Last week I wrote about the Sabbath principle — one day in seven set apart to desist from the labors of the week and to gather with God’s people for worship. I noted that in time Christians shifted to observe Resurrection Sunday as their holy day. My purpose in writing was not to reestablish a sabbatarian rigidity such as many of the Pharisees of New Testament times promoted but to note that today we Christians are at risk of an overly casual approach to our special day, allowing all sorts of unnecessary activities to crowd in and diminish God’s merciful intent.
Today, I recount the story of an event that took place on a particular Sabbath in the life of Jesus. At first, it can look like Jesus himself disregards God’s plan for the Sabbath. But instead, we see that Jesus does his special healing and reconciling work at all times, and that he is Lord of the Sabbath. The story shows also that even the strict observance of the Sabbath can become infected with human rather than divine prohibitions.
The Apostle John reports in his gospel that Jesus came upon a man who had been crippled for 38 years (John 5:1-15). He was lying helplessly beside the Pool of Bethesda among a great number of other afflicted souls. All of them were there for the same reason: they believed that from time-to-time the waters of the pool would be mysteriously stirred and at such a time the first among them to get into the water would be healed.
Ignoring the pool and it’s supposed powers, Jesus asked the man: “Do you want to get well?” The man answered with overtones of despair: “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. When I am trying to get in someone else goes down ahead of me” (John 5: 1-7).
Jesus’ response was direct and firm: “Get up! Pick up your bed and walk.” At once the helpless man was on his feet, his mat rolled up under his arm, and he was walking about for the first time in 38 years.
Imagine what this would mean to that man! Life would become incalculably better! Still contrary to what would seem appropriate, this healing created a serious problem in the minds of the enemies of Jesus. It was the Jewish Sabbath and the man was about to carry the mat he had been lying on for so long. The Jews had strict laws against anyone carrying a burden on that sacred day. For example, one rabbinic law said anything weighing more than two figs was regarded as a burden and should not be carried on the Sabbath.
What was intended as a day of physical refreshment and worship had been made into a confining straight jacket by a long string of laws made by generations of Rabbis. For example, a woman was forbidden to look into a well on the Sabbath lest she see in her reflection a white hair and be tempted to pluck it. That would be work. By their laws, only emergency care for a wound or illness should be done on the Sabbath. For anything less, let the sufferer return later.
The religious leaders who saw Jesus’ healing of the lame man were angered by it. Jesus’ healing of a man on the Sabbath broke their list of rigorous Sabbath prohibitions. The undercurrent of their reaction to this was murderous.
Scholars of the times note that although the Pharisees of New Testament times made Sabbath a burden there is other information that shows many of the Jews observed Sabbath as a healthful and faith-renewing event in their times.
On Friday evening the trumpet was taken to the tallest building of the community and blown three times — the first time as a signal to the workers in the field to start for their homes; the second time to shop owners to close up shop; and when it sounded for the third time the Sabbath candles were lit all over the village.
On Sabbath morning people went to the synagogue. The noon meal that followed had been prepared the day before, and was in every way special except that it was eaten cold because fires were not lit on the Sabbath. In the afternoon, if the village had a school attached to the synagogue people gathered and local community scholars addressed some of the religious questions of the day.
The religious rulers who complained against Jesus’ healing of the man crippled for 38 years seemed to know nothing of this good side of Sabbath–its rhythms and rest and spiritual focus. And their religion lacked the compassion which Jesus demonstrated on that special day.
In today’s secular, frantically busy, and distracted times, Christians are in danger of going too far in making the day available for anything and everything they might do on other days of the week. We need to revive the original purpose: rest and restoration, and to focus on thanksgiving and worship, the holy side of Lord’s Day worship. (More next week)
Photo credit: Ricardo Camacho (via flickr.com)