The Sabbath Day: To Rest from our Labors

4th Century Roman Icon Christ Teaching

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And there was a woman who had had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.  (Luke 13:10-17)

Jesus answers the legal criticism with the principle, “The sabbath was made for people, not people made for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27). In the next chapter, Jesus is infuriated when the Pharisees watch to see whether he will heal on the sabbath (Mk 3:1-5). Jesus defiantly cures a man with a misshapen hand in front of the legal experts, who then plan to destroy Jesus (v. 60) for destroying the sabbath rest. But Jesus actually has honored the sabbath, which is a religious institution meant to honor the completion of God’s creative activity in Genesis, because Jesus has completed God’s creative work upon the man whom Jesus made whole.

Jesus’ radical reinterpretation of the Law serves to rehabilitate this symbol of God’s presence among the people. If the symbolic function of the sabbath is to celebrate God’s availability and power, then a sabbath which is a day of healing “works better” than a sabbath which is merely a day of rest from worldly activities. The emphasis is to be placed upon the God who is present through the symbol of the Law, and not upon the material prescriptions of the Law itself. (Marianne Sawicki, The Gospel in History, pp. 52-53)