As humans who get tired, we need rest. God commanded a rest day for His people. As usual, God’s commandment is not for the purpose of laying a burden on us, but is for our benefit. A day of rest helps us to refresh and be ready for the days of work to come. If we are caught up in work and forget to rest, then we make ourselves slaves, which God does not want.
God took the Old Testament Sabbath very seriously. If someone worked on the seventh day, He commanded that they be stoned to death. In the New Testament era, we are not under that civil regulation. Yet we are still to take our rest seriously.
The Sabbath is also about worship. A day is made holy by preaching and hearing the Word of God. This gives rest for our souls, the spiritual rest by which we are refreshed and made ready for the work of our Christian calling. If we get caught up in other things and forget to attend to our spiritual rest, then we make ourselves slaves, whether we know it or not.
In our text from Saint Matthew, chapter twelve, the disciples were doing work, of sorts, by plucking heads of wheat and eating them. The Pharisees inflated the minimal work of the disciples, as if they were doing hard labor on the Sabbath. In this case, the Pharisees were clearly nitpicking. Similarly, if they had seen the disciples lift their spoons from plate to mouth they might have said, “Aha! You are doing work on the Sabbath.”
Jesus said that they were condemning the guiltless, because they did not understand that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Love must come before rigorous adherence to the letter of the law.
Yet it can be genuinely difficult to discern when mercy comes before sacrifice. The letter of the law is not nothing at all. We should not lightly dismiss the commandments on any pretext of love.
A modern example of this is when people say that we should allow for gay marriage because they love each other. They are saying that love trumps rigorous adherence to the law. So they think that they are taking the side of Jesus against legalistic Pharisees like us who hold to traditional marriage. The problem is, this is not a case of real love at all, but a twisted version of it.
A better example would be stopping to help a man in distress even when you are on your way to Sunday worship. This is essentially the example given in the parable of the good Samaritan.
Even the Pharisees allowed a man to lift a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath. Yet they did not want to help a man. We might imagine them as tree huggers who would save a thousand spotted owls before they would defend one human being. Of course, the Pharisees were not really environmentalists. They were simply so obsessed with outward obedience to the law that they put it before a neighbor in need.
In the Old Testament, the priest gave David bread which was forbidden by God for any but the priests to eat. But the priest understood that God prefers mercy to following the regulations of the sacrificial system. There was nothing wrong with the sacrificial system, since God established it in the first place. But He never intended it to get in the way of showing love to a neighbor in need.
When you are faced with a difficult choice between showing love to a neighbor or attending worship, ask yourself, “Is this really an example of love, or am I only using an excuse to avoid worship? Or am I using worship as an excuse to avoid showing love?”
Sometimes we are not able to tell the difference, and we must make our best guess. Even though we are educated by the Word of God, our sinful, befuddled minds cannot always see the truth clearly. So do your best, and then pray for forgiveness.
For us befuddled sinners who cannot see clearly, the Son of Man came as Lord of the Sabbath. He came to do His work as High Priest and give rest to our souls. He did not come to load us down with the heavy burden of more laws. He came not to snuff the smoldering wick, nor to break the bruised reed. He will not crush us who are weak and befuddled.
Even to us Gentiles, the most smoldering wicks of all, He has revealed the hope of His Name, by which alone we are saved. There is no other name of a Savior who was buried to sanctify the rest of our bodies in the tombs. There is no other name of a man who fulfills the law in our place perfectly. There is no other name of a Lord who was moved by tender compassion toward His enemies, so that He did not leave us crippled by sin. No, as He healed the man in the synagogue, even on the Sabbath, so Christ has healed us by His mighty Word. So He entered the pit of death to lift us sheep out of the same pit.
He did not come to draw attention to Himself, or to work for His own glory. He did not come to be a spectacular showman, who drew people to Him by how amazing He was. It would have made more sense to us if He had done this, since He could put on any show by His almighty power. He could have healed millions, and dazzled people with His splendid glory.
But instead He came to show mercy by healing us, both physically and spiritually. For us, He both gives the forgiveness of sins in His Blood, and the promise of resurrection to eternal health. All our withered hands and bodies will be made whole. Even our souls will be cleansed and purified, as even now they are declared righteous by God’s justice in Christ crucified.
May we therefore live appropriately to this new life He has given. May we neither excuse lawless transgression, nor fail to show mercy when it is needed, as we have received mercy. Most of all, may we keep Christ Jesus before our eyes by continually returning to this Sabbath rest that He gives in His Word.
In His Name alone, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God forever. Amen.
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