Nothing could be simpler, we often say, than when the Bible says something plainly and it’s right there in front of us in black and white. Or red and white, perhaps, depending on how some Bibles indicate the words Jesus said.
Like right here at the end of this passage, where John says, “Now, that day was a Sabbath.” This sentence is plain and straightforward, intended to tell us when Jesus healed this man and why it was going to be a problem for the legalists who opposed him. That’s what the Greek means and it just couldn’t be simpler.
Now read it out loud – as we know, once we say words out loud we can emphasize different words and give a simple sentence many meanings. This is the way I happened to see it when I began studying it: “Now that day was a Sabbath.” All of a sudden John’s plain ol’ declarative sentence about when becomes something more. Read that way, this sentence compares this Sabbath to others, and this one comes out looking better.
I don’t know that John meant for me to compare Sabbaths against one another, but now that my brain is working that way I’ll do so, even if it’s only to see what happens.
I do know that my usual way of reading a story where Jesus heals on the Sabbath is to see him as breaking the Sabbath rules. He does so for very good reasons, but most of the time I’ve still seen it as transgressing all of the laws and such the Sabbath has accumulated.
What if we don’t see Jesus as breaking the law, though? What if we see this story in light of his declaration in Matthew that he has come to fulfill the law? What he does on this Sabbath isn’t breaking the law, then. It’s fulfilling the law of the Sabbath. Somehow, what Jesus does here makes this more of a Sabbath than any of the laws anyone could ever dream up might do.
In order to see how that might be, let’s dig into the history of the Sabbath in the lives of the Jewish people. The first Sabbath is the seventh day of creation, when God stops working and contemplates what he has made.
Sabbath observance is a part of the ten commandments given at Mt. Sinai. “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy,” meaning keep that day set apart from other days. Later on in Exodus, that’s spelled out a little more. The people are to do no work, and neither are their servants and slaves. Heck, in Exodus 20:10, even the animals are given the day off.
Remember, this command comes to a culture that doesn’t have a 5-day work week. There is no “weekend.” Work, because much of the time it meant survival, went on all seven days. We work to get money -- the tool we need to buy food and shelter and clothing. They worked to get the food and shelter and clothing.
And nobody would know this better than nomadic wanderers like the Hebrews were when the law came to them. To skip an entire day of work was not normal and for people like them, could become a real problem.
On that day, the people were directed to reflect on God – on what God had done for them, on what God had made, on what God had given them, on how God cared for them. It was to be a Sabbath to the Lord. On that day, people were to set down the many tasks and labors they had in order to focus on God. They did this to show how they understood the reality behind the reality of everyday living. For them, God was in fact the source of their life and even more necessary than food and shelter and clothing.
The Sabbath was a break from all of that. It was a release, which is one reason why God’s command specifically gave servants the day off, too. And it was a sign of faith that one day would come the ultimate release from all of the day-to-day drudgery, at the hand of God.
This guy stuck on his mat knew what he had to do to survive – beg. He knew what he had to do to get healed – get to the water first after it had been stirred. He had been doing those things every day for thirty-eight years. When Jesus told him, “Stand up, take up your mat and walk,” he released the man from that endless cycle of labor. Sure, Monday he’d probably have to go get a job, but this was his first day of true rest in nearly four decades. So yeah. That was a Sabbath.
For you and me? Our Sabbaths may come on Sunday, or they may come some other time. We can sort of schedule them, but they come any time we step back from the busy-ness of what we have to do every day and remind ourselves that our true reality isn’t grounded in these things, but in God. Because that is a Sabbath, and that is the good news.