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Read: Matthew 12:1-8

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. Matthew 12:1

It has to be said. Many people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, Sabbath conjures up unhappy childhood memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside—forbidden to play or make any noise.

One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On the woman’s first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath day…

Although stories like this are becoming increasingly rare, they explain a lot about why many of us have negative associations about the Sabbath. Even our language gives away our attitude. We talk about observing or keeping or honoring the Sabbath. But how often do we talk about celebrating the Sabbath?
Hold on to that question a moment while we consider Jesus’ confrontation with the first-century version of the over-zealous neighbor lady.

In Matthew’s story, the Pharisees play the role of the Sabbath police. When they see Jesus’ disciples plucking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath, they threaten to write them a ticket for Sabbath breaking. Jesus is ready with a couple of citations of his own, however, and reminds them of a couple of important precedents. His closing argument is that the “Son of Man is lord of the sabbath” (v. 8). I’m sure that sent the Sabbath police scurrying back to the precinct…

What the Pharisees and the neighbor lady fail to understand is that Sabbath is more about “yes” than it is about “no.”

In an earlier installment of this series, we talked about Sabbath as God’s invitation to rest, tranquility, and delight. We can hear hints of this in the passage just prior to the one about the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath. It’s impossible to miss the power of Jesus’ appeal when he beckons to us and says,

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:28-30

I will give you rest. Now that’s a promise worth celebrating. And it’s an invitation we can’t afford to resist.

If you’re one of those people that has negative associations with Sabbath, try creating some positive associations instead. Imagine a sphere of space and time that’s been set aside especially for communing with God, each other, and the rest of creation. Explore what it means to celebrate Sabbath. Because at its heart, Sabbath is much more like a party in a beautiful place with people we love than it is a list of obligations. Maybe this is why the Sabbath is greeted like a bride in Jewish tradition. When “she” is with us, it’s a time of great joy and celebration—a time to savor each other’s company and give thanks for the beauty of life.

So, let the celebration begin. And what the heck…let’s invite the neighbor lady!

Prayer: Show us how to say yes to the Sabbath. Welcome us—as we welcome others—into that sphere of serenity, celebration, and delight. Amen

Carol Bechtel

Carol M. Bechtel teaches Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. She has taught there for forty days and forty nights. (That's Old Testament code for "a really long time.") She asked to write this series on Sabbath not because she is good at Sabbath, but because she knows she needs it. You can learn more about her and read more of her devotions at her web site, Manna: Bread for Your Spiritual Journey

One Comment

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Yes, a day of delight. A day to anticipate for it’s joy and refreshment. Jacob Milgrom wrote, “It occasions no surprise to learn that in the Babylonian exile, it was the Sabbath that attracted non-Israelites to cast their lot with the returning exiles (Isa. 56:2-6)and that by the end of the Second Temple period many Hellenistic communities had adopted the Sabbath as a day of rest. As claimed by Josephus, “there is not one city, Greek or barbarian, nor a single nation to which our custom of abstaining from work on the seventh day has not spread.” (Leviticus, Fortress) Oh, and Carol, to invite the nosy neighbor lady to celebrate – brilliant!

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