I’ve never heard an 8 year old boy ask his mom for more chores and less video game time. Neither have I heard a teenage girl ask her dad for an earlier curfew or a limited data plan. I’d have to defriend anyone that lobbied for slower speed limits and four forms of ID at the DMV. No one likes rules and restrictions… so why would God give us so many of them? This is such a common critique of the Bible which really paints a negative view of the faith. Who wants to follow another rule book?
A few weeks ago my friends and I were out to dinner on a Friday night. We finished up our tacos and guac and were walking back to the car. We stopped to admire the dazzling Tennessee Theatre sign in downtown Knoxville when a group of people caught my eye across the street. They were in a seemingly heated argument that was coming to a close as the larger of the two parties was walking away. What remained were two gentlemen dressed in all white robes. They were definitely not members of the KKK nor were they the commonly mistaken Dominican Friars. As a group of young Catholics, our interest was piqued immediately.
Suddenly, the two robed gentlemen began to cross the street walking immediately towards us. Not knowing what to do, all six of us stood awkwardly against the side of the building on the corner of the street while faking casual conversation as they approached. The robed men changed their attack formation and began to strafe down the street as they crossed (often referred to as J-Walking). Their path was no longer directly towards us but rather, they were going to pass by us on their mission elsewhere. I felt somewhat relieved that we were not going to be the wrong end of their next argument. However, when they passed by us, one of them looked at our group and said something to the extent of “Y’all need to repent for not observing God’s work on the Sabbath.”
My friend and I looked at each other and immediately realized what just happened. We just got hit by a drive-by condemnation from a couple Pharisees! Our group was now faced with two options: proceed like nothing happened or chase them down to enter into a gospel-style debate. The decision went to a vote with gospel-style debate winning by a 2/3 majority.
This debate lasted for what seemed like 2 hours of aggressive scripture quoting from the Pharisees (who turned out to be Pharisaic Christians) pitted against a group of six Catholics desperately trying to remember the 10 Commandments. The main thrust of the Pharisaic Christians’ argument was that you must follow God’s commandments in order to get to heaven. If you do not know and follow His commandments then God “hates” you. Essentially, if you do not follow the rules then you are going to hell. Apparently we were not keeping the Sabbath holy by going out to eat with our friends… What’s wrong with a little holy leisure!?
Needless to say, it was not our best performance. We were under-prepared and slightly bloated from the guacamole. We struggled to respond to the robed men’s aggressive thesis of “You don’t know Jesus because you are breaking his rules by going out to eat on the Sabbath.” Unfortunately, this is the sad view of not only many Christians, but many atheists and agnostics as well. Christianity is just a bunch of rules from the Bible that you have to follow to get to heaven. With some post-debate reflection and a little help from Pope Benedict XVI, this is my response.
The Sabbath, nowadays, is almost seen as a type of mental health day for overall well-being. God knows that we can’t just keep working all the time so he built in a nice little day of rest for humanity. It is also seen as an excuse to be lazy. The ancient Jews just wanted an excuse to skip work and take a break for a little bit so they “kept the Sabbath day holy” by taking naps and watching Netflix. This is very far from the truth.
Humanity was made for the Sabbath, which is the first sign of the covenant between God and man. God created all things and saw that they were very good. He then rested with His creation; He consummated the first covenant by simply resting and being with us. We were created to be with God and creation in His eternal Sabbath rest. Adam, Eve, and Satan clearly had different plans.
Thus, the Jewish people were given rules in order to help them return to God’s plan for us in the Sabbath, because Original Sin was causing them to stray. The rules that were created around the Sabbath helped the Jewish people refrain from working and creating new things. Jews were called to rest, or refrain from creating, in order to celebrate creation just as God did on the seventh day. “Not working on the Sabbath is more than nitpicking ritual. It is a way of imitating God.” (Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus) The Sabbath rest, therefore, is the main sign of Jewish holiness because its purpose is to imitate God.
Jesus and the Sabbath
Jesus, throughout the gospels, is a notorious enemy of the Sabbath. The Pharisees were always hounding Him and His disciples for traveling, plucking, and healing on the Sabbath. Jesus is clearly breaking the Sabbath rules which can create some confusion for Christian readers. These texts are often construed as hippy, anarchistic Jesus tearing away the legalism of ancient Judaism and setting us free to follow virtue instead of law. However, Jesus clearly states His Sermon on the Mount “I have come not to abolish [the law and prophets] but to fulfill them.” How are we to take this?
The end of Matthew 11 and the beginning of 12 gives us Jesus’s teaching on the Sabbath. They are often disjointed and read separately so it is worth quoting in full here:
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. At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck ears of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 11:28-12:8)
I want to focus on the first and last sentence of this text. Jesus starts with a theme of rest which, remember, is what we are made for. The Sabbath is what gives us rest and helps us imitate God, but Jesus is replacing “Sabbath” with “I”. No longer is it “The Sabbath gives you rest”, it is “Jesus gives you rest.” Why? Because “the Son of man is lord of the Sabbath.”
Jesus is the new Torah
When we take Jesus’s teaching on the Sabbath and the Sermon on the Mount together we can see the heart of Jesus’s teaching on the Law. Jesus does not remove anything from the Law, however, He fulfills it by adding Himself to it. Jesus is the eternal Word of God fully present among us. “Jesus understands Himself as the Torah—the word of God in person.” (Jesus of Nazareth)
This changes the whole way that we see Jewish Law and the Sabbath. Jesus no longer tells us to follow the Law… He tells us to “follow me.” Jesus no longer tells us to find rest in the Sabbath but to find rest in Him “because the son of man is now Israel’s Sabbath: how we act like God.” (Neusner)
Therefore, Christianity is more than just a rule book; through the incarnation, the rules have become a person. The incarnate Christ is the living, breathing Word of God who manifests as more than just words on a page. If following the Law and imitating God through the Sabbath was the path to reuniting with God before Jesus came, our path is now imitating Christ who is both Law and Sabbath. To imitate him is to imitate his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Thus our Sabbath is now celebrating Jesus’s Paschal Mystery in the mass in hope of resurrecting and ascending with Him. On Sundays we are now called to rest and refrain from servile labor through prayer, sacrament, and celebration which bring us to union with the heavenly feast. Christianity is not a rule; it is an invitation from Jesus to participate in God’s eternal rest and eternal Sabbath in heaven.
Credit: the meat of this argument was paraphrased from Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth and Jacob Neusner’s A Rabbi Talks with Jesus.