Fixing the Sabbath


Here is the Cliffs Notes version of the story from Jesus’ life that we will explore today: Jesus’ disciples had a snack, then Jesus healed a guy with a disability, so the religious leaders started making plans to kill Jesus.

I certainly understand if you think murder is a bit of an over-reaction to the offense of munchies and a miracle. But things will make a little more sense if you pay attention to what Jesus said while those things were happening, as well as noticing what the calendar said while those things were happening.

The story is found in Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, and Luke 6:1-11. The three writers agree on the basics of the day’s events, but each highlights different parts of the story.

Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grainfield. Some of his disciples were hungry, so they plucked some heads of grain to enjoy as they walked along. Some Pharisees, key religious leaders of the day, saw what the disciples were doing. They got themselves good and offended and said, “JESUS! YOUR DISCIPLES ARE BREAKING THE RULES! THEY ARE DOING WHAT IS UNLAWFUL!” (I’m pretty sure the Pharisees would be the kind of people who would type their comments in all caps). The disciples’ actions might offend some of us because of their reckless disregard for the gluten contained in their choice of snack. Or maybe we would be bothered by the fact that they are eating grain that does not belong to them (though actually it was an expected act of generosity and care for the poor to allow people to do what the disciples did – see Deuteronomy 23:25, which basically says it is ok to grab a handful of your neighbor’s grain as long as you don’t drive your John Deere onto his land and start harvesting). But what bothered the Pharisees was the day on which the disciples were doing their nibbling. It was the Sabbath.

God had commanded his people not to work on the Sabbath. It was part of the original Top Ten list. First century religious leaders then spilled countless gallons of ink making lists of things not to do on that day, and then spent lots of time saying “gotcha” to people they caught doing those things. They were appalled by the fact that Jesus was letting his disciples get away with their Sabbath snacking, so they took it upon themselves to lecture him.

Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ lecture with a series of audacious statements.

First, he blasted their legalism. He reminded them that David broke the rules by entering the tabernacle and eating consecrated bread, and that priests in the temple broke the rules by working on the Sabbath. He implied that the Pharisees were more obsessed with “the rules” than God was, and that they needed to get over themselves and quit trying to out-holy the Holy One. Jesus told the Pharisees that they had it upside down when they valued rules more than they valued people.

Second, Jesus told them that their interpretation of the Sabbath was backwards. He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). God knew that we would be unable to live the life he wanted us to live if we were frantic and frazzled and worn out and wiped out from whirling around 24/7. So he gave us a gift: he told us to take a day off every week. The Pharisees had taken a day God intended for burdens to be released and made it into a day of carrying the huge burden of obsessing over how many steps we could take or how many ounces we could carry without making God mad. God’s vision for Sabbath was not that if we disobediently did yardwork that day, fire would fall from heaven and consume us and our mulch. God’s vision for Sabbath was that he loved us enough to give us the opportunity to rest. The Sabbath was a comfortable recliner given to us by God; the Pharisees insisted that people carry it on their backs. Jesus informed them that by their attempts to transform a lavish blessing into a legalistic burden, they were the ones who had actually broken the Sabbath.

Third, Jesus declared that he was Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28). Wow! He had the nerve to claim that on the heavenly organizational chart, he was higher than God’s law (in the same conversation he also announced that he was higher on the org chart than the temple – see Matthew 12:6). So if he wanted his disciples to have a bite to eat on the Sabbath, that was his prerogative to allow them to do so, no matter how badly it offended the Pharisees.

Just in case the Pharisees weren’t furious enough, Jesus walked straight from the grainfield to their synagogue. He spotted a man with a shriveled hand that needed healing. He could have just whispered to the guy and asked him to clandestinely touch his cloak and receive a cure, but he wanted to keep provoking the religious leaders, so he had the guy stand up in front of God and everybody. Jesus again challenged the backwards value system of the religious leaders, reminding them that though they were appalled by the thought of healing the man on the Sabbath, they wouldn’t hesitate to pull their sheep out of a pit if it fell in on the Sabbath. Then Jesus did the “work” of healing the man and making him as good as new. By then the Pharisees had had enough of Jesus’ audacity, and they went out and started plotting his execution.

Those Sabbath adventures help us to keep our priorities in line with reality:

People > sheep.

People > Sabbath.

People > rules.

Jesus > everything.


Want to explore further?

  1. Read the three different Gospel accounts of the Sabbath controversy (Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, and Luke 6:1-11). What is unique about each account?
  2. Search for the word “Sabbath” in the Gospels on Read some of the other passages that describe Jesus breaking the rules of the religious leaders.
  3. What would it look like for you to prioritize people over rules today?

Job One


Jesus came into a world that focused on the vertical dimension of the life of faith. Most first century Jews would have acknowledged that faith has both a vertical dimension (between me and God) and a horizontal dimension (between me and other people), but they would have assumed that the most crucial part was the vertical part. They figured that what God most wanted was for them to avoid worshipping idols, to offer the correct sacrifices, to get the Sabbath right, to say the right prayers, to tithe properly, and so on.

One of the audacious things Jesus did was to elevate the horizontal. He insisted that the way we treat other people matters deeply to God. He taught that our relationships with people have an impact on our relationship with God, and that those horizontal relationships are actually the best indicators of the health of the vertical relationship.

One clear example of this tendency to elevate the importance of human relationships is in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he describes a specific case in which we should prioritize the horizontal over the vertical:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift on the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” – Jesus, Matthew 5:23-24

No other rabbi would have the audacity to tell people to keep God waiting while they go and straighten things out with a cranky neighbor. The instruction becomes even more surprising when we realize the major production involved in giving a gift at the altar: For Jesus’ original hearers, it meant traveling a great distance to the temple in Jerusalem, undergoing extensive purification rituals, and purchasing an animal to offer. Jesus said that if they went through all of that and then remembered someone back home they had wronged, they should leave Billy the newly purchased goat running loose in the temple and travel all the way home to try to make things right.

How we treat people is a big deal to Jesus.

My favorite example of Jesus elevating the horizontal is recorded in John’s Gospel. It comes at a pivotal moment: Judas has just walked out of the room to go turn Jesus in. Jesus knows that this will be his last chance to say anything to his disciples before he dies. So he tells them he won’t be with them much longer, and then he utters these profound words:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – Jesus, John 13:34-35

I would excuse you for arguing with Jesus that his command to love isn’t all that new. What is unquestionably new is the metric he tells them to use to quantify that love: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Wow. That’s a lot of love. Jesus is saying, “You remember how I welcomed you when nobody else would have you? I want you to love like that. You remember how I gave you a second chance, and a third and a fourth chance when you kept blowing it? I want you to love like that. You remember how I served you, even washing your feet? I want you to love like that. You remember how I spoke the truth to you even when it wasn’t pleasant? You remember how I fed you when you were hungry? You remember how patient I was with all of your questions and doubts? I want you to love like that.”

Jesus says he wants his kind of love to be the identifying characteristic of his followers – he wants it to be how people recognize us. That’s how our discipleship shows: Not by the beliefs we profess, or by the rules we follow, but by the love we demonstrate. Jesus says that job one for his followers is to love like he loved.

Jesus shares this profound instruction with his disciples, and they apparently don’t hear a word of it. Peter speaks as soon as Jesus pauses (no shock there), but he is still stuck on the thing Jesus was saying before giving his big new command. Peter just asks Jesus where he is going. It is one of many times we see the disciples being the “duh”-sciples, not getting it at all when Jesus says something profound. But I’m glad they don’t get it the first time, because Jesus takes the opportunity to reiterate his instruction just a couple of chapters later, this time taking its practical application to even more audacious depths:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – Jesus, John 15:12-13

Again, Jesus gives the command to love. Again, he tells them his love is the pattern. But then he tells them exactly what “as I have loved you” means: it means laying down your life for the ones you love. Jesus lets them know that love is more than warm feelings or good intentions. It is sacrifice. And he is just hours away from showing them how it is done.

Then, I suppose just in case Peter has zoned out again, he says it one more time in verse 17: “This is my command: Love each other.”

It is the culmination of a teaching ministry that audaciously elevated love for people to a higher place of prominence than anyone who came before him.

“Here’s what I command: love like I have loved you. Period. Full stop. That’s not only the first item on the list. It is the list. Love!”


Want to explore further?

  1. Check out a few other passages in which Jesus elevates the horizontal: Matthew 7:12, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 6:27-36
  2. Read all of John 13. Pay attention to the stark contrast between Jesus’ unfailing love and the failures of his disciples.
  3. Jesus says your primary assignment is to love like he loved us. What is a practical way you can fulfill that assignment today?