FEBRUARY 22, 2008: MARK 2:23–28
THE SABBATH IS MADE FOR MAN, NOT MAN FOR THE SABBATH. Mark is the only evangelist who makes uses of this principle for applying the demands of the law. It is a pastoral principle that was not recognized by the practice and thought of our Lord’s times. This is but one of four passages in his Gospel where Saint Mark makes the same point. Interestingly, in the last verse of this passage, being aware, probably, that many who were familiar with Jewish practice and attitudes to the Sabbath would not accept this line of reasoning, he adds another justifying principle: “The Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” This assertion that Jesus has power to interpret the Sabbath law that Saint Luke also affirms, is omitted by Saint Matthew who nonetheless joins Mark and Luke in presenting Jesus as applying the law of the Sabbath in a humanistic manner, avoiding the rigidity of a legalistic approach which had resulted in Pharisee circles proscribing 39 kinds of activities considering them as instances of prohibited labor. Jesus’ words were understood, certainly after his resurrection, to be an implicit claim to the same prerogatives as God himself, for the Jewish tradition maintained that God alone is Lord of the Sabbath, as Jesus well knew. He does not state the claim in so many words here, as he does in Saint John’s Gospel in a different context, but rather leaves it to his hearers to draw their own conclusions.
However, Matthew and Luke, like Mark in this passage, present Jesus’ interpretation of the Sabbath law as humanistic, that is to say, as ordered to the needs and advantage of man, not only as worship of God. Once the principle that the Sabbath is made for man’s good and consequently should be observed in keeping with the legitimate requirements of the individual’s welfare, one’s attitude to all of the positive observances of the Torah soon comes to be governed by this same principle. As if to reinforce this teaching Jesus repeatedly cured the sick on the Sabbath as well as on the other days of the week, even though his doing so was criticized by the strictly observant Jews.
The prophets had already made the point that it is the attitude of the heart that God considers in treating of the behavior of his people, not the rigidly legal observance of the law. God spoke through the prophet Hosea saying: “what I want is love, not sacrifice, knowledge of God, not holocausts.” (6:6) Matthew lets it be known elsewhere, however, that Jesus did not put aside the law, rather he extended its application in matters of justice, charity, and chastity—all three of which are intimately related. Even to entertain the thought of offending against any one of these is to fall into sin. He summed up his teaching on these matters when he declared: “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law of the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them.” (Mt.517) He completes them by extending their scope to our inner life, on the one hand, while applying them, as he does in today’s Gospel, in the service of human welfare, both spiritual and physical.
This way of honoring the exterior norms of behavior as articulated by the revealed Law and interpreted by the Prophets and apostles in the New Testament while respecting and serving the concrete requirements of the persons whom we deal with is a constant challenge, often enough marked by tension. Jesus himself tells us how he managed successfully to do justice to both the inner and outer dimensions encountered in everyday living, by remaining united with the Father: “I have come from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38). By entering into the deep places of the heart, day after day, so as to encounter God who resides there within us, we find the light and the strength needed to honor and serve God and neighbor. May we receive in this Eucharist a fresh increment of that light and that inner strength we so badly need that in all things we too might give glory to God and be useful to his children, our brothers and sisters. &
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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