Slack Sabbath

by | Jul 30, 2023


Jarrett McLaughlin
July 30, 2023
Mark 2:23 – 3:5


One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?”
And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”
Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.
And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them [all], “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”
But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”
He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

This is the Word of the Lord



So I heard a story from a parent in the church – he was describing how his son experienced a recent moment in worship. It was…the unfortunate moment that I decided to rewrite – and then actually sing – Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues.

This father was sitting on the pew next to his son who suddenly perked up once the song began…and then he started to sing along…but with the actual words to Folsom Prison Blues. As I twisted the lyrics to fit the story of Samson, however, he looked at his Dad and said “That is not how it goes!”

It reminded me of a day many years ago when I realized that my daughter had been inducted into the knowledge of a holy, time-honored playground chant…as soon as she started in on it, I was right there singing along with her:

“Jenny and Jeremy sitting in a tree – K-I-S-S-I-N-G – first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.”

But here’s the thing – she did a full stop right there – but her Dad kept going full steam ahead, not realizing that I was all on my own
“Sucking his thumb, wetting his pants….doing…the hula…..hula…dance.”

She looked at me like I was from Mars, and then I heard it:
“Daddy – that’s not how it goes.”

Have you ever gotten attached to your version of…anything?
Have you ever felt that wave of indignation when somebody messes with it?

It is only the second chapter of Mark and already Jesus is causing tension on the playground.

We get back-to-back Sabbath stories here and in both it would seem that Jesus is advocating for something of a Slack Sabbath.
His disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath – harvesting, WORKING! When challenged by some Pharisees, Jesus gives his disciples a pass – “Sabbath was made for humans not humans for the Sabbath” he says. You can almost hear the gasps of disapproval: “Jesus – that is not how it goes!”

Now I need to pause here and remind us of something very important – Jesus himself is a Rabbi and a faithful Jew – I cannot emphasize that enough.

This isn’t Jesus abolishing a rigid Jewish faith that only had room for rules and more rules. That is not fair to Judaism now or then. This particular set of Pharisees does not speak for or represent the entirety of Judaism, past or present.

But still, it does appear that Jesus is advocating a certain laxity about the Sabbath. As a refresher, keeping Sabbath is the fourth of the Ten Commandments. Resting from our labors is right up there with not stealing, not lying, not taking another life. Yet still we tend to treat it as the cute, quaint commandment – the one we pat on the head before dismissing it.
Dr. Dorothy Bass observes:

The fourth commandment is the only one that people proudly boast about disobeying. We gladly tell others about how busy we are and how much we have done and how much we have yet to accomplish. We talk about how we do not have time to rest and that we would be glad to relax, but we are far too busy. We do not boast about lying or stealing or worshiping idols, but we are proud to tell others about our breaking the fourth commandment.

So is Jesus backing us up on this dismissive attitude towards Sabbath?
Is he saying “that Sabbath business really isn’t all that important.”
Are we off the hook and free to pack our days full of work and/or resume-padding activities?

Well, not exactly. Jesus isn’t doing away with the playground chant – he’s not saying that it’s stupid and you shouldn’t sing it anymore – he’s adding to it. And I think he’s actually giving us the best, most important part of Sabbath-keeping.

It’s no mistake that right after Jesus reframes the Sabbath as being in service to humans, Mark has this second episode centered around a man with a withered hand. Those same Pharisees who were so scandalized by Jesus’ slack Sabbath policy are watching and waiting, so sure that bleeding heart-on-sleeve Jesus will cure the man on the Sabbath, this time violating the fourth commandment himself. This will give them the evidence they need to discredit him…and to destroy him.

Think about that for a moment – these Pharisees are using the Sabbath to destroy a fellow human being.

Jesus perceives the trap. And so he publicly asks them “What does everybody think…Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath…to save life or to kill?”

“Seriously – what is the purpose of the Sabbath and who is really honoring it here?”

These Pharisees only prove his point when they leave the Synagogue and immediately begin their plot to kill Jesus.

Within any faith tradition – not just Judaism but in any faith tradition – there is this temptation to reduce a beautiful religion to a set of rules and regulations. The Pharisees in this story use the Sabbath as a yardstick to separate the sinners from the saints and keep them separated. Jesus will have no part in this.

In fact, after Jesus asks that question “is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath,” after he is met with their seething silence – when he sees the depth of their commitment to use something as beautiful and life-giving as the Sabbath to cause harm – Mark uses a very strong word to express the depth of his outrage. ὀργῆς (“Or-gaze”).

The English translation we read renders it: “he looked around at them with anger…”
ὀργῆς is more like a settled wrath that is opposed to something that one feels to be unjust and absolutely wrong.
One might say that Jesus “looked at them, filled with wrath.”

Jesus isn’t mildly annoyed. He is livid.
This is an absolute inversion of what the Sabbath ought to be.
This is NOT how it goes!

If I understand these two stories and how they play off each other – Jesus isn’t slacking on the Sabbath and he’s not abolishing the Sabbath – he’s clarifying it.

Sabbath is not a box to check.
It’s not a litmus test for righteousness.
And for Heaven’s sake, the Sabbath is not to be weaponized.

The reason we keep the Sabbath is so that we might have a constant reminder of our commitment to life – our own life and the life of our neighbor.

The Sabbath is a weekly pause button that pulls us out of whatever destructive schemes we may be drawn into…and there are plenty of ways that we participate in one another’s destruction, figuratively if not literally.

Spreading gossip.
Character assassination.

The “circular firing squad of wokeness” where we eviscerate would-be allies in service to some impossible standards of self-righteousness.

Or what about that unquestioning loyalty to some political figure in whose name we will blow up the loving, caring relationships with people who actually have been an intimate part of our lives?

We all participate in destructive schemes of one kind or another.
Sabbath invites us to stop and consider just how much it’s hurting us.

Come to think of it, I wonder if that’s why Sabbath is actually a commandment and not an invitation.

An invitation is something you accept or decline. If Sabbath was about nothing more than your personal rest and relaxation, well then I suppose it wouldn’t matter one way or the other if you accepted the invitation or not.

But Sabbath isn’t just about Me. It’s about Us.
It’s about the health of our relationships with one another.
And Sabbath is not an invitation, it’s a commandment to STOP…just Stop.

Stop plotting to destroy your neighbor.
Stop playing to win at all costs.
Stop maneuvering to gain some meaningless advantage.

It’s not worth it…so just….Stop!
Imperative mood.

For the record…when we practice this fourth commandment in spirit and in truth, I suspect we’ll find that there is nothing slack about the Sabbath…nothing slack at all.