The Jewish scribes thought they had every angle covered, Centuries of debate had worked out how to apply God's Law to every part of life. When Jesus' disciples plucked grain and ate it on the Sabbath, they were guilty of breaking a whole manner of rules. They had reaped the corn (by plucking the grain). They had winnowed the grain (by rubbing it between their fingers). They had threshed it by separating off the chaff, and finally they had made themselves a meal and eaten the grain.
On a Sabbath you could move a new lamp from one place to another, but not an old one. Your donkey could go out wearing its saddlecloth, but only if it had been put on before the Sabbath - and it certainly couldn't wear its bell (even muffled) because that would count as work.
And to be really sure that every 'i' was dotted, a man could not carry a burden 'in his right hand or in his left hand, in his bosom or on his shoulder.' But he was allowed to carry something 'on the back of his hand, with his foot or his mouth or elbow, or in his ear or his hair, or in his wallet, carried mouth downwards, or between his wallet and his shirt, or in the hem of his shirt, or in his shoe or sandal'.
The imagination runs riot with pictures of good upstanding folk trying walking around wit all manner of items protruding from every orifice!
Now guess where this one came from:
'No one shall run on the Sabbath Day, or walk in his garden, or elsewhere except reverently to and from meeting. No one shall travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair, or shave on the Sabbath. If any man kiss his wife, or wife her husband on the Lord's Day, the party in fault shall be punished at the discretion of the court of magistrates.'
That was from the early American Code of Connecticut.
I was talking to an elderly friend not so long ago, and he talked with almost fond remembrance of his childhood where on a Sabbath Day no newspaper would dare to be seen, no work would be tolerated even in the house, where all the preparation for the Sunday meal would have been completed on the Saturday night, and where Chapel, Sunday School, Bible reading, best behaviour and best clothes were the order of the day.
Isaiah has some interesting things to say about the Sabbath in the passage that we've read, but it's best to put the reading into context first. We're talking about a period in Jewish history of around 500BC, long enough after the period of exile in Babylon for the initial joy at that taste of freedom to have faded and the reality of a hard life back in their own country beginning to set in. There's a certain arrogance running throughout the Old Testament, the people of God assuming that this special relationship somehow means that God is at their beck and call.
The whole history of the Jewish nation and their relationship with their creator is a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, and here's another of the downers. At the beginning of Chapter 58 we hear them complaining to God - and remember that these are the complaints of an outwardly very religious people.
They seemed very keen for God to answer their prayers and give them direction, but just weren't getting the answers that they wanted. 'We've fasted,' they moaned. 'Haven't you noticed. We've humbled ourselves, and you haven't even noticed.'
The prophet answers the complaints head on
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers.
4: Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
5: Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
6: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Then he takes a different tack in verse 9 with the word 'If'
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10: if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday...............
13: If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14: then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
You get the impression throughout the prophetic books of the Old Testament, that those great men of God who spoke His word so fearlessly to an often stubborn and rebellious nation were thoroughly cheesed off with 'religion' in the sense that it was displayed in the lives of the religious leaders of the day. They saw nothing in it that relected the qualities of their God, and everything in it about power and oppression, status and wealth.
This was not what the Sabbath was intended to be - a people almost afraid to breath in case they broke one of the Laws, and a ruling Priesthood who could lord it over the ordinary folk and still be seen publicly to be pious, ever so 'umble and very visibly fasting.
'Get a grip!' says the prophet. 'This is what not what the Sabbath is all about. It's about enjoying God, it's about giving and not taking. It's about sharing the love of God with others rather than imposing your will on them. It's about showing justice and doing good. It's about making the Sabbath different from the other days of the week.'
And there of course it gets all too contemporary in its message.
In Luke 13:10-17 Jesus is criticised by the president of the synagogue for healing a woman on the Sabbath. 'Aren't there six days in which work can be done?' He asks the crowd. 'If you want healing come on those days!'
Jesus replies by using the example of one of the Sabbath laws. 'You care enough for your pack animals that you are allowed to untie an ox or ass and lead them to water for a drink. Yet here's a woman, a daughter of Abraham who's been tethered to illness for eighteen years, and you want her to wait until tomorrow?'
The Sabbath controversy was a real big issue in Jesus' time. There were those conservatives who wanted to tether it to the strict interpretation of the Law, and the more liberal who wanted more freedom. There are 9 Sabbath stories in the Gospels, and of these 6 concern this same issue.
One commentator says that the reason that the crowd seemed so happy with Jesus' reply was that he was taking a stand against the first century equivalent of a dry Victorian Sunday and its guardians at the Chapel.
Perhaps a little harsh on our grandparents and their attitude to Sunday, but there is a point here worth considering, based both on the words of the prophet Isaiah and those of Jesus himself.
The Church has complained for many years that Sundays have become more and more secular in emphasis. Sunday Schools are empty because parents are taking their children to sporting events or going off to Oakwood, the beach or other amusement parks. Leisure activities of all types are targeting the family on both weekend days, and of course it is possible to shop now on Sunday. The emphasis on church attendance and a day gathered round the bible has faded into history.
How would Isaiah and Jesus view this today, I wonder? Especially as we live in a very secular society.
Well there's no doubting Jesus' views on the Sabbath. In Mark's Gospel he states that the Sabbath was created for man, not the other way round. It's God's gift to all mankind for rest and blessing.
His act of compassion in healing the woman, and his disciples eating grain because they were hungry were not acts of lawlessness. They were perfectly in accordance with Jesus' explanation. The Sabbath is not a day filled with 'You shall not...or else!' but as Isaiah points out rather a day filled with 'If you do this...then blessing will follow'
Suddenly we have a day filled not with negatives but with positives.
Back to Isaiah
'If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10: if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.'
Yes, the day needs to be something special, it needs to be different, time set aside for God, for being in his presence
'if you honour it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14: then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth'
but there also needs to be time for other relationships, for family, for friends and for all those we have contact with. There needs to be time for rest and recreation. Now there's an interesting word 'recreation'. Split it into two and you have 're-creation' and doesn't this somehow speak to us something of the meaning of Sabbath?
God rested. We need rest, we need to take stock, chill out, take time out from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Our bodies need it, or we end up suffering physically and mentally through the stress of living in such a fast moving world.
God knew what he was doing when he told mankind it needed a day off in the week. It was for our good, not his!
And what of all those parents driving their children to swimming, rugby or other sporting activities on the Sabbath. How does God view this?
I imagine he's a little sad that they're not part of a worshipping fellowship. But I also think he'll be happy that they are doing things as a family, developing relationships between parent and child, enjoying quality time spent together which is not always possible through the week.
They will be blessed by doing that. Isaiah makes that plain.
Perhaps it's not them but the Church that needs to change, to relearn the meaning of the Sabbath. To stop being so judgmental, and to start showing more love. Because the world still sees the Sabbath in terms of the Victorian Chapel, and 'thou shall not'.
It plainly can't relate to that idea.
Perhaps we need to show by our lives that the Sabbath is not about adherence to rules, but simply a response of faith lived out in our lives. We receive God's blessing of the Sabbath because of God's love for us, and we share that love just as Jesus did when he healed the woman without any worries that this might be frowned upon. The world may never understand the Church but it can understand and relate to love.