Gospel: Mark 3:20-35 [2:23-38]
Epistle: 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 [4:5-12]
Lesson: Genesis 3:8-15 [Deuteronomy 5:12-15]
Psalm: Psalm 130 [Psalm 81:1-10]
CLB Commentary – Rev. Bill Helland
(originally published in 2012)
I was taught, like so many from my generation who grew up in the Church of the Lutheran Brethren, that you do very little physical activity on Sunday. We were not allowed to do any work or anything that resembled work (with the exception of preparing meals, doing dishes, and caring for our animals). Though such rules can easily become legalistic observance for the wrong reasons, one cannot deny that scripture clearly teaches the importance of a Sabbath rest.
However, what our Lord was addressing here is the danger of taking a scriptural command so far that the focus becomes the strict adherence of the command (and the deadly self-righteousness that can accompany that obedience) rather than a right heart attitude for obeying God’s laws.
The Pharisees loved to lord it over their fellow Jews and self-righteously point out to them their sins. Jesus, however, clarified for them (and the disciples who were picking heads of grain) who the real Lord of the Sabbath is – it is Him, not the Pharisees, nor the teachers of the Law.
The “problem” was not that the disciples were picking someone else’s grain, for the law allowed this to take place, as seen in Deuteronomy 23:25. The Pharisees’ problem was that Jesus and the disciples were doing this on the Sabbath.
The challenge in preaching this text is to avoid legalism while at the same time not encouraging people to be careless in how they spend their God-given day of rest. Unfortunately many of us (whether consciously or unconsciously) attempt to live in the freedom of the gospel to an extreme whereby we seem to want to prove that we are not a legalistic pietist. So we exercise that freedom by working hard on Sunday afternoon after worship, neglecting our need for physical, emotional and mental rest.
I think it is important to communicate to our listeners both the law (that we have been commanded by our loving Creator to rest, for he knows our need for it) and the gospel (that the Lord of the Sabbath, who has given us a day of rest, wants us to follow the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law). In other words, following the letter of the law leads to legalism, self-righteousness and pietistic finger pointing and judging. Whereas following the spirit of the law, in response to what we have been given, will lead us to appreciating the fact that our Lord of the Sabbath has given us rest (now and for all eternity), but also gives us freedom to do whatever is necessary to provide for the welfare of those who depend on us – whether people or livestock.