’s promise. (One parallel that we make is that Jesus’ disciples had spent years with Jesus being formed. In the time after Pentecost they were to carry on without him. )
Moses final instruction began with the first commandment that God gave to the people via Moses, (Deut 5:6-7), just before the beginning of today’s first reading. It is the theme sentence: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
Deuteronomy 5:12-15, the first reading for the Second Sunday of Pentecost, about keeping holy the Sabbath Day, is a seminal passage in scripture. It defined behaviour for millennia in both Jewish and Christian cultures. Here is the reading in its entirety:
Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 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 instruction to Observe the Sabbath means ‘be aware of the day’ and set it aside from your other routines during the other six days.
Keeping it holymeant dedicating the heart, mind and body to God in adoration, thanksgiving, petition and repentance. It is a formal and total commitment.
Six days you shall labour and on the seventh day. This time frame parallels the story of creation in which God rested on the seventh day (Gen 2:2). Being made in the image of God meant modeling one’s behavior on God’s.
The injunction that this day of rest should apply to son, daughter, ox or donkey, resident alien, slave is all-inclusive. Daughters and animals did not enjoy the same legal rights as men. Animals were property. But in God’s eye they deserved rest.
In the gospel for this Sunday Jesus reflects on the meaning of the Sabbath.
One Sabbath he 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?” And he said to them, “Have you never read 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.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
The Pharisees had taken the Mosaic instruction to an extreme. Jesus says that God did not mean for humans to go hungry on the Sabbath, and he drew from David’s example.
Thenhe entered the synagogue, and there was a man with a withered hand. …And he said to the man… “Come forward.” Then he asked, “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 and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.
The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Jesus did not dismiss the Mosaic instruction. In fact, he was on his way to pray at the synagogue on the Sabbath when he encountered the Pharisees and the man with the withered hand. For Jesus, care for his disciples and the man with the withered hand was consistent with prayer.
The challenges of Sunday worship these days are well known: shopping, children’s sports events, and, for many, work. It calls for creativity and flexibility on all our parts to provide alternative service times, to be conscious of finding a regular time during which we make worship a priority.
The more important consideration is how we keep it holy. When and how do we turn our minds to God for a sustained period to acknowledge his role in our lives, to be thankful for the gifts we enjoy, to ask forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed, and to pray for the needs of the earth? Where do we join with others to celebrate our God’s goodness?
- When Moses reminded the Israelites of the first commandment, just as they were preparing to cross the Jordan into their Promised Land, do you think they paused and reckoned how hard this would be? Or did they think that it was a fair price for the reward they were about to receive?
- Where do you draw the line on keeping the Sabbath holy? What is it that you don’t do because of the Sabbath?
- What does it mean to you to keep a day holy? Would an anthropologist observing your life notice anything different?