Mark 2:23-3:6 (NRSV)
Pronouncement about the Sabbath
23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 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.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
The Man with a Withered Hand
3 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 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. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
The Holy Spirit has descended on the first disciples, those who would come together to form a new community centered around their Crucified and Risen Messiah. Does this Holy Spirit pouring out have any connection to Jesus’s words on Sabbath?
Jesus declares elsewhere that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Consider Deuteronomy 5: Moses reiterates the fourth Sinai commandment, extending it beyond remembering to include observance. Fulfillment in our minds might typically take on the form of “completing that which was foretold.” But what if, when Jesus mentions fulfilling the law, he’s talking about “filling out,” completion? Jesus, arguably, is filling out, making the Jewish law whole. (1)
The Pharisee’s in Mark 2:23–3:6 know this Sabbath law like the back of their hands. Its why they feel so free to call into question this new rabbi. What Jesus does is to fill out the law. “You don’t understand Sabbath’s full measure,” Jesus says to the crowd. In the grain fields, the Pharisees draw upon the Sinai tradition to argue that to harvest on this “holy day” is to violate the significance of Sabbath.
The Pharisees saw nothing more than a means of control. Jesus turns all this around by retelling a story of David, the foundation of monarchic and messianic hope for the Jewish people, succumbing to “work” on the Sabbath. Jesus comes to complete the intention of Sabbath, its filling out, that it was created for humanity’s benefit, not as a means of control.
Jesus then enters the center of local Jewish life, the synagogue, and comes across a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees continue to see whether he will continue to blaspheme this holiest of days. And again, Jesus proceeds to fill out the Law. No Jew, stringent to the Sinai commandments, would dare to suggest that you cannot do good on the Sabbath. But this act is still controversial. Jesus’s anger and sadness demonstrate this: the Pharisees are too concerned with maintaining the status quo to accept the words Jesus offers them. They are too concerned with finding a reason to kill him.
Jesus heals this man on the Sabbath, not to break the tradition of ignorant Sabbath practices. Jesus heals the man as a demonstration of his previous remark–that he is Lord of the Sabbath, and that he fills it out. Sabbath becomes a means for the Church today to declare an alternative to the status quo by following Jesus’s example, in declaring and acting for the good of God’s creation and intention. (2)
In the life of the Church today, Jesus’ promise and gift of the Holy Spirit might be another filling out of the true intention of the Sabbath. At Pentecost, Jesus chooses to fill his people with the Holy Spirit. Not only is Jesus fulfilling the promise he made to the disciples, but he is quite literally filling out what it means to be a member of the church, or arguably, what it means to be human: to be filled out with the Spirit. And in conjunction, the Holy Spirit becomes the Church’s true Sabbath.
Where does our understanding and practice of Sabbath need to be filled out? Easter does not end on Resurrection Sunday; it culminates on Pentecost. If Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, and Sabbath is a reality counter to the status quo, then Easter’s culmination in filling out by the Holy Spirit becomes the great Sabbath for the Christian Church. This Pentecost, may you discover anew the Jesus who fills out, and the Holy Spirit who becomes our true Sabbath.
(1) I’m indebted to one of my professors, John Goldingay, for describing this alternative view to talking about Jesus’s acts of fulfilment.
(2) For more on this, see the chapter on Sabbath by Smith and Pattison in Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.
Phil resides in sunny Southern California, having moved from Dublin to pursue a Masters of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary. Phil is passionate about the local church, and wants to encourage and develop deep, theological foundations for the conversations and life in the church. When not writing another paper for class, he can be found expanding his whiskey and coffee palette, composing prayer poems, travelling around a small percentage of the U.S., or engaging in another deep life conversation over a pint or two.