Fr. Ver Bust's Column:|
"Explaining the Gospel"
|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
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.)