Saturday, February 5, 2011

How much more so...

Parasha Va’era - Gospel: Matthew 12:1-12   Sabbath
Context: Jesus had already riled the Pharisees with his healing on the Sabbath:
John 9:14-16 “Now it was a Sabbath when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also asked him again how he had received his sight. He said to them, "He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and I see. Therefore some of the Pharisees said, "This Man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath." Others said, "How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?" And there was a division among them.”
They were given another chance to go after him when His disciples were caught picking and eating grain in a field on the Sabbath. These paparazzi-like informants apparently followed this band incessantly. Like referees at a football game, they threw down the flag when they saw the infraction. What is at stake is the Messiahship of Jesus, for if He is found to break the Torah, then He is a sinner.
Matthew 12:1-8
“At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, "Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!" But He said to them, "Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: "how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? "Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? "Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. "But if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless. "For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
There are three basic issues; I will go through each one:
1. Does picking, rubbing, and eating grain constitute work?
2. Who is the One that is greater than the Sabbath?
3. Who is the Son of Man that is Lord even of the Sabbath?
I first heard this portion of scripture expounded from a Hebraic perspective by Steven Notley in Zeeland, MI (he was a special speaker). Steven is a professor of Biblical Studies at the New York City campus of Nyack College and is a member and past director of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research.
His treatment of the parable is echoed in FFOZ’s Torah Club, Volume 4, Va’era.
Let’s look at these 3 points again:
1. The rabbis, in the Oral Torah, had derived 39 categories of work from the labor that was involved in making the tabernacle. Reaping, threshing, and winnowing grain are on the list of prohibited categories of work. Jesus did not deny that they were doing work, and He did not use the occasion to put down the Oral Torah. He instead pointed them to I Samuel 21:1-6 where David is given the special showbread from the Tabernacle. Did David sin in this act? No, it was justified because he and his men were hungry. In a similar fashion, the priests have to work every Sabbath. By divine sanction they are exempted from the rule. Are the disciples exempted from the rule? Jesus thinks so, because human need trumps rigid rules. But this is not saying that Jesus has a flippant view of the Sabbath. The commandment was made for man and in most cases, Jesus would uphold its intended application. But it is not a “letter of the law” interpretation; the Spirit of the matter is flexible and bow to common sense. 
2. Who is the “One” that is greater than the Sabbath? Christianity capitalizes the One and says it means Jesus. He is greater than the Sabbath and He can do anything He wants. While this is true, the logic goes deeper than that. Transitivity is a key property of equivalence relations; that is to say, if a=b, and b=c, then a=c. Substituting:
(Human Need) > (Temple Service)
(Temple Service) > (The Sabbath)
(Human Need) > (The Sabbath)
“Something greater than the Sabbath” is referring to human beings, such as the disciples. 
3. Who is the Son of Man that is Lord even of the Sabbath?
Son of Man (capitalized) is often used of Jesus as the Son of God. But it can also mean “son of man”, as in a human. There is a strong parallel in Rabbinic literature to the idea that preserving human life takes precedence over observing the Sabbath. While eating some grain is hardly the same as saving a life, Jesus brings the application down to that level. He summarized it all by saying that the “Sabbath was made for Man” and not the “Sabbath for Man”. This was not new thinking; here is a quote from the Mekilta on Exodus 31:14 “The Sabbath was given to you, you were not given to the Sabbath.”

Jesus tests our thoughts and intents; not to trick us, but to show us our need to see things from His perspective. After explaining why it is acceptable for His disciples to “work” on the Sabbath, He gives them another chance to put His insights into practice.  "But if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless.” 
Mat 12:9-14
“Now when He had departed from there, He went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him, saying, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?"—that they might accuse Him. Then He said to them, "What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? "Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." Then He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other.”
Jesus uses classic Rabbinic logic in the expression “ Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep?” This is called in Hebrew Kal Vechomer (Light to Heavy). One starts by proving a minor case and then extending its logic to a major case. If it is permissible to do good to an animal in need, than how much more appropriate is it to do good to a man...” The Bible has many examples of this technique in use. But the lessons fell on deaf ears.
“Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him.”
Did Jesus break the Sabbath? No, because it is a flexible commandment. Did Jesus do away with the Sabbath? Definitely not! It was made for our benefit. Did Jesus come to do away with the commandments? No, He came to give them their proper (God intended) interpretation. It is not for Christianity to use these types of examples as justification to put down the Sabbath or any commandment. We too have to remember that they are made for all of us for our own good.

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