Lord of the Sabbath

The Pharisees are again making inquiries about this religious figure who is garnering attention from the people. As many scholars have noted, Jesus is more akin to than Pharisees that the other religious groups of the day – scribes, zealots, Sadducees, and others. And yet he continues to surprise/shock them as he claims the authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:5-7), eats with sinners, eats when he (apparently) should be fasting (v.18). Observant Jews were expected to fast twice each week. Observant Jews were also expected to keep holy the Sabbath and not work.In today’s gospel, Jesus and his disciples, on the Sabbath, are doing what is considered work: plucking grain to eat: “As he was passing through a field of grain on the sabbath, his disciples began to make a path while picking the heads of grain.” (v.23)  The Pharisee challenge Jesus about this behavior. The protest is not about appropriating someone’s grain as Scripture makes clear: “When you go through your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pluck some of the ears with your hand, but do not put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain.” (Dt 23:26). It is seen by some as a violation of Sabbath rest (m. Shabbat 7:2)

In response to their protest, Jesus argues from Scripture that even David took exception to the law for the sake of his hungry followers (1 Sam 21:2–7). Jesus referred to the incident in which David and his men ate the sacred loaves of bread that were reserved for priests (1 Sam 21:1–6; see Lev 24:5–9; Exod 25:30). God did not judge David for this act, so by implication, this exceptional situation did not violate the law.

Mark’s Jesus goes on to proclaim that God created the sabbath for human beings, and not vice versa. Those who follow Jesus are to interpret the whole Jewish law by living according to God’s spirit of the law, namely, loving kindness. Later in his Gospel, Mark will make it clear that all laws are summed up in the one law of Christ, his dual commandment of love. When a Christian chooses “to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself,” that one will be approved by the Lord (12:28–34).

Whatever the exact nature of the analogy with David, Jesus’ final argument was his primary one.”The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (v.28) The Son of Man has authority, even over something as important as the Sabbath, for he is Lord. Jesus had the right to decide about what could and could not be done. Jesus’ authority thus applied not only to forgiveness, relationships, and religious practice, but also to the most sacred day of the Jewish week. Mark is making evermore clear the extent of Jesus’ claims and authority. The Sabbath was made for people, but only one man has authority over it.

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