“Then he told them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.’” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Why do we have rules? What is their purpose? At the most basic level there are two purposes. One is to restrain. The other is to teach. These two are not mutually exclusive of one another. Some rules are intended both to restrain and teach. They restrain behavior that is bad while actively teaching behavior that is good. Good rules do this. Out of balance, though, things can get messy quickly. What we see here is Jesus teaching the Pharisees a lesson on the purpose of God’s rules. Let’s pay attention to it.
We live in the midst of a culture that is deeply divided over the rules. Who gets to make them and which rules should carry the most weight is a matter of fierce debate. While neither side is particularly quick to admit this, though, every rule is connected to and actively advances someone’s morality. To put that another way, all laws legislate morality. Conservative Christians who advocate for policies that are reflective of their worldview beliefs are often accused of doing this as if it is something out of the ordinary. Secular people do the same thing, they just aren’t as willing to admit it.
For the Pharisees in ancient Israel, the Law of Moses is what set out the standard of morality to which all good Jews were expected to adhere. If something was allowed by the Law, it was good to do. If it was forbidden, it was not, and that was that.
Now, by itself, this kind of a system isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It gives people a structure within which they can live their lives with some sense of when they are on track and when they aren’t. The problem in Israel was that the Law was complicated. Keeping track of what was what wasn’t easy. It also wasn’t always as explicit as some folks would have liked it to be.
For instance, when God said not to work on the Sabbath, conscientious devotees asked what counted as work. This was almost certainly not so they could get out from under the command, but rather so they could make sure they were living comfortably within it. For example, in a normal day, there are many things that have to happen. Do these count as work? Which of them do and which don’t? Just what exactly can I do and not do so that I am honoring God’s commands? They needed clarity.
So, later scholars and interpreters gave it. They defined 39 different categories of work each with multiple sub-categories. Now people could know exactly when they were in danger of crossing over the line of work so they could pull back and stay within the safe zones.
The problem was that these interpretations (and each command had many such interpretations) took what was already complex and unwieldy and made it worse. The average person couldn’t remember all of that. A rule that was originally intended to teach something to people had become entirely more about restraining behavior than commending something good.
When a rule becomes too complex for the average person to easily keep, a society begins to stratify into those who can keep it and those who can’t. The former look with scorn on the latter, while the latter are envious of and cynical about the former. As for the latter group, some strive to meaningfully keep the rule, thus advancing them into the ranks of the former group. The rest just give up and do whatever they want. Now, instead of accomplishing either of its aims, the law is doing exactly nothing. No one is benefited by this.
Here’s why all of this matters: When it comes to the Sabbath command, there has been a tendency throughout history since Moses first delivered it from God to treat it like some arbitrary standard for which God designed some people to fit. The Sabbath was the rule and God created a people to keep it. In this, the command became more about restraining behavior that anything else. It became a point of tyranny in the lives of the people. It is still sometimes treated like that. When professed followers of Jesus join the Pharisees on the path of legalism regarding the Sabbath (which some folks today mistakenly believe to be the day most Christians gather for worship…it’s not; Sabbath is Saturday, Christian worship is traditionally on Sunday, but there’s nothing to mandate that), people tend to tune them out and ignore the problem (and the people) entirely. No one benefits from this.
What Jesus said here served to turn this paradigm over on its head. The Sabbath was not some arbitrary command people were supposed to keep just for fun. It was given for our benefit to help us intentionally carve out space for worship and trust in the Lord. Or, as Jesus memorably put it, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
This rule was never primarily about restraining, but teaching. As a matter of fact, all of God’s rules are primarily about teaching. Yes, they sometimes restrain us—and indeed, because of sin, we sometimes need to be restrained—but this is never their primary purpose. God is for relationships with people first. Everything He does and allows is aimed in this direction.
The question we have to answer is this one: Are we willing to trust Him enough to do what He says? He’s proven Himself time and time again. Whether or not we accept His proofs are another matter. Just like Jesus wanted the Pharisees to understand, God is still for us. He gives rules (well, He gave rules) not because He’s trying to restrain us in anything, but rather because He understands the impact of our sinful nature, He knows He’s got to work carefully and quickly to minimize its impact on our lives. Thus the rules.
Keep this in mind above all else on this point: the rules, God’s rules, are always given for our good. God didn’t create us because He had some rules He wanted to be followed. He created us and wanted us to flourish to the utmost extent and so gave us some guidelines along the way that would help us down the path in that direction if we stuck with them. His goal is always what is best for us. Let’s trust Him and follow His lead.
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