The Elves skip the “Sabbath controversy” in both Matthew and Luke and instead rely on the more complete story told in Mark. The Jesus Seminar scholars propose that the story in Mark includes a saying that goes back to the historical Jesus, which is much more inclusive, and has a much more universal focus than the later interpretations in the shorter quotations in Matthew and Luke. The shorter version omits Jesus’ argument in Mark about the sabbath day being created for Adam and Eve, not Adam and Eve for the sabbath. The difference is that when the whole saying is quoted, the “son of Adam” can be understood to refer to all of humanity. In Matthew and Luke, the “son of Adam” in Matthew’s shorter saying refers to the apocalyptic “son of Adam” (or “Man”) from the prophecy in Daniel 7. The Jesus Seminar scholars maintain that Jesus himself was not about apocalyptic judgment; it was the gospel writers after the fall of Jerusalem who interpreted Jesus’ sayings in that light.
Indeed, Matthew says, “Yet I say to you, someone greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘It’s mercy I desire instead of sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned those who are blameless.” The temple had been destroyed, making it impossible to perform the daily ritual sacrifices. But that doesn’t matter because God prefers “mercy” – distributive justice – instead of sacrifice. Matthew says that Jesus is the one who is “greater than the temple.” Jesus is the apocalyptic “son of Adam” who is lord of the sabbath day. We might even imagine that the writer of Matthew knew very well the metaphor of Jesus himself as the ultimate sacrifice whose resurrection ushered in the radical mercy – the radical justice – of the kingdom or realm of God.
The problem does not lie with the Pharisees, but in the perhaps deliberate misinterpretation of the original story. If Mark’s version can be assumed as definitive, Jesus’ original point was that the sabbath was made for “humankind,” as the NRSV puts it, not “humankind for the sabbath.” “Humankind” is an inclusive word, which goes far beyond the apocalyptic intervention that is implied in Matthew’s later retelling. Mark’s Jesus empowers Adam and Eve to participate in the sabbath rest that God established for them on the seventh day of creation. Matthew’s Jesus tells the pharisees that their temple sacrifices are irrelevant, because the Son of Man – the one “coming with the clouds of heaven” in Daniel 7:13-14 – is lord of the sabbath.
Then to prove his point, he has his Jesus warn the people not to tell anyone who he is, so that Isaiah’s prophecy will come true. It is in his rephrasing of Isaiah 42:1-4 that the hope for justice for everyone– which is immediate and apparent in Jesus’ words in Mark – is later extended to the “nations” or “gentiles.” The bad news is that “the son of Adam” may “lord it over the sabbath,” but experience to date has shown that if we have to wait for him to come again and reclaim it, we’ll have to wait a long time.
Twenty-first century, corporate-enslaved workers might be tempted to side with the Pharisees in Matthew’s story. While the law forbidding any kind of work on the Sabbath may occasionally be inconvenient (the grocery store is closed; the doctor is unavailable to write a new prescription for your arthritic hands) at least the boss can’t require you to put in extra hours harvesting wheat, or herding livestock. The way things work today, the more you produce, or the greater your marketing effectiveness, the more you will be required to be on-call 24/7. The boss can email or text you at any time and demand to know what you have done for him or her lately. Maybe if you made a few Saturday or Sunday cold calls, your stats would be even better, and the boss can prove what an inspirational leader s/he is – no credit to you, of course. If you’re in a salaried service job, and the hourly service employees have been restricted to week-day only (due to the economy) of course you will fill in where needed at no additional cost to the corporation bottom line. To decline to work on the Sabbath is detrimental to your personal career advancement.
Jesus’ original purpose was to live in covenant with God’s radical, distributive justice-compassion. The “sabbath controversy” is an illustration of how to reclaim that radicality from its normal erosion by conventional social customs. Matthew’s Pharisees – religious leaders and scholars – robbed the concept of sabbath of its rest and renewal with their rigid insistence on the letter of the law. Post-modern, post-enlightenment “rationality” has progressively robbed humanity of the very concept of sabbath rest itself. At least the early days of the industrial revolution in the Western world kept Sunday sacrosanct. Despite the horrible working conditions – child labor, endless hours with no breaks, low wages, unsafe environments that led to fires, amputations, illnesses, and death – at least there was Sunday and a chance for respite, if only for a day.
The union movement brought essential reform in working conditions, work rules, fair wages, and prohibitions on child labor. But now, in the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, unions represent only 7% of the workforce in the United States. Hard won protections and workers rights are under attack by not only corporate interests, but by the low-wage, ill-informed, poorly educated, and intimidated employees of coal companies, oil companies, big pharma, health care conglomerates, and big-box retail. Labor laws, formerly taken for granted even in non-union shops, are disappearing, especially wage and hour laws, workplace safety laws, and even child labor prohibitions.
Oppression is more than bending or ignoring legal requirements and safety regulations. Required overtime – whether or not it is paid at mandated time-and-a-half rates – takes a measurable and provable toll on human lives. Bloomberg News reports a study published April 4 by the Annals of Internal Medicine, which found that “adults who worked 11 hours a day or more had a 67 percent higher risk of developing coronary disease than those who worked an 8-hour shift.” The study shows that stress levels, sleeping, eating habits, and exercise must be considered when doctors determine their patients’ risk for heart disease. It’s not enough to switch to Special K.
The injustice perpetrated by the pharisees in today’s corporations are the opposite to what Jesus was countering as he and his disciples stole corn out of the fields, pulled sheep out of ditches, and restored crippled body parts to wholeness on the sabbath. It took specific acts of Congress to ensure that single mothers with sick children, fathers with newborns, or family members charged with caring for dying relatives would not be penalized for missing work. Lip service is freely given to the concept of “balancing family and work time” or to respecting religious holidays, but to claim those rights is to risk your place on the career ladder, if not your job.
Corporations such as BP, Massey Energy, and Wal-Mart continue to ignore or circumvent wage and hour laws and ignore environmental and safety regulations even when the workers are members of a union. If the “big boys” claim profitability and the bottom line in an adverse economy as their excuse for oppressing workers, how much more can smaller companies get away with? Despite the laws, forcing corporations to comply with the OSHA or MHSA regulations, the Family Medical Leave Act, or the Americans with Disabilities Act takes determination, organization, and a lawyer.
“The Pharisees went out and hatched a plot against [Jesus] to get rid of him,” writes Matthew, but not for healing people on the sabbath. He was getting in the way of business-as-usual.