Progressive reflections on the lectionary #20

Mark 2:23-3:6 Keep the Sabbath special?

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #20

I’m not very old (depends who you ask, I guess), but I’m old enough to remember vigorous campaigns to ‘keep Sunday special’ and other initiatives that tried to stem the tide of ‘creeping secularism’. I suppose that perhaps there are similar initiatives today, but they don’t seem to make a ripple - that boat has well and truly sailed.

The passage from Mark that we have in the lectionary today has Jesus courting controversy on the Sabbath, first his disciples pluck grains of corn to eat as they’re walking through the fields - some want to argue that this is a demonstration of the absolute financial poverty of Jesus’ disciples, such that they were so hungry they resorted to picking grains set aside as ‘peah’ - a portion of a crop that was intentionally left aside for the poor to harvest.

There are some difficulties with this idea - not least the amount of uncooked grains one would have to ingest in order to stave off a serious hunger. Those who want to make the poverty argument go on to say that this explains the point that ‘Mark’ is making when he has Jesus compare the situation with that of David eating the consecrated temple bread - but in that story David was seriously starving, and ate bread, lots of bread - not grains of corn. There’s a substantial difference there.

Instead, the point that Jesus seems to be making, or that Mark is setting Jesus up to make, is one about the Sabbath, what the Sabbath is and who it’s for.

After all - why else tell the story of the man with the ‘withered hand’ if not to challenge concepts of sabbath (and helpfully position Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees and Herodians)?

Whatever way you wish to take this - there are some interesting themes and avenues to explore. For instance, the central contemporary idea of Sabbath seems to revolve around a weekly act of ‘worship’ - whereas in second temple Judaism the emphasis seems to have been one of rest. There was no gathering on the Sabbath, no ritual or service to attend. This attunes with the Genesis idea, of course, of a ‘day of rest’ - but where did this concept come from? The earliest references to a Sabbath seem to stem from Babylonia, the 15th day of the month was marked in a Sumerian calendar as the sabattu - because their months were lunar, this would be the day of the full moon. But it wasn’t a day of rest, it was a day of ritual celebration of the moon, or at least that’s how it seems.

In any case, a day of rest for nomads wasn’t really possible, at the very earliest the culture of a day of rest could only have come when the early Hebrew community settled and began to practise agriculture. If you care to look closely at the Hebrew scriptures, the sabbath is often associated with the new moon, see for instance this passage in Amos, this one in Isaiah, and this one in Hosea.

So the whole religious idea of Sabbath seems to have shifted and taken shape over time, beyond and then within Judaism. When Mark’s Jesus encounters dominant social forces, and structures, that seek to cement an orthodoxy of teaching and tradition he subverts it, essentially asking ‘who is the sabbath for anyway?’

This blog is taken from Simon's Substack email series, to subscribe please go to https://simonjcross.substack.c...

Image: Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash


You must be logged in to comment.

Back to Blog