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The well-known saying of Jesus – ‘The Sabbath was made for man’ – is often misquoted or misunderstood. This is simply because we forget the context in which he first used it.
To the devout Jew, the Sabbath was a day of rest. No work was permissible on that day, not even medical care could be given. A wound or fracture, for instance, could not be attended to.
It was a long debate among the religious leaders whether a knot could be tied or untied. An egg laid by a hen on that day could not be eaten because the hen in her effort to lay the egg had violated the law of that day. Not even self-defence was permissible on that day. Violation of the law of that day was liable to be punishment with death.
And that day was the Sabbath day.
It is true that God had instructed the people of Israel to rest from work on the seventh day of every week. But the Jewish learned leaders had turned the law of God into a spider’s web to ensnare the unlearned into a stone mill wheels in order to grind the poor down into an abject state and to instill fear into the simple.
Sabbath, in Hebrew means rest but, the Jewish leaders had placed so much
emphasis on observing the rest, that they forgot the purpose of the rest. God had said: ‘No work may be done’ on that day so that they could rest thanking God for ‘liberating them out of Egypt’ (Deut 5.15).
God had commanded that ‘all slaves, male and females’ (Deut 5.14), must also be given rest on that day, so that they, too, could have Exodus experience of freedom and celebrate their human dignity.
In other words, in God’s mind, Sabbath was meant to give freedom not only from all works, but also freedom from certain special kinds of work, for instance to promote human values, to protect human dignity and to provide for human needs. However, Israel’s memory about the purpose of Sabbath faded into mere laws and rules.
Therefore, Jesus had to set the people’s priorities right. He allowed his disciples to ‘pull off heads of grain’ (Mk 2. 23) and eat them on the Sabbath in order to remind the Jews that Sabbath was also meant to provide freedom for human needs.
Jesus himself cured ‘the withered hand of a man’ (Mk 3.5) on the Sabbath, in order to remind the Jews that the question to be asked on the Sabbath is how much good I can do for the people, and not how much good I can refrain from.
What was Sabbath day for Israel is Lord’s Day for us now, which is Sunday, when Jesus our Lord passed from death to resurrection taking us along with him to new life. Sunday, our Sabbath, for us, too, is a day of celebration, when we gather together in the church to celebrate our liberation from sin and death.
For us, too, Sunday is a day of rest, rest from work. Work is the inevitable condition of human life, yes; but we often tend to intoxicate ourselves with work, so we don’t see during the week how we really are. Our soul gets restless, even furious, during working days and wants to tear itself apart and cure itself of being human, at least on the Lord’s Day.
So we give time to ourselves on Sundays to rest and reflect. In our reflection, earthly things will assume their true size. In our prayerful reflection we will be able to see that in the wilderness of perplexity and affliction of this life, it is God that is guiding us to new life, and that will give us strength, as it did to St Paul to ‘carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus, so that in our bodies, the life of Jesus may also be revealed’ (2 Cor 4.10), until we reach our immortal home. And yet is it not a pity that millions who long for immortality do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy (or sunny) Sunday morning?
So, on every Sunday, we not only celebrate our liberation from sin and death, but also we celebrate in order to liberate. By devoting extra time to spiritual things, we liberate ourselves. For instance, from the modern society’s materialist present obsession with production and consumption through widespread trading even on Sundays.
By celebrating the Lord’s Day, we also spiritually equip ourselves to liberate others. If, we have truly celebrated the Lord’s Day at Sunday worship, then we will respond to the needs of people in the world which we express at every service in the words of our faithful prayers.
We will continue the music we sang in church and sing the goodness we find in our neighbours, and we will carry the Gospel message we heard at worship and promote justice and peace for all. Indeed, if all of us celebrate the Lord’s Day in this manner, as days to liberate ourselves and others, then God by giving us the Sabbath each week would have given us 52 springs of living water every year.
Rev Anthony M Jones,
Fort Augustus and Glengarry Parish Churches.