A reflection by Fr. Jack Lynch, SFM, on Hebrews 6.10-20 and Mark 2.23-28
In the Gospel, Jesus’ disciples seem to violate the law or rather the Pharisees’ interpretation of the law. Jesus responds to the criticism by reminding them of an incident in the life of David who was highly respected by the Jewish people. Besieged by Saul, David’s companions entered the Temple and asked the priest for bread to sustain David and his followers. The only bread available was the holy bread of the presence, which was twelve fresh loaves placed on the table in the sanctuary every Sabbath as an offering to God.
The message is clear: the hunger which is experienced takes priority over ritual prohibitions. Hunger is a need which puts human life in jeopardy. Formal precepts should always be at the service of life, all life. As Gutierrez points out, religious precepts cannot be new and subtle forms of slavery. They have to lead us to be free and as St. Paul put it, free to love. Jesus says it very clearly “the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”
Today’s text from Mark illustrates the kind of legalism that existed and Jesus’ attitude toward it. From other sources we know that there were 39 kinds of work that were forbidden on the Sabbath, among them visiting the sick and preparing food. We can imagine why some would consider plucking and rubbing grain as violations of the Sabbath. Over time the rites lead to a legalism of good works. It is important to note that Jesus was not trying to overthrow the Sabbath but did react strongly against a narrow and rigid interpretation of what was permitted on the Sabbath.
At the time of Jesus, the Sabbath was a wonderful institution and became part of the Jewish national identity. It was when all Jews would abstain from any kind of work to mark the close of the seven day week, imitating God’s rest on the seventh day.
As God’s companions, on the Sabbath the Jews were called to recognize in prayer and contemplation that the whole of creation is a gift and their role in it. On the other six days of the week, they would exercise their role as co-creators. In the book of Deuteronomy, we find a call for the cessation of labour for everyone, even animals.
As Christians, we know that contemplation and prayer is the essential first step in being a disciple of Jesus. We too like our Jewish sisters and brothers are called to discern the presence and call of God just as Jesus did in prayer and contemplation.
To the best of our knowledge, Jesus as a Jew always observed the Sabbath laws except when the dignity of the person stood in the way of the law. For God, a compassionate heart is always primary and compassion was the essence of the teaching and ministry of Jesus. There should never be conflict between religious observance and a deep human need.
We have to also recall that Sabbath also celebrates liberation. For the Jewish people, it celebrates freedom, the reminder that God had made their slavery in Egypt cease with the Exodus. Verna Holyhead observes that in the Old Testament “the Sabbath is emphasized as a commandment of God that demands obedience for the sake of equality and justice.” She goes on to say that “the Sabbath is the institution that was intended to prevent dignity from deteriorating into idolatry and physical and psychological enslavement. That was the condition of Israel in Egypt and the Sabbath is the subversive day when masters and slaves are equal, when the earth is free from exploitation, when servants and working animals are free of servitude, when workers are liberated from work.”
Over the centuries, for the Jewish people the Sabbath observance was positive. It was a consistent reminder of God’s place in their lives and it lay at the heart of their identity as faithful Jews. No exact parallel to the Jewish Sabbatical has yet been found in other ancient religions. It is possible that an underlying reaction of the Pharisees to Jesus could well come from what they perceived as a threat to the religious identity of faithful Jews.
As Christians, we must be just and objective and avoid attributing to all Jewish people that narrow kind of legalism. I remember a rabbi in Jerusalem telling us that the Christian reading and interpretation of the gospels have often been very hard on the Pharisees.
While the beautiful purpose of the Sabbath was lost over centuries with the addition of rigid prohibitions which interpreters put on it, we have to recognize that at different moments in our own history, Catholics have had similar experiences. Vatican II recognized and repudiated the spirit of legalism present in some of our religious observances. Pope Francis continually reminds us to renew ourselves, to be compassionate and above all else to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, the source and author of mission.
In “Evangelii Gaudium” he writes the following about the Church: “my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us ‘Give them something to eat.’”