True or false: the following sentence is actually in the Bible — “Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day will be put to death.”
There were grounds for capital punishment in Old Testament law. One of the best known is blasphemy; the guilty party was to be stoned to death (Lev 24:16). But kidnapping was also a capital offense (Exod 21:16) as was premeditated murder (Exod 21:14).
Surely, mowing your lawn on Sunday shouldn’t be in the same category?
But the answer is “true” — the sentence above is in the Bible (Exodus 31:15, CEB). Sure, one might think, working on the Sabbath means violating one of the Ten Commandments. But isn’t the death sentence a little over the top?
No wonder Jesus had to endure so much grief from the Pharisees for healing people on the Sabbath.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: we shouldn’t make the Pharisees into one-dimensional villains. Some Pharisees, after all, like Nicodemus or Paul, came around to Jesus’ side. And their original motivation was commendable. They were perfectly aware of how continual disobedience to God’s law had been disastrous for the people historically, and sought to rectify the situation. Nothing wrong with that.
In Exodus, obedience to the Sabbath was an important mark of Jewish identity; refusal to obey meant putting yourself outside the covenant. The Pharisees therefore took the commandment very seriously, in a way that we typically do not.
But rules and restrictions have a way of proliferating. Tell people not to work on the Sabbath, and someone will object, “Yes, but surely A, B, and C aren’t really ‘work,’ are they?” Scholars put their heads together, and come back with, “A is work, and is therefore forbidden on the Sabbath. C is not, and is permissible. B is permissible, but only under these conditions.” And so on. In this way, a law meant to evoke the desire for holiness becomes a detailed instruction manual on how to not get God mad at you. And in that manual, carrying your mat on the Sabbath is a no-no.
How do you know you’ve crossed the line from honoring the law to legalism?
- When a guy who’s been lame for 38 years starts walking around, and all you notice is that he’s carrying his mat on the Sabbath.
- When God in the flesh is standing right in front of you, and you accuse him of breaking the law.
When the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders in Jerusalem find out that Jesus was the one who told the formerly lame man to carry his mat, they confront him. Jesus responds, “My Father is still working, and I am working too” (John 5:17, CEB). There is a sense in which God never rests, as in the Protestant doctrine of God’s common grace. Jesus, in other words, is doing God’s work, not using the Sabbath to catch up on his chores.
But now that he’s said that, the Pharisees have another problem. They hear Jesus claiming a special relationship to the Father — and they’re right. To them, it’s blasphemy, a capital offense, and they want even more to kill him.
Jesus, for his part, doesn’t back down an inch, and gives them even more to rail about. We’ll see that in upcoming posts.
The next post, however, falls on the Sabbath (no, I don’t write them on the same day that they post, if you’re wondering), making it a good day to reflect together on the implications of the story we’ve been studying for our view of the Sabbath itself.