Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
April 9, 2014
Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one thing; Is it lawful on the sabbath days to do good, or to do evil? to save life, or to destroy it?” And they were filled with madness; and communed one with another what they might do to Jesus. (Luke 6:9,11)
One of the major conflicts between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of his time concerned the nature of Sabbath observance. It is good, first of all, to acknowledge that this dispute is not, as sometimes portrayed, a conflict between Jesus and Jews. This is a dispute among Jews on a Jewish question, concerning a law which they all would have agreed was a Jewish law. That is, although the principle of the Sabbath went back to creation itself, the ordinance to do no work — to stop, for that is the root meaning of the verb from which Sabbath likely derives — was part of the Law given to Moses on Sinai.
Where Jesus differs from his interlocutors in this conflict is in his moving outside the formal definition of the Sabbath as a time to cease all activity. Jesus recasts it as a time in which to perform acts which he holds to be virtuous in themselves: not mere work but actions that are “good” in that the works represent, in themselves, a thing that is undeniably good: release from bondage — a central theme in the Jewish story. In short, Jesus does not see the Sabbath as an end in itself, or a restriction to be maintained apart from a larger context.
In various of the encounters Jesus has over the Sabbath, he offers differing explanations, and engages in classic rabbinic debate. For example, in Matthew 12 there are two successive arguments about the Sabbath. In the first, his disciples are eating grain they pluck as they walk along (technically not a violation of the Sabbath as it does not constitute harvesting; but Jesus does not engage that quibble). Jesus offers two responses to those who object to this action: he cites David’s violation of the temple-bread taboo, and the present day violation of the Sabbath by the temple priests who go about their work within the sacred precincts. Jesus responds that “here is something greater than the Temple,” making use of a standard rabbinical exegetical tool, qal wa-homer (light to heavy, “then how much more,” identical to the classical rhetorical device a fortiori). Jesus raises the bar with a biblical citation, that God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6), and asserts that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. (Mark’s version [2:27] of this controversy includes the important transitional teaching based on the sequence of events in Genesis 1, that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” as the reason, again all the more, that the Son of Man should be its Lord.) This "greater than the Temple" theme may be seen as a part of a general anti-Temple trend in the Jesus tradition (one shared with some contemporary sectarian movement such as the Yachad at Qumran), but it also begins to establish a context: that things are good and virtuous as they serve the furtherance of God’s will for human well-being, not simply in and of themselves. Even the Temple is good only in so far as it is not misused, but remains available as a "house of prayer" rather than a "den of robbers."
The point is emphasized in the following scene. Here (in Matthew) it is the opponents who pose the question about whether it is right to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus responds with another qal wa-homer comparison of the rescue of a sheep from a pit with the healing of a human being. The pericope of the woman in Luke 13 (16-17) is treated in a similar way: if you are kind to your domestic animals, releasing them to be led to water, how much more ought you to rejoice in the liberation of a woman from bondage to illness — noting once again the theme of delivery from captivity so central to the People of God.
In all of this it is possible to see how Jesus contexualizes and even relativizes the commandment to cease work on the Sabbath, by holding that acts — particularly acts of deliverance, restoration, and human flourishing — that are good are still good even when done on the Sabbath. That is, they do not become bad because they are done on the Sabbath, and it is not the Sabbath that makes them good, but the good acts which give honor to the Sabbath. Perhaps in giving honor to the Sabbath the works become even more virtuous. His opponents have come to see the Sabbath as an end in itself, not as a context for doing good, but only about "not doing" or ceasing from doing, regardless of how good the action.
In the same way, some see marriage as an end in itself, rather than as a context for the flourishing of loving human relationships, and a sanctified means (though not the only means) for liberation from the primal situation of isolation. Observe that according to the account in Genesis 2 (taking Jesus' lead in noting the sequence in Genesis 1) that people are not made for marriage, but marriage is made for them: that is, the human comes first, and marriage is instituted as a solution to the problem of human isolation, and that only after the first attempt to find a mate for Adam among the animals.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG