The Sabbath Was Made for Man, 2 — R.S. Notley

Jesus concludes his argument with a summation of the relationship between the Sabbath and humanity. The form of the saying is most clearly preserved in Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the son of man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

The common Christian interpretation which understands Jesus to claim to be “the Lord of the Sabbath” makes little sense in the context. It is inconsistent with the line of reasoning outlined in Jesus’ previous three points of justification. Moreover, Jesus’ relationship to the Sabbath has no direct bearing on the defense of his disciples’ actions. It is not Jesus who husked the grains, but his disciples. Instead, the enigmatic title — son of man — on this occasion possesses the simple Hebraic sense, “human being,” and refers to his disciples as representatives of humanity.

Scholarship has widely recognized the parallels between Jesus’ statement in Mark 2:27 and a nearly identical statement in the Mechilta on Exodus 31:14.

There are Sabbaths on which you must rest and there are Sabbaths on which you should not rest. R. Simon b. Menasia says: Behold it says: “And you shall keep the Sabbath; it is holy [i. e., dedicated] for you” (Exod. 31:14). This means:

The Sabbath is given to you but you are not given to the Sabbath.

However, few scholars have noted that this saying appears together with the discussion about the Temple service a few lines earlier. As we stated, the concurrence of these two notions in the Mechilta and the Gospels underscores the probability that they existed together independent of Jesus and the Jewish midrash. They belong to an ancient Jewish homily which addressed the role of the Sabbath in the life of the people of Israel. It seems that this homily was drawn upon by both Jesus and the compiler of the Mechilta to convey their respective messages.

Our study has brought attention to the integration of Jesus’ argument with contemporary Jewish notions. He was no rogue rejecting the Jewish opinion regarding the sanctity of the Sabbath. Instead, he tried to balance the importance of God’s instruction with the extenuating demands of the human setting. His four arguments indicate a sophisticated line of reasoning which was rooted in contemporary Jewish interpretation of Scripture and developing notions of Jewish humanism. This latter sphere tried to take into account the frailty of the human condition and interpreted the requirements of God’s commands such that they did not overly burden the individual. As Jesus put it: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me… For my yoke [i. e., my teaching] is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:29-30). According to contemporary Jewish opinion, the sanctity of the Sabbath was superseded by the sanctity of human life. Consequently, Jesus and the Sages of Israel agreed: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

See Jerusalem Perspective

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