One of the more obscure titles applied to Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament is “Lord of the Sabbath.” Unlike “Messiah,” “Lamb of God,” and other such designations, this one deserves attention because it is one of the few that Jesus bestowed upon himself. The story behind it appears in three parallel gospel narratives. Jesus was engaged in one of his frequent skirmishes with the Pharisees, a Jewish sect noted for its strict observance of religious law. The Pharisees had objected because Jesus’ disciples had stopped in a field to pluck heads of grain when they were hungry. This occurred on the Sabbath, when it was forbidden to do any work. Jesus defended them by telling the Pharisees, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Then he added, in an apparent reference to himself, “The Son of man is lord even of the Sabbath." This sort of statement could hardly have endeared him to the Pharisees, who would almost certainly have regarded it as blasphemous. After all, it was the Lord God Almighty who ordained the Sabbath after he had ceased his labors on the seventh day of creation. For Jesus to proclaim himself to be the lord of the Sabbath was as good as proclaiming himself to be God – or so it would seem.
As portrayed in the New Testament, the Pharisees come off a bit like the muttawa in present-day Saudi Arabia, the clerical police whose mission it is to keep the sexes strictly segregated in public places and to make sure women don’t drive automobiles, among numerous other religious edicts. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day delighted in trying to trip him up over obscure points of Jewish law. They were particularly zealous in their enforcement of Sabbath requirements, which were far more extensive than anything found in the Bible. The actual commandment states only that Jews were to keep the Sabbath holy and to do no work, which left plenty of room for interpretation. Over the succeeding centuries, rabbis weighed in on precisely what was meant by “work” and how this requirement should be applied to all aspects of everyday life. Their rulings were collected and codified in the Talmud, which identified 39 separate classifications of work, with innumerable permutations and commentaries on each. Altogether two volumes are given over to such minutiae, with an entire chapter devoted to the tying and untying of knots on the Sabbath.
Every spiritual tradition is beset by hardcore believers who confuse slavish adherence to dogma and ritual with genuine religious devotion. The muttawa in Saudi Arabia harass women for wearing nail polish and wage war against Valentine’s Day. Even Christians, for whom Pharisees were the embodiment of legalistic excess, are themselves prone to the same malady. Mark Twain, who had chafed at his hard-shell Presbyterian upbringing, once groused that “my ancestors used to roast Catholics and witches and warm their hands by the fire; but they would be blanched with horror at the bare thought of breaking the Sabbath…”
Jesus did not hesitate to flout the rules on occasion but made it clear that he was bound by a higher law. When the Pharisees demanded to know why his disciples transgressed the tradition of the elders by eating without washing their hands, Jesus replied, "And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” When criticized for healing on the Sabbath, he pointed out the absurdity of rules permitting care for farm animals but not for human beings. After healing a crippled woman, he told the Pharisees, “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?"
Thanks to religious zealotry, the Sabbath itself had become a form of bondage, even though the Lord had established it to liberate people who had been slaves in Egypt from the need to labor seven days a week. The word Sabbath comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to cease” or “to rest.” The entire commandment, as delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai, amounts to only four verses in the Book of Exodus and can be summed up as follows: "Get some rest." If you are true to the spirit of the commandment, there is no need for scholarly volumes on which knots may be lawfully tied or untied on the Sabbath.
The key to Jesus’ teachings on the Sabbath – indeed, on all matters pertaining to religious law and custom – is that they were made for humanity, not the other way around. This grows out of a basic understanding about humanity’s place in creation. According to the biblical narrative, we are made in God’s image and given dominion over creation. “Dominion” means lordship; we are given lordship over creation. Jesus’ statement that “the Son of man is lord even of the Sabbath” should be understood in this light. We are lords of God’s creation, and when our work is done, we are entitled to a day of rest.
Mark Twain, “The Shah as a Social Star”
Exodus 20 8-11