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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

4th Commandment - Keep the Sabbath Day Holy

Exodus 20:8-11

8 “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son, or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

Matthew 12:1-8


12 At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 How he entered the house of God, and they ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

The concept of “keeping Sabbath” is not new to us. We have talked about the Sabbath in the past and looked specifically at God’s mandate to the people to not labor on this day of rest. There is, however, more here than we first discussed, and Jesus, in the Book of Matthew, offers us even more insight into the ideas and customs regarding the Sabbath day and its requirements for rest.

The question arises, even among Jewish sects, “What constitutes work?”

Early in the history of Orthodox Judaism, they developed categories of activities that were considered “work”. They are as follows:

o Agricultural Responsibilities

o Food Preparation

o Clothing Manufacture

o Animal Maintenance

o Writing

o Building

o Lighting or Extinguishing Fires

In the Book, The Jewish Experience, Steven Jacobs writes, “For Jews who take seriously the religious understanding of the Sabbath as refraining from all manner of work, the challenge remains to contemporize these historical categories into modern parlance, especially for those whose residence is urban rather than pastoral/agricultural. What constitutes work?”

We find that many individuals of Jewish faith have had to rethink these categories and look at these prohibitions differently, especially since it is near impossible to adhere to the “no work” tenants of the faith without going to extraordinary lengths. Jacobs goes on to say, “Thematically interwoven themes make this premier holy day a true symbol of the Judaic religious tradition: First, it is that reminder of imitatio Dei, imitation of God, resting from work as God rested from work. Second, it is appreciation of the descendants for the liberation from Egyptian slavery by God. And third, it is understood by many to be a foretaste of what life will be like when, at long last, the long-sought-for messiah of the Jews makes his appearance.”

In light of this understanding of what Sabbath means to the Jewish people, strictly or more loosely observed, Jesus brings a new teaching that in some ways lays the ground work for a more loosely observed Sabbath. What might appear at first as Jesus acting like a petulant child, “well, so and so did it, so why can’t I,” that isn’t exactly the point he is trying to make. Jesus offers the religious leaders of his day a clear precedent within their own faith for gathering and eating that which one gathers, even though the law states that this is a prohibited activity. By pointing back to the time when David ate bread from the Temple, which was not his to eat, Jesus is redefining what is acceptable and unacceptable. Oddly enough, David eating of the bread didn’t have anything to do with the Sabbath but had to do with eating that which is deemed holy.

Jesus, in using this illustration to make his point, reminds the religious leaders of his day that everything made by God is holy, it always has been holy. There was never meant to be a prohibition against eating grain on the Sabbath. It isn’t the act of picking grain, or eating grain, that is the problem. From the beginning, God is setting aside the Sabbath, a day that is holy, for all things holy, rest included. What makes “work” unholy is when ANY activity takes you out of the restful, worshipful space that one needs to occupy in order to rejuvenate oneself.

If Jesus and his disciples were asked to harvest the whole field – that clearly constitutes work that is neither worshipful nor restful. Eating a little bit of grain because you are hungry is about taking care of your physical needs as they arise.

Jesus then does something with this passage that I think is profound. After defending those who came before him who also exercised questionable behavior, Jesus drops the mic with this statement, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Ouch!

What we realize several millennia later is that the sacrificial system established by God for the people of Israel became like many things that we do repetitively, we become immune to its effects. Throughout the Hebrew Bible we see an evolution in the nature of God, not because God changed, but because the people were growing and changing, and becoming what they had never been. So, when Jesus tells the religious leaders of his day, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless,” he was calling them out for their lack of growth, their lack of holiness.

When God instructs the people of Israel to be Holy as God is Holy, he doesn’t expect them to get it the first day they leave Israel. They wander in the desert for 40 years in an effort to change enough to be considered Holy enough to enter into the covenantal promise God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is, perhaps, one of the hardest journeys we will ever take in life, from that place of not feeling worthy of God’s attention to knowing we are part of the divine artistry of all of creation.

Holiness is everywhere if we are willing to see it for what it is. The rest that God is calling us to enter into on the Sabbath is necessary for us to be able to see the Holiness of God. Without resting in God, it is hard for us to see God.

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