A Day of Quieting the Heart

Ordinary Sunday 9: 3rd June, 2018
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Mark 2:23 – 3:6

The Hebrew noun "Sabbath" is derived from a verb meaning "to cease, terminate, or be at an end." It is a word derived itself from a much older language, ancient Babylonian, where the word "Sabbattu" refered to "a day of quieting of the heart." It is a very ancient practice to set aside a day for rest and quiet.

In the Hebrew culture, over time, this concept of a day for quieting, ceasing, resting became highly sophisticated. It is a divine imperative, from the Creation itself: "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested .... So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation" (Gen. 2:1-3).

It is one of the Ten Commandments that Moses brings down, carved in stone, from the mountain: "Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God .... Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand ... therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day" (Deut 5: 12-15).

Setting a hedge around the Law, just in case one might break a commandment by mistake, the Rabbinic tradition over time defined 39 activities or "melakhot" forbidden on "shabbat". These are divided into four categories:

  • The Order of Bread — such as planting, reaping, winnowing, grinding, cooking.

  • The Order of Garments — covering tasks such as shearing, spinning, weaving, sowing.

  • The Order of Hides — things like trapping, slaughtering, curing, cutting.

  • And the Order of Construction — everything from writing, to building, demolition and lighting a fire.

Our Lord's conflict with the Pharisees was over the Order of Bread. Jesus and his disciples were allowed to walk up to about a kilometer on the sabbath, and they were wandering through a field of grain. Deuteronomy 23:25 permitted travellers to graze from a field, but not on the day of rest; even plucking heads of grain as they walked was seen as reaping. "Look," the Pharisees point out, "why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?"

In reply, our Lord evokes a classic rabbinic response. It was common for rabbis to argue over King David's flagrant breaches of the Law. For example, when he and his companions were hungry, they ate the bread of the presence that only the priests were permitted to eat (1 Samuel 21). Jesus quotes another rabbinic saying: "the sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath" but then goes a step further "so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath." Mark doesn't note the Pharisee's response, but the next passage makes it clear that there was a growing and seething anger towards this arrogant man who seemed to be setting himself above the Law.

The healing of the man with a withered hand was the final straw. This is the fifth and final conflict story at the start of Mark's gospel. In direct opposition to the Pharisees who are watching his every move, he again breaks sabbath and cures the man. From this point they start conspiring against him, plotting his destruction.

Although our Lord rattled the Pharisees by pushing at the edges of the Law, he was an observing Jew. Christians and Jews to this day observe the sabbath in some way, above all making the time to attend worship. It is only fairly recently that observation of the sabbath has become something of an anomaly in Western Society. I remember as a child when most shops were shut on a Sunday; some still do. There is a lovely story of the English cricket team arriving in New Zealand for a test match, and being interviewed by the press. The captain famously noted that "we arrived in New Zealand on a Sunday, and it was shut."

I don't think that we should follow Fiji, even if we had to power to do so, and impose a sabbath law; but I do think that we have lost something as a society now that Sunday has become just another busy day of the week for so many. Whether others observe a day of rest or not, the Babylonian word "Sabbattu" or "a day of quieting of the heart" resonates with me. We can all observe that, however busy the world is around us. That's what we are doing today in worship; intentionally quietening our hearts together. It is a good thing to do, a healthy thing for us as human beings to quieten our hearts at least one day a week.

An old man would sit motionless for hours on end in church. One day a priest asked him what God talked to him about. "God doesn't talk. He just listens," was his reply. "Well, then what do you talk to him about?" "I don't talk either" he said, "I just listen." (Anthony de Mello, The Prayer of the Frog).

Alae Taule'alo