This week’s selection in our 52-week reading plan for The Gospel of Mark is short in length but long in depth. This quick teaching is essential, indeed foundational to any spiritual seeker journeying the unfortunately hazardous roads of organized religion.
“The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
Jesus and his entourage behave in a fashion that contradicts an interpretation of the fourth commandment made popular by the religious leadership.
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slaves, your livestock, or the immigrants in your towns.” (Exodus 20:8-10)
I remember once hearing a rabbi say: Sabbath helps us recognize that God is working even when we are not. The point of Sabbath, as I understand it, is two fold: 1) to provide people with the rest their bodies, minds, and spirits need, and 2) to remind people of their finite nature—the whole of the world is, in fact, not on our shoulders. Six days to labor. One day to rest.
Yet there remains a problem with Sabbath. The systemic problem present in the organized religion pictured in the pages of Gospel narrative is the same systemic problem lived out and condemned in organized religions today. Too often we, religious leaders (myself included) take spiritual imperatives – universal truths that lead to personal and societal health and wholeness, like Sabbath – and present them as exclusive offerings. Because our egos and livelihoods are tied to institutional viability, we clergy are tempted to act as if people were made for the good of our organized religion, and not, as it should be, our organized religion is made for the good of people. When this happens, among various evils, worship becomes a production, and relationships take a back seat to attendance and financial numbers.
This is not to say organized religion is beyond hope. Rather, there are many good, helpful, inspiring faith communities, large and small, and the trait they all have in common is the belief that they, and their creeds and practices, exists solely for the enlargement of life.
In the end, and reverting back to the beauty of Sabbath, I’m reminded of poetic imagination of the great 19th century preacher Henry Ward Beecher who said, “A world without a Sabbath would be like a [person] without a smile, like a summer without flowers, and like a homestead without a garden. It is the joyous day of the whole week.”