Lord of the Sabbath


The assignment: Your essay will address two questions: Who is Jesus of Nazareth? What insights are gleaned from his words and deeds: his baptism, his temptations in the wilderness, his Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, his “I AM” sayings, etc.? What can we understand about Christian discipleship in light of the person and mission of Jesus?

OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST himself declared what he was, what he had been, how he was carrying out his Father’s will, what obligations he demanded of men.” (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics, Office of Readings, Feast of Sts Philip & James, Liturgy of the Hours, Vol 3, p.1811). Where does Jesus tell us who he is? How can this help form Christians today?

Finding the answers requires listening to Jesus in his context. We will look briefly at our Lord’s teaching on keeping/breaking the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8) walking with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to understand our Lord’s meaning more deeply, using Chapter Four of the Pope’s Jesus of Nazareth, Vol 1 (hereinafter, JoN). This chapter is a dialogue with another author’s work, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (1993), by Rabbi Jacob Neusner. Benedict explores the Rabbi’s reactions as Jesus is questioned by Pharisees about his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. The Rabbi provides Jewish ears and a Jewish voice. 

In the understanding of Rabbinic Judaism, doing any sort of work on the Sabbath is a violation of the Torah. How the disciples keep Sabbath is important in all the Gospels. Pope Benedict notes on page 106 “Jesus’ statement that ‘the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath’ (Mk 2:27) is cited as evidence, the idea being that it represents an anthropocentric view of reality, from which a ‘liberal’ interpretation of the commandments supposedly follows naturally. It was, in fact, the Sabbath disputes that became the basis for the image of the liberal Jesus.” The liberal Jesus tosses out (or ignores) the commandments. “Jesus’ liberal understanding of the Law makes for a less burdensome life than ‘Jewish legalism.’” (JoN p. 109)

Jesus replies that priests work in the Temple on the Sabbath without actually breaking the law, adding “[S]omething greater than the Temple is here.” (Matthew 12:6 – RSVCE).  He says, “The Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (v. 8) This is not a case of the “liberal” Jesus freeing us from all Moses’ laws. Benedict finds, along with Neusner, there is a different focus here, a revelation of who Jesus is.

We are eavesdropping on a conversation between Jewish voices: Jesus was using Jewish words in Jewish ways and those words were being heard in Jewish ways as well. In this light, we should keep in mind something different about the Sabbath and observing it in the Jewish context. Jesus is not tossing out rules. Rabbi Neusner hears it this way:

God rested on the seventh day, as the creation account in Genesis tells us. Neusner rightly concludes that “on that day we . . . celebrate creation”. He then adds: “Not working on the Sabbath stands for more than nitpicking ritual. It is a way of imitating God”. The Sabbath is therefore not just a negative matter of not engaging in outward activities, but a positive matter of “resting”.

JoN, p 108

Further drawing out resting, Benedict reads the verses immediately preceding chapter 12. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11: 28-30). The Pope pulls the reader back a bit to see the full context of the story. We don’t often read the picking grains story together with the preceding verses, but the wider angle on giving rest and then a conversation about resting on the sabbath shows us that these verses are all part of the same story. Pope Benedict lets us see in the wider context that Jesus is not just saying, “Hey, you don’t need to follow these sabbath rules anymore.” 

Neusner agrees that Jesus is shifting the point of focus from the Temple. “[T]he holy place has shifted, now being formed by the circle made up of the master and his disciples” (JoN p 108). The Rabbi comes to the conclusion that Christ is putting himself in the place of the Torah and then asks, “Is your master God?” (JoN p. 110). 

Hearing this as a Jewish conversation wrapped in the wider context provided by earlier verses, we can see that Jesus is claiming in his person to grant Sabbath rest. He is “Lord of the Sabbath”. That is to say he is claiming to be God and by following him his Disciple obeys the law of the Torah in a more direct way. By resting in Jesus we are “Sabbath Resting” not only on the 7th day, but always. 

For a disciple, following Jesus is not a matter of ignoring the moral code, but rather expanding the code, making it personal. When the covenant was written on Sinai, God’s living fire burned the stone (Exodus 31:18), destroying what was not needed and revealing the laws that have been for all time.  In the New Covenant, the law is written on our hearts. Now God’s living fire carves it out on our hearts: destroying in our lives what is not needed and revealing what has been the law for all time. Our hearts become living stones of God’s Temple (1 Peter 2:5).

Pope Benedict cited this meditation from Rabbi Neusner on pages 104-5: by Jewish tradition, there are 613 commandments given on Sinai which have been condensed, in various steps, down to the greatest commandments regarding God and neighbor. The Rabbi says Jesus taught all this faithfully. But, he notes, Jesus did add something: “Himself.” To the Rabbi’s eyes, Jesus has added himself to the story, replacing the Temple and the Torah. He is claiming to be God openly which his audience of 1st Century Jews – and Jews today – can hear. For the disciple today Jesus has unveiled himself as the central part of the entire Biblical story. 


The Face of God


FIRST DAY IN CHRISTOLOGY CLASS was hard because too much thinking! Dr Turek teaches in a way that leaves you thinking for hours after it’s all over. I’m still digesting it today, Monday, but it seems less like “thinking too much” and more like we were praying. Contemplata aliis tradere, and all that: You get a blog post even without a paper due.

First walk through the stories about Jesus’ baptism. We started with the usual question, If Jesus was without sin why did he need to be baptized? “Usual question” in the sense that it’s the sort of question that’s so common it gets used as a homiletical device whenever the Baptism of Jesus comes up in the readings. (Note to self: do not do this.) It’s sort of a gotcha. “Well, you say Jesus is God so why dunk him at all?” In the course of our conversations, we unraveled the question slowly. When my friend Marvin made a comment about Jesus being God and the sky was opening up, it hit me like a bowling ball that Jesus is not baptized like us – we are baptized like him. God was dunked into the water so that we could be dunked into the water at all. Jesus had to be baptized as sinless: we’re the odd part, confessing our sins as we go in. The new thing is that our sins get washed away – not that he was sinless to begin with. We’re reading Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, Vol 1, and it comes home suddenly (as he teaches) that John’s Baptism was not sacramental: it didn’t forgive or wash away sins. It indicated repentance – a change of heart – but it didn’t confer grace. Jesus changes that.

But that could not be if Jesus was not God.

And it’s Jesus being God that is the point of Christology and of our salvation.

The Prologue in John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18) opens with the claim that the Logos of God is with God and also is God. Dr Turek pointed out the “with” there is actually the Greek word πρός pros meaning “to, towards, with”. So when the word is πρός God, that means to God or better “towards God”. The Logos is constantly turned toward God, the Son eternally contemplating the Father. And the Father is continually pouring himself out to the Son. John 5:19 says, “Yes, indeed! I tell you that the Son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; whatever the Father does, the Son does too.” So what the Father does (self-emptying) the Son does as well, giving himself back to the Father.

The Prologue says it’s this Logos, this Son that has “become flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14) using another Greek word, σκηνόω skénoó, meaning to pitch a tent and echoing how God pitched a tent (the Tabernacle) in the middle of the tribes of Israel. (That’s the header image on this post.) This God now dwells with us however the Prologue and the New Testament take it further. Verse 14 says we beheld the “glory” of the Word “full of grace and truth”. And closes (v. 18) saying “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” That “in the bosom” will be important. Hold on to it.

Later Jesus prays for us all:

I pray not only for these, but also for those who will trust in me because of their word, that they may all be one. Just as you, Father, are united with me and I with you, I pray that they may be united with us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory which you have given to me, I have given to them; so that they may be one, just as we are one — I united with them and you with me, so that they may be completely one, and the world thus realize that you sent me, and that you have loved them just as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23 (CJB)

Did you catch all that? It’s a bit dense, but Jesus wants us to be in him in his unity with the Father. As the Son is to the Father, we are to be also. The technical term is filiation or “son making”. We are made sons and daughters of the Father in Christ the Son. We are called to the same relationship, the same glory and the same unity. This is the unity of peace, the unity of love, the unity of humanity in God the Father is the real meaning of salvation. It’s what the Son brings to us. And, the more we are called to give it to others. We hand it on.

The Word, which gives life! He existed from the beginning. We have heard him, we have seen him with our eyes, we have contemplated him, we have touched him with our hands! The life appeared, and we have seen it. We are testifying to it and announcing it to you — eternal life! He was with the Father, and he appeared to us. What we have seen and heard, we are proclaiming to you; so that you too may have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Yeshua the Messiah. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

1 John 1:1-4 (CJB)

What the Apostles touched and Contemplated (that is, Jesus and his teaching) they pass on to us. We touch and contemplate it through them. We pass it on to others. Those others touch and contemplate Jesus through us when we pass him on. We mediate Jesus to them. The face of God, through us, draws people ever closer to an unmediated experience so that they, too, may become mediators of his action in the world.

How? John 13:25 says that, at the Last Supper, St John was “leaning against Yeshua’s chest”. Remember the son “in the bosom of the Father” so, also, we are in the bosom of the Son. Because we are united with Jesus in his contemplation of Abba, God the Father. What we see Abba do we do as well by the grace of our participation in Christ. We experience our salvation not as a moment in the past (Baptism?) but as a process and one that includes not only us but others. As God was in the midst of Israel, but Israel was a light to the Gentiles, so we are to the world. It’s not an added or optional part: it is the thing itself. My evangelism to you is part of your salvation, yes, but it is part of mine as well because it is the ongoing action of Christ on the Cross.

So Christology becomes soteriology: the Son’s relationship to the Father becomes our relationship to the Father. We say “Abba” not like step children, but as sons and daughters of God in Christ who is his only begotten Son. As Mass says, we live “through him, with him, and in him… in the unity of the Holy Spirit” and we offer all glory to God the Father. The Spirit of God, aspirated between the Son and the Father in their Love, is now aspirated between us and the Father as well. And through us further into the world.