As Lent approaches, this Sunday concludes the continuous reading of Mark, which will not resume until the first week of July. The Gospel portrays two Sabbath controversies, which end with the plot of Pharisees and Herodians "to destroy" Jesus, an anticipation of the Passiona helpful lead-in to the Lenten season.
The reading from Deuteronomy lays out the legislation for the Sabbath rest from work for all people, including "slaves" and "aliens," in remembrance of the people’s liberation from Egypt, where they too had been slaves and aliens. In other passages the Sabbath rest is also a commemoration of the divine "rest" from creative activity on the seventh day (Gen. 2:1-3), crystallized in the Fourth Commandment of the Decalogue (Ex. 20:8-11). The Sabbath is a day of rest from all work in order to celebrate and remember God as creator and liberator.
This double significance of the Sabbath provides the tension in the Gospel readings. In two places Jesus offends Pharisees by seeming to violate the Sabbath rest when he provides food for his disciples and heals a man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were known for their dedicated and strict observance of the law by creating a great number of prescriptions that formed a "fence around the law," guarding it from any direct transgressions. These disputes do not represent an attack on Judaism, but an inner-Jewish debate in which Jesus invokes the liberating meaning of the Sabbath against a strict interpretation of the command to rest. Both responses of Jesus are summarized in the ringing cry, "The Sabbath was made for humans; and not humans for the Sabbath" (my translation). The Sabbath rest prescribed in Deuteronomy was to provide an opportunity for all people, including the most marginal in society, to recall God’s liberating love for suffering humans. Jesus as "Son of Man," who will ultimately give his life as a "ransom" for others (Mk. 10:45), gives a new dimension to the Sabbath rest.
These readings present a prophetic challenge to the church today. The Sabbath (Sunday) rest has virtually disappeared in our mercantile society as that day becomes often simply another occasion to "shop until you drop." Today those most likely to be forced to work on Sunday are among the must vulnerable in our society, immigrants (the resident alien of the Bible), single parents, poor service workers. Far from absolving contemporary Christians from Sabbath obligations, Jesus’ actions herald the true observance of the Sabbath as an occasion to create time for God, to think of the vulnerable in our midst and to counter individually and collectively the destruction of the "Lord’s day."