Observe the Sabbath Day

Date: Pentecost II (Proper 4b) + 6/3/18
Text: Dt. 5:12-19/Mark 2:23-28

We begin the long green season of the Church’s Half of the church year counting the Sundays after Pentecost. For that reason we find ourselves back near the beginning this year of Mark’s gospel where we begin our walk through from beginning to end. We do the same with the Epistle lesson hearing the continuous readings this year through 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, James and Hebrews. The Old Testament reading on the other hand is chosen as preparation or commentary on the appointed gospel. These two go together.

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s gospel is characterized primarily by His healing ministry. This and the ensuing popularity of this new rabbi quickly drew the attention of the scribes of the Pharisees who critically questioned what Jesus was doing. So in today’s gospel.

It was on a Sabbath St. Mark tells us. In their hunger “his disciples began to pluck heads of grain,” a little cereal to give them some energy. This was not illegal in itself but allowed in God’s Law as a way of ministering to the poor, the stranger and sojourner. The Pharisees however revealed their fundamental hypocrisy accusing them of breaking the Third Commandment, “keep the Sabbath day.”

We heard the Third Commandment from Deuteronomy this morning defining the observation of the Sabbath day mainly in the prohibitions of doing any labor or work but keeping it as a day of rest. “You shall not do any work…that you may rest.” By this and other Laws the Old Testament directs God’s people in an outward way to prepare them for the true, inward intention of God’s Law.

The temptation of the old sinful nature, however, is to think of religious duties as works to be done in order to gain God’s favor, not unlike the prevailing theology of the Roman Catholic Church ever since even before the time of Martin Luther, namely that a person is saved by faith and good works. This the Pharisees revealed when they accused Jesus’ disciples of violating God’s command by “doing work,” that is, “harvesting,” plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath.

The key to uncovering the deeper meaning of the Third Commandment here is helped by the little mini-parable Jesus spoke just before this incident, saying, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. but new wine is for fresh wineskins” (Mk 2:21-22). With these words Jesus speaks of the new completion of the Old Testament Law, namely, in the Gospel concerning Himself. The Pharisees’ understanding of God’s Law was that only of the Law’s coercion. St. Paul calls the Law “our guardian.” “Now that faith has come,” he says, “we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal 3:25). Jesus is that new wine and faith is the new wineskin.

The best graphic I could find for this aspect of the Third Commandment is the trademark of the Chick-fil-A chain of restaurants. If you read their explanation of why they are closed on Sundays it is interesting that they only speak of the physical rest and relaxation as the primary benefit. Nowhere did I see any tie with a religious reason! In this way they do exemplify the Old Testament aspect of the Third Commandment. We all agree with the parable, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”[1] But of course St. Augustine comes to our aid defining Biblical rest with his famous phrase, “Our souls are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”[2] In other words, the rest God speaks of is, primarily, in the forgiveness of sins. This is to be found only in God’s Word and ministry of His Word and Sacraments. (I always like to challenge the person who says, “I look for God in nature,” asking, “When was the last time a squirrel told you your sins were forgiven?”)

In answer Jesus pointed to the Biblical incident when the patriarch David “entered the house of God…and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat.” The new content of the old law (which is Jesus) brings a new freedom. In St. Paul’s words, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). So the new, full, Christian understanding of the Third Commandment is, in Martin Luther’s words, “Take heed that you do not despise the preaching and neglect the word of God! Secondly, see to it that you speak of it seriously, hear it, sing it, read it, use it, and learn it! Even though this is to be done every day…God has nevertheless appointed this day especially in order that we may hear God’s Word, his Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Creed. Be sure, therefore, that you do not misuse the day! What you lose in work on this day you will recover in the other six. If masters and mistresses do not compel the servants to go during the week, they should compel them to go on Sunday, that they may hear, read, and sing God’s Word for at least an hour.”[3]

Therefore, it was in a nice little devotional writing of Luther that he simply listed a definition of “Breaking the Third Commandment.” The list reads:

Whoever does not listen to God’s word or try to understand it.
Whoever does not offer prayer to God.
Whoever does not regard all he does as God’s work.
Whoever, in all he does and endures, does not quietly allow God to do with him as he pleases.
Whoever does not help the other person do all this and does not restrain him from doing otherwise.[4]

The First Table of the Law, even the Pharisees would agree, is about our primary relationship with God. God and His Word is always to be at the heart of a living faith. We can obey God’s Law outwardly, habitually and still miss the full content of the Gospel. Too many Christians consider “freedom in Christ” to include despising God’s word. Rather, in the words of St. Peter, “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet 2:1-2). In other words, “Go to Church”!

[1]  “JamHowell Quotes and Quotations”. Famous Quotes and Authors.com. Archived from the original on 15 December 2010. Retrieved 2011-01-21.

[2]  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.)

[3] Luther, M. 1999, c1959. Luther’s works, vol. 51 (Vol. 51, Page 144). Fortress Press: Philadelphia.

[4] Luther, M. 1999, c1968. Luther’s works, vol. 43: Devotional Writings II (Vol. 43, Page 18). Fortress Press: Philadelphia.