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Tony's Reflection 37
Can you remember the “old-fashioned English Sunday”?
Everything was closed. The only retail therapy you could do was window-shopping. In the late 1960s, as a very small boy, I remember calling on my friends to ask them out to play football. The parents, who were strict Methodists, answered the door and were horrified. “Don’t you know it’s Sunday,” they said, “you don’t play football on Sundays!”
Ingenious traders came up with loopholes, to work their way around the arcane Sunday trading laws. Carrots were one of the few things you were allowed to sell. One furniture store set itself up to sell vegetables as well. On a Sunday, they would sell an individual carrot for hundreds of pounds with a three-piece suite (which was what the customer really wanted) as a giveaway.
Back in Jesus’ day, the sabbath, or rest day, was on a Saturday, but the rest day rules were just as confusing as anything we used to have in England. Everyone knows to keep a day of rest you have to stop work. But what counts as “work”? One extreme sect reckoned going to the toilet was “work”. (In those days you had to bury what you did and digging the hole was “work”.) Their followers weren’t even allowed to relieve themselves on a sabbath.
Keeping the sabbath was a big deal, back then.
We need a little history lesson…
1500 years earlier than Jesus, his ancestors as a nation had been slaves to the King of Egypt. They worked 24/7 providing the manual labour on huge building projects. Every day was the same. Brickmaking. Impossible quotas to be reached. You worked until you were exhausted, then the next day you did the same. And the day after. And the day after that. Work only stopped when you were dead. Life under the King of Egypt was savage, cruel and short.
Then God stepped in and set his people free from the King of Egypt. They were now under God as King. Under the King of Egypt they had repressive, unending work. Under God, it was different. He gave everyone a day off every week, to remind them how different it was to have him as king, rather than the King of Egypt.
God was so keen that all of his people would always have the joyful liberty of a day off a week, to remind them of his generosity and kindness, that he made it law for his people.
Now, wind forward 1500 years.
That law is still in force. It’s not about celebrating God’s kindness any more, though. In the early days it had been about resting from work, recreating and having fun. Instead of encouraging people to enjoy God’s generosity, the religious fanatics are just keen to clampdown on working of any sort and make sure nobody dares break the rules.
Rule keeping has taken priority over celebrating God’s kindness.
Just as the modern paparazzi are always keen to catch high-profile public figures doing something they shouldn’t, so the Pharisees, the self appointed guardians of what was religiously right and proper, were keen to catch Jesus’ disciples doing something they shouldn’t.
It was sabbath and Jesus’ disciples were hungry. As they wandered through a field, they started to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and nibble on the seed.
Grinding grain? That was work. You couldn’t work on the sabbath. The Pharisees pounced. His followers had been caught red-handed working on the sabbath and breaking the Sabbath law. At last they had caught Jesus out.
Their faces drop and their anger rises as Jesus answers.
“God isn’t the kind of petty bureaucrat, who wants to see people go hungry for the sake of keeping rules about rituals,” he says.
“Sabbath was made for people to enjoy, so let people enjoy it.”
What Jesus said so far would have got their goat. It was direct and simple, totally discrediting their position. Another reminder that “Jesus religion” is more like a wedding party than a funeral. It was the kind of reply, though, that any Jewish teacher could have made.
What came next, though, was utterly outrageous. It made the Pharisees incandescent.
“The Son of Man is Lord, even of the sabbath.”
“Son of Man” was Jesus’ humble, self-effacing way of referring to himself and his authority. He said it gently, but his message was unmistakable.
He wasn’t just any other teacher, commenting on the true meaning of sabbath. He was God’s unique representative. As such, he had the authority even over the sabbath.
“How can he possibly say this,” raged the Pharisees. “God set up the sabbath, so only he has authority over it…”
As they would see, this Jesus was more than a teacher. More than a spokesperson for God. He was acting as God himself.