sabato 2 giugno 2018

«Sabbatum propter hominem ... non homo propter sabbatum»

We resume on this Sunday—the ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time—the reading of the gospel of Mark we had suspended on February before the beginning of Lent. The last passage we read was the healing of a leper. Jesus had just started his public ministry in Galilee, announcing the coming of the kingdom of God and inviting people to repentance. He had called his first disciples and performed his first miracles. But a conflict with the Pharisees had also broken out. In today’s gospel we see a couple of controversies about the sabbath.

The observance of the sabbath was very important in the Jewish religion. The third of the ten commandments decreed, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” In the book of Exodus this precept is justified in the following way, “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested.” In today’s first reading we have heard the same commandment, as it is presented in the book of Deuteronomy. It is interesting to notice that in this case the commandment is grounded not on creation, but on the liberation from Egypt, “Remember that you were once a slave in Egypt, and the Lord, your God, brought you from there with his strong hand and outstretched arm.” Even though the grounds are different, the precept is the same, “Six days you may labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord, your God. No work may be done then.” The commandment is clear, but little by little, especially after the exile, a series of interpretations had been added, which had made the observance of the sabbath very heavy and often against the common sense. 

In today’s gospel we find two incidents about the sabbath, the first regarding the disciples, and the second concerning Jesus himself. In the first case, the disciples are accused of breaking the sabbath because they are picking the heads of grain. Jesus defends them recalling what David had done: in case of need, it is possible to break a law. And he reminds us of an important principle, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Sabbatum propter hominem ... non homo propter sabbatum), which we could extend to any kind of law: laws exist for people and not vice versa. It should be an obvious principle; but the one who recalls it could be taken as subversive. That is why Jesus adds, “The Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” Since it had been God to give the commandment of the sabbath, by claiming his lordship on the sabbath, Jesus is putting himself on the same level as God.

The second episode concerns Jesus himself. They are watching him closely to see if he cures  the man with a withered hand on the sabbath and thus to accuse him. So, they know that Jesus performs miracles; but, instead of praising God for this, they spy on him, so as to accuse him. But Jesus unmasks their hypocrisy: he asks them, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” The Pharisees are worried because Jesus could heal a sick person—thus doing good—because this would be a kind of work and go against the law; but they do not realize that what they are doing on the sabbath—that is, spying on Jesus and planning his death—is evil; but they do not consider this against the law. That is why Jesus challenges them and cures the man with the withered hand. But it is useless. Indeed, it induces the Pharisees to ally themselves with their worst enemies, the Herodians, so as to put Jesus to death. When your heart is evil, the defense of the law is an excuse: you do not care about the law; your only purpose is to do evil. If your heart is good, you will try to observe the law, especially God’s law, with all your strength; but you will be always ready to break the law, when you realize that there is a greater law compelling you. Law is an incentive to do good, not a hindrance to it.