The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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March 3, 2000 Issue
Fr. Ver Bust's Column:
"Explaining the Gospel"

Fr. Richard Ver Bust
Fr. Richard Ver Bust

Celebrating the goodness of God

The Sabbath reminded the Jews that God saved them from slavery

March 5, Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

By Fr. Richard Ver Bust

Today's reading speaks of a controversy centering around work on the Sabbath. There are actually two events, both of which tell us that there were infringements or the breaking of the Sabbath prohibition on work.

The celebration of the Sabbath reminded Jews that God had not only created them but also saved them from the slavery of Egypt. Therefore, they were to take time to thank God for creation and to avoid work on that day to remind them of the servile or slave labor they had performed in Egypt. Refraining from work was a way of acknowledging God's goodness and the freedom given to them.

The disciples had picked grains of wheat while they passed through a field. They were guilty not only of walking too far on the Sabbath, but the Pharisees also thought that the picking of grains of wheat was working on the Sabbath. They do not criticize Jesus directly, but, of course, they considered him responsible for the acts of his disciples.

Jesus uses a story from the past to emphasize what he wishes to teach. He used an event in which David, considered a great model of faith and piety, had considered his needs and those of his companions as more important than a religious rule or law. While it was not a breaking of the Sabbath law, the principle was the same.

Jesus, Mark is telling his community, taught that the Sabbath was important, but rules must not be used in abusive ways. Jesus' radical teaching is about the Sabbath subordinating its obligations to human needs. Did Matthew and Luke omit this because they considered it too extreme? The Sabbath was celebrated not for its own sake, but for the benefit of those who accepted God's rule.

The second story involves Jesus directly. Jesus entered the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath and encountered a man who had a withered hand. We are not informed of the exact medical problem.

It appears that the Pharisees were trying to entrap Jesus. Would he help the man even though it was the Sabbath or would he deny his help? If he cured the man they would accuse him of breaking the Sabbath. Even though rabbis allowed healing on the Sabbath it could only be justified if the person was in extreme danger. The controversy then would focus on if Jesus went beyond this exception.

Jesus challenged them by asking "is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm?" Jesus was, in reality, going beyond what the rabbis had taught. Once again, Jesus emphasized human need above the law.

Mark tells us that Jesus was angry at the Pharisees because they were so hard of heart. They had developed a whole system of rules around the Sabbath obligation so that following the rules made the Sabbath not a happy time of celebration but one that seemed harsh and threatening.

Jesus, claiming no authority other than his own, challenged the Pharisees on seeing what the Sabbath was really about. Jesus was not rejecting the Sabbath but interpreted the rules about the Sabbath in a whole new way.

Mark saw Jesus as the Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus was an observant Jew who went back to the basics. He tried to show why the Sabbath should be celebrated.

It is obvious that Mark is challenging his church to do the same. The community already had changed the celebration to Sunday, the first day of the week, but it must be a celebration of creation and indeed the new creation of Christ' resurrection.

(Fr. Ver Bust is professor emeritus in religious studies at St. Norbert College, De Pere.)

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