The lord of all sabbaths is a fearsome surgeon

In recent days, my mind is continually recalled to Hebrews 4:12 by things that I read elsewhere in Scripture.

In Hebrew 4, the writer ponders the Israelites regarding whom the Lord swore, “They will not enter into my (sabbath) rest!” Why not? because when they heard his voice, they were embittered and rejected it, hardening their hearts. So their corpses fell in the wilderness. Hebrews quotes from “David” (the Psalms): don’t let that happen to you! The implication is that just as the Old Testament “Jesus” (Joshua = Iēsous in the Greek scriptures) could not give the people rest because of their apistia and apeitheia, their faithlessness and unpersuadableness, so also putative followers of the new and final Iēsous might also fail. So we have the paradox: rest (katapausis, sabbatismos) surely involves cessation of striving; what else is rest than that? But Hebrew urges: let us strive diligently (spoudasōmen) to enter into rest. The clear implication: we are responsible for our own unpersuadableness, our own infidelity.

How easy it is for American evangelical Christians today to be so sure that we have no “lack of faith” because we have defined “faith” as subscription to a short list of creedal statements, and can tick a short list of basic deeds or experiences—pronounce the name of Jesus, affirm that he died for our sins, accept his gift of eternal life, get baptized (if conveniently possible), go to church, and agree to comply with a certain list of rules of private, individual conduct (especially sex rules). We believe that our “faith” is “biblical” because these creedal statements, experiential norms, and moral rules are derived ultimately from various Bible passages by long processes of selection, redaction, and reinterpretation which we do not acknowledge.

Failing to care for the poor and bearing false witness on a massive scale are not disqualifiers in our system! How adept we become at claiming that salvation has nothing to do with “works” when there are good works that we do not want to do, while at the same time insisting that damnation has everything to do with “works” when there are bad works that we don’t want other people to do! So we make it easy for ourselves to claim that we have already (thank God! praise Jesus! through no effort or merit of our own!) entered into rest.

But Hebrews says: no, you must strive diligently to enter into rest, because it is all too possible, even likely, that what you think of as your belief will turn out to be unbelief, that you will be found to have been—that most damnable and unpardonable of all sins—unpersuadable.

Here Hebrews gives us one of the most beautiful and simultaneously most terrifying statements in all of scripture:

Ζῶν γὰρ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ἐνεργὴς καὶ τομώτερος ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν μάχαιραν δίστομον καὶ διϊκνούμενος ἄχρι μερισμοῦ ψυχῆς καὶ πνεύματος, ἁρμῶν τε καὶ μυελῶν, καὶ κριτικὸς ἐνθυμήσεων καὶ ἐννοιῶν καρδίας· καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν κτίσις ἀφανὴς ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ, πάντα δὲ γυμνὰ καὶ τετραχηλισμένα τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς αὐτοῦ, πρὸς ὃν ἡμῖν ὁ λόγος.

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. (NRSV)

This is a passage that requires much meditation. But I want to move on, because this morning I am not in Hebrews but in Luke, in another passage about Sabbath rest.

In Luke 6:1–5 Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field of grain, and as they walk through they pluck off heads of grain, rub them between their hands to get to the kernels, and eat them. And some Pharisees are offended because this is a breach of sabbath rules.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus denies neither the fact (yes, they were doing that) nor its illegality (yes, it is forbidden)? He does not dispute its illegality! Rather, he brushes the accusation aside, excusing the misdeed. And he does so by citing another scripture: a scripture from which he derives a lesson about how to read and honor scripture. This is a passage in which the central character is (like Jesus) a leader of followers who leads his followers in violating a commandment of the law: David feeding himself and his men with sacred bread that they were not allowed to touch. And then he pronounces:

κύριός ἐστιν τοῦ σαββάτου ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.

The son of man has authority over (is lord over) the sabbath.

Note that this cannot be read strictly and exclusively as saying that Jesus himself is “Lord of the Sabbath.” I think it does say that. But given the context—the fact that it is deduced from the behavior of David and applied to the conduct of Jesus’s disciples—it must also mean “the human person in covenantal relationship with God has a higher authority than the details of the Mosaic legislation when it comes to meeting basic human needs.”

The word of God is living and active. It is dynamic. The tables of the law were literally carved into stone by the finger of God, according to the law itself. But according to Jesus, the sabbath commandment is not “carved in stone” in the sense of being a dead letter that cannot be appealed, cannot be massaged, cannot be bent this way and that, or even brushed aside, in the presence of a pressing human need.

I remember how perplexed we sometimes were, we college and seminary students in Bible classes, when we realized how scandalously arbitrary some New Testament passages were in their interpretation of Old Testament passages. They broke every rule that our professors gave us for interpreting scripture! And if we asked about it, we were told that it was OK for Jesus or Paul or some other NT figure to do that because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but we could not. Their patterns of exegesis were not repeatable by us.

But a plain reading of the New Testament passages shows quite clearly that Paul and Jesus and the others were precisely about this: teaching us how to read and apply the scriptures for ourselves. They were teaching us to recognize a living and active Word of God, not a dead and dissected word of God, fossilized in a fixed tradition of interpretation like an expired insect in amber. Not a comfortable Word of God that would constantly assure us that we are OK and they (those other people) are not OK, but also not a perennially uncomfortable Word of God that would constantly assure us that we are damned if we set one foot off the straight and narrow.

This story in Luke does not tell us that on one particular day in first-century Galilee Jesus claimed “Lord of the Sabbath” as his own personal messianic title for the limited purpose of feeding his first few followers one time. It tells us that Jesus (with a little help from his friends who later wrote this gospel) used what happened that day to reveal, yes, that he himself, the archetypal human being (THE huios tou anthrōpou), has authority over every rule applying to every sabbath, every field, every path, every workplace, every table, every bed (yes, even that), every courtroom, every code of law, every book, every television (yes, even that), every radio (yes). But so also, in him and through him, every human being (every huios tou anthrōpou) also has that same authority. Jesus exhorts us to take it up and use it.

Every setting in which human life is lived and human choices are made are within the domain of one Lord who is the good creator of all, and the Word pronounced by that Lord is, like that Lord himself, not dead and stuck, rigid and uncaring, but living and active, both in compassion (like the compassion Jesus and David had for their hungry followers) and in judgment, casting a brilliant floodlight that leaves nothing hidden, cutting far into the interior of externally visible deeds to discern the intentions of the heart. This Word of God is a deft surgeon cutting between tendon and muscle, finding marrow inside bone, not in order to torture and mutilate but in order to heal, and make whole, and to bring to a place of rest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: