In the first story of creation in the book of Genesis, right at the beginning of the bible, God made the world in six days, and it was very good. On the seventh day, the Sabbath day, Saturday, God rested. And the people of the Jews observe that day – as you might say – religiously. It is a profound day of rest. Local people have often told me how they are sometimes asked to turn on a light or do some small task that our Jewish neighbours are forbidden to do on the Sabbath. And it is a really good practice to take rest seriously. We sadly lost that discipline when Sunday trading was introduced in August 1994. Now we have no excuse for rest and relaxation and enjoying the company of friends and family.
Today’s Gospel reading tells us two incidents that took place on the Sabbath. In the first, Jesus and the disciples are walking through fields of corn, and as they go, they pick a few heads of grain and eat them. The religious people are horrified. This was one of those little tasks that are forbidden on the Sabbath. The religious people have a good go at Jesus for letting the disciples graze on growing corn. It’s in the tone of “call yourself a holy man and yet you let your followers disobey one of the important rules of our faith!” they want to show Jesus up.
That story is then immediately followed by another. In the synagogue, the place where they gathered to worship God and pray, there was a man with a withered hand. Maybe he’d had a stroke, which left his arm and hand useless. Everyone is looking at Jesus. They knew that he healed people, but would he heal someone on the Sabbath? And the conventionally religious people are looking for an excuse to criticise Jesus some more. Some people take a lot of pleasure when others do wrong – it makes them feel ever so good about themselves, because they perceive themselves as being better than that. Jesus knows what’s going on in their hearts, and he challenges them: “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do harm, to heal or destroy?” No one says a thing. There is no answer to that without condemning themselves. So Jesus heals the man. His hand is restored. And the religious people are furious!
So Jesus is breaking the rules, which are quite clear in the bible: the Sabbath is a gift from God (Exodus 16), the Sabbath is a day of solemn rest and whoever works will be put to death (Exodus 31), over and over again, you find similar things are being said.
But Jesus turns it all round. The Sabbath is good, the Sabbath is a delight – until you use it as a means of judging others or punishing others or saying that you’re better than the others because you can afford to keep the rules properly. The Sabbath is good, the Sabbath is a delight – until you use it as an excuse for not helping those who are in need.
I follow a Jewish teacher on twitter from the US, and every Friday evening, he signs off for 36 hours for his Sabbath rest. It is a weekly reminder of the blessing of Sabbath time, of setting aside the busy-ness of life, and just being, rather than doing. We really do need some of that in a world where the pace is rapid and the pressures are constant. Another rabbi on Twitter summarised the Sabbath like this:
- Avoid technology.
- Connect with your loved ones.
- Nurture your health.
- Get outside.
- Avoid commerce.
- Light candles.
- Drink wine.
- Eat bread.
- Find silence.
- Give back.
We really need to reclaim some of that. People will do it differently: My day of rest is a Monday, but these days I tend to spend it running after toddler granddaughters – which gives me great joy but is not hugely restful. I know that the older I get, the less energy I have, and I have to take more breaks. For Margaret and Brian, their Sabbath time is their holidays, which are an important part of their life, perhaps the only time in their busy lives when they can just sit back and enjoy themselves.
When I was ordained, I was given a book by Nicholas Allan, called Jesus’ Day Off. It’s a children’s book. I think it gets given to a lot of people when they are ordained deacons and priests. Let me read it to you.
It’s a reminder about the need to take time out and enjoy yourself, to have a balanced life.
Jesus criticises those who mis-use the Sabbath and turn it into a means for belittling others and denying help to those who need it. In our culture with all its pressures, I don’t think Jesus would be telling us to work every hour God sends us and to fill our time with good deeds. I am sure he would be telling us to smell the roses and taste fresh-baked bread. Then you will have the physical and spiritual energy to live out the love of God.
 Lee Weissman
 Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg