Today’s passage is Luke 6:1–12 (NRSV):
The Question about the Sabbath
One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 3 Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?”5 Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”
The Man with a Withered Hand
6 On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. 8 Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
12 Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.
The word sabbath means “rest.” We often understand rest as simply not doing something: not working, or perhaps not doing anything. What Jesus does in this passage, however, points to something else. Rest is more than the lack of something; it is, rather, a change in what we do and how we think. Both these changes benefit humans, and ultimately God is honored by them.
There’s a nineteenth-century anecdote I once read about a poor boy who had to turn a wheel all day at his job. A woman asked him, “Don’t you get tired? What do you do when you get tired?” He replied, “I take the other hand.”1 The point of the story is that a change in activities gives rest; rest can be active, not passive. Sabbath rest is beneficial not just because it gives the opportunity for a little extra time to do nothing, perhaps a little extra sleep—it’s also because it gives our lives balance. Work needs to be put in its proper place in our lives. It must come after God; it must also come after our relationships with others. God has certainly given us work as an integral part of our life; as the Teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes says, “This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot” (Ecc 5:18). Nevertheless, work which usurps God and our neighbor is harmful to our spiritual state.
“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath,” Jesus says (Mk 2:27). The sabbath is supposed to be beneficial for humans, and I think its benefits are both for ourselves and for others. When Jesus “breaks” the sabbath by plucking and eating grain (which he also shares with his hungry companions), he is doing something that is beneficial for himself. And when Jesus heals on the sabbath, he is using the time set apart from work to do good to others. I don’t even think that these actions are exceptions to the rule of not working on the sabbath, as if these things would be forbidden if it weren’t for the fact that they are “works of necessity or mercy.”2 “The sabbath was made for humankind,” and Jesus’s actions perfectly exemplify the good for us and our neighbor that should result from observing it.
Sabbath, as it’s described in Luke, refers to a day in the week set apart to be without work. I do find that such a weekly practice is very important for me in putting work in its proper place in my life. But it’s not the only thing which aids in my pursuit of balance. Public and private worship, personal reflection, deep conversations, and fun activities—throughout the week, not partitioned into the weekend only—all help me feel at peace with myself and God. This Lent for me has been a time to be conscious of this sabbath rest in a broader sense. As I pursue daily rest in God’s grace, I want to allow his goodness to overflow as a result: in my sense of his presence, and in my life as I interact with others.
I want to close with this stanza from a hymn by Isaac Watts:
Sweet is the day of sacred rest;
No mortal cares shall seize my breast.
Oh, may my heart in tune be found,
Like David’s harp of solemn sound.
May our hearts, having found rest in God, be always in tune. Amen.
Micah Walter is a first-year graduate student in music.