Lord of the Sabbath?

Though I’ve already addressed Dinesh D’Souza’s most recent apologetic, there’s a point I’d like to return to for a more thorough discussion. A key point in D’Souza’s argument, and in the arguments of many apologists, is that Jesus was entitled to violate the Sabbath laws because they were his laws.

Neusner notes that Christ violates the old law, as when he says that actions are permitted on the Sabbath that were regarded as forbidden on the Sabbath. This is the basis of Neusner’s rejection of Christ as a fulfillment of the old covenant.

What gives Christ the right to change the old law? Neusner notes that Christ is not another liberal rabbi, seeking to bend the rules of the orthodox to make life easier for people. Rather, “Jesus’ claim to authority is at issue.” In effect, Christ claims to be “Lord of the Sabbath” and this provokes Neusner to ask, as if conversing with one of Christ’s disciples, “Is your master God?”

There are two points I would like to make here. The first is that Jesus’ violation of the Sabbath is more consistent with the conclusion that he is not God; and secondly, even if he were, it would be wrong for him to violate his own laws and thus set a bad example for the rest of us to follow.

Christians have been arguing for 2,000 years or so that Jesus’ conduct on the Sabbath was legitimate, on the grounds that he was Lord of the Sabbath. And it sounds plausible: if he’s the one that made the law in the first place, then he’s certainly entitled to change it.

The problem is, he didn’t change the law, and in fact he emphatically declared that the law could never be changed.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Then again, if he were God, why would he need to change the law? God is supposed to be omniscient, so He ought to be able to get the law right the first time. You could argue for a type of cultural relativism that says God’s law has to be adapted for each new generation in order to fit the times, but that, of course, would be liberalism. Or you could argue that Jesus didn’t try to change the law, he only wanted to change how people interpreted and applied the law. But this, too, is not consistent with the text of the Bible.

According to the Bible, Jesus taught that his disciples did not need to respect the Mosaic prohibition against working on the Sabbath as long as violating the Sabbath brought them some personal benefit.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.

There are a few things worth pointing out here. First of all, notice that the reference to priests working on the Sabbath is a red herring. They’re not violating the law when they do their job on the Sabbath, because the law tells them that they have special Sabbath duties as priests. The priests are obeying the commandment, but the hungry disciples, and King David, did what the law specifically forbade them from doing. And even Jesus admits that David’s actions were unlawful! It’s all well and good to take the liberal view that human needs have to come before a strict obedience to an unjust law, but in order for Jesus to take that view, he must implicitly declare that the law, as given, is less than perfect at best.

Notice, Jesus does not claim that what his disciples are doing is lawful. Instead, he justifies it by giving King David as a precedent for breaking the law to satisfy your hunger. Jesus may have done the right thing in condoning disobedience to the law, but in doing so he condemns the law and teaches others to break the commandments as well. The implication is that if he had written these laws, he would have written a more humane statute, one that didn’t need to be broken in order to meet fundamental human needs. But that’s not consistent with the notion that he himself did write the original law, because if the law truly reflected what he thought was important, why would he need to come along later on and violate it?

Of course the same objection could be made about the Old Testament God and His alleged declaration “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Duh, if you want mercy and not sacrifice, why did you command sacrifice rather than mercy? You could use this to argue that Jesus is the same God as Yahweh, but that leaves Yahweh as a rather confused and self-contradictory God, because Hosea 6, where this passage occurs, is condemning Israel for their failure to obey God! So here’s Jesus, taking a verse from a passage that condemns disobeying the law, and using it to argue that God doesn’t mind if you break the law. What’s a believer supposed to do? Does God want His law to be kept or to be disobeyed? For goodness sake, pick one and stick to it, at least.

The original law was quite clear, both in its intent and its application. No work (other than the priestly duties commanded by God) was to be done on the Sabbath, even if it was just building a fire to warm yourself on a cold, desert night.

While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses.

Notice there’s no “mercy not sacrifice” nonsense here. If Jesus were the LORD that originally gave Moses the commandments and showed him how to interpret them, then he ought to either be as strict in Matthew as he was in Numbers, or as merciful in Numbers as he was in Matthew. But instead we see two diametrically opposed approaches to the question of obeying the Sabbath law. In Numbers, obedience takes precedence even over human life, but in Matthew Jesus gives human hunger—not even human life, but just human hunger—precedence over the Sabbath law. God is supposed to be the same “yesterday, today and forever,” but Jesus’ attitude towards Sabbath-keeping is strikingly opposed to the LORD’s.

It’s just not very likely that Jesus was the original author of the laws he encourages people to violate, but even if he were, it would still be wrong for him to violate them and to teach others to do so also, especially considering that he himself condemned doing so. I mean, what kind of an example is that? The whole point of the so-called incarnation is to give us a perfect and sinless example of how men ought to obey God’s law, and yet the way Jesus lives that life is to disobey that law whenever it suits him. And it’s needless disobedience.

Jesus could have set a high standard of obedience to God’s law. He could have spent the Sabbath doing the things the law required of Him, and healed people the other six days. He could have multiplied his ministry by sharing gifts of healing with his disciples, letting healing spread exponentially through the land (six days out of seven). His disciples could have waited until they could get some other food that didn’t require breaking the law. Or better yet, their omniscient and divine Messiah could have planned ahead and made sure they had enough food with them so that they didn’t need to violate the law in order to get a decent meal. He could have given us an example of how to live a good live without having to violate God’s law every now and then.

But he didn’t, and to this day his followers continue to find new ways of applying his example of disobedience to their needs of the moment. Slander against unbelievers, lying under oath, refusal to submit to the authority of others even when it’s a legitimate authority. Pretty much anything goes, as long as you can imagine some spiritual rationalization for it. After all, if the Lord of the Sabbath doesn’t obey his own laws, why should anyone else feel obligated to do so?

No assessment of the so-called “moral excellence” of Jesus’ teachings can be fair and accurate unless it also considers the moral implications of his deliberate and unapologetic violation of a law he himself upheld as authoritative and inviolable. Far from being a moral leader so upright that he can only be a Liar, Lord, or Lunatic, Jesus gives us a much more mixed message, in terms of both his own personal conduct and in the conduct he condoned and defended in others. Rabbi Neusner hit the nail right on the head.

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