It’s easy to miss the wood for the trees. We all do it at times – and it’s just as likely to happen in matters of faith, too. What is the point of the Sabbath? That’s the million-dollar question for us today and tomorrow: why did God command every human to rest for one day in every seven? What is ‘the wood for the trees’ here?
The theological answer goes back to creation: God rested on the seventh day, so that forms the pattern for us, too. However, it’s worth noting that God’s Sabbath post-creation doesn’t end: there isn’t a second week, as it were! Rather, from that point, he invites all of us into his rest. One day we’ll enjoy that eternally – but for now, we’re invited to sample it once a week.
If that’s the ‘big picture’ reason, the Ten Commandments give us the practical reasons: the point of having a day’s complete rest every week is: (a) for worship and time with God, and (b) for justice and fair treatment – if we rest, then others can rest, too. The particular people mentioned in both Exodus and Deuteronomy are household servants, whose conditions are dependent on the goodwill of others – and God reminds his people quite pointedly that they knew what it was like to have been slaves, so they of all people had good reason to respect the Sabbath for their workers.
But what is the definition of ‘work’? This is where the human debates and interpretations come in – over the years, lots of things got added to the definition of work, including almost all forms of preparing food. This is why the Pharisees challenge Jesus’ followers about eating grain which they had to pick off the plant. The act of picking constituted ‘work’, according to the complex regulations they had devised for the Sabbath (as an aside, had it already been picked it would have been fine!).
It’s a classic ‘wood for the trees’ moment. Human regulations make great servants but lousy masters – and, in their noble quest to try and obey the law, the Pharisees had lost sight of the point of the law in the first place. Jesus replies by reminding them that the greatest Jewish king there’d ever been did something much ‘worse’ (vv25-26) – so maybe they needed to revise their thinking!
He finishes with something even more controversial: this is not just about a true understanding of Sabbath, but also a true understanding of who gave the Sabbath to us – in claiming to be Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus is making a clear reference to his divine identity. For us, though, today and tomorrow are a healthy reminder of the importance of rest – and also of remembering that it’s the spirit of the law that matters most. Jesus desires our hearts, not anxious rule-following. May God grant us all grace to enjoy our Sabbaths wisely – and may Jesus be the Lord of our Sabbaths, too.