Because of our conditioning in The Human Paradigm, we tend to think about life in terms of dos and don’ts, or rights and wrongs. This approach actually leads directly into grumbling and complaining because, in The Human Paradigm, we will likely approach Sabbath (as we do with any practice) with the question, “Am I doing it right?”
Thinking in terms of right and wrong is helpful for our human development. Children need a clear sense of right and wrong if they are to develop as human beings. But it’s also important for us to see that Jesus’ primary orientation to life is not about right and wrong but instead about life and death. Jesus is about eschewing death and embracing life.What’s “wrong”in Jesus’ book is anything that leads to death; what is “right” is what leads to life—spiritual, emotional, and physical.
This means that, while God is certainly fully concerned with morality, he’s not interested in mere rule-keeping, which is a substitute for morality. He is ultimately concerned about life and death. Thinking in rights and wrongs is really just a set of training wheels until we are mature enough to dwell in the life of God, after which rights and wrongs will naturally take care of themselves.As Paul says succinctly, “Love fulfills the requirement of the Law.”If you live in God’s love, your heart will naturally forsake evil and cling to all that’s good and beautiful.
When Jesus and his disciples are confronted by some rigid religious folk for breaking the Sabbath by picking and eating grain, Jesus confronts their limited paradigm of right and wrong with the bigger paradigm of life and death.He says:
Haven’t you read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God, and he and his companions broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. And haven’t you read in the law of Moses that the priests on duty in the Temple may work on the Sabbath? I tell you, there is one here who is even greater than the Temple! But you would not have condemned my innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’For the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!
Jesus challenges the religious leaders’ merely normative approach to morality—which is a focus on right and wrong—with a focus on situational wisdom, which requires a willingness to transcend mere rule-keeping in the pursuit of abundant life.This sort of wisdom can befuddle rigid religious folk. It requires a real dependence on the Holy Spirit, not just a “paint by numbers” approach to spirituality.
The point of Sabbath, then, is not to “do it right,” but rather to ground us in life so that we can give life for others. This is true for any spiritual practice; we know it’s working not when we are doing it “right” but when it’s producing freedom in us and then for others, through us.
Echoing Dueteronomy 30:15-20.
Cf. Galatians 3:24, Romans 13:8-13.
Within Second Temple Period Judaism, there were all sorts of unwritten laws about what constituted “work,” and picking grain was included on the list.
For more on normative versus situational and existential approaches to ethics and morality, see the work of John M. Frame. For example: http://frame-poythress.org/a-primer-on-perspectivalism/ [May 8, 2017.]