Sunday May 29 – June 4 in Year B (Morgan24)

Sabbath Rest for the Whole Creation – Gabriel Morgan reflects on the connection between our busy-ness and care for creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

Readings for Sunday May 29 – June 4, Year B (2024, 2027)
Deuteronomy 5:12–15
Psalm 81:1–10
2 Corinthians 4:5–12
Mark 2:23–3:6

Three eco-theological themes are readily identifiable this week:

1) Sabbath rest is commanded not only for humans but also for animals, and even for the earth (see also Leviticus 25:1-7);

2) Blessing and salvation are cast in the imagery of an abundance of harvest and good food in the Psalm; and

3) God is pleased to place the glory of Christ in “earthen vessels.”

In the following commentary (though in no particular order), I’ll break down some exegetical points about all four assigned texts, name some preaching pitfalls (to borrow a phrase from Dr. Rachel Wrenn), draw together the eco-theological themes mentioned above, and suggest some Law and Gospel angles for preaching.

Sabbath Rest for the Whole Creation

The preacher would do well this week to really lean into the meaning of the Sabbath, in the wider biblical sense of rest, of ceasing from work and constant striving, and of coming before the God who provides rest in abundance of grace and earthly gifts. At the same time, we must not lose track of what the Sabbath has to say about Christ, who is “Lord of the Sabbath.” As Luther reminds us, these commandments are given to the Israelites and not to us, strictly speaking. Our calling is to hear them in terms of what they say about Christ for us. What is rest, how do we sense that we need it, and what does Christ have to do with it? The preacher should use this Law to pluck the strings of the Law of love that God has written on the human heart, call us to repentance for our violation of rest in God’s good gifts, and proclaim Christ as Sabbath rest not only for us but also for animals and for the entire earth.

I’ll begin, therefore, with the Gospel reading, where Jesus and the disciples are plucking grains of wheat during the Sabbath. When accused of violating the Sabbath, Jesus responds with the example of David eating the Bread of the Presence to show a precedent for their action. On one level, the Bread of the Presence is a symbol of the produce of the grain of the earth, displayed in a temple which in many ways symbolizes the garden of Eden and the whole creation, an abundant creation which is available to all regardless of private ownership and which is protected by numerous biblical laws (see e.g. Deuteronomy 23:25 and Leviticus 23:22).[i] This isn’t the central issue in the dispute, however. The comparison with David suggests not so much a general rule for everybody as an assertion that he has the authority, like David, to interpret and apply the law of the Sabbath as he sees fit.[ii]

In Mark 3 we have another dispute about the Sabbath, this time healing a man with a withered hand (from ξηραίνω [xeraino], meaning dried up or paralyzed). The people do not watch in neutrality, but some need healing, while others look for an opportunity to accuse Jesus.

The second episode relates to established debates in Judaism at the time about whether and to what extent one could provide help or aid on the Sabbath. On one level, Jesus appears to take a side in this debate. While some schools taught that aid should be provided only when someone’s life is at stake or might be at stake, Jesus appears to teach that aid in general is appropriate (although his question could be implying that this man’s condition could be life-threatening).[iii]

We must recall the two points Jesus makes in the earlier dispute, however: 1) the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath, and 2) the “Son of Man” is Lord of the Sabbath. The point about the Sabbath being for humanity, for our rest and our help, is not diminished by the second claim, but instead helps us to understand Jesus’s Lordship better: he is not one who imposes heavy burdens, but one who comes to relieve burdens and to heal (e.g. Matthew 11:28-30).

Christ is the Lord of the Sabbath not only in his authority to interpret and apply it, but also in that he completes God’s work and brings final peace. Although John and the synoptics disagree on which day of the month it was in the Jewish calendar, it should be remembered that all four gospels report that Jesus died on the “day of preparation” for a Sabbath, i.e. a Friday, and was at rest in the tomb on the Sabbath before rising the morning of the next day (Matthew 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:42). The preacher must not lose track of the death and resurrection symbolism present in Jesus’s disputes over the Sabbath. To perform healings and signs on the Sabbath is not only about Jesus bucking religious institutionalism; it is a sign of the resurrection life being born in the second creation. Through Christ the message of the Sabbath, of rest and peace in God’s good gifts, is meant for us even if the specific commandment of a Saturday observance was not given to us per se.

This helps to frame our approach to the reading from Deuteronomy. One pitfall when preaching from Deuteronomy is to go astray into excessive historicizing or a naïve literalism. It is important on the one hand to remember that Deuteronomy is more likely to be a stylized depiction rather than an account of Moses’s own sermon. Although ancient authors did at times record lengthy speeches, as Thucydides does in his History of the Peloponnesian War, most scholars agree that Deuteronomy is a later creative adaptation of the Mosaic Law into the voice of a single sermon. Therefore, the preacher should avoid basing anything on Moses as an historical figure. On the other hand, the purpose of Deuteronomy is for later generations of Israel to recognize that God’s covenant was made with them, with those who hear and are alive today, and not just with people from the past (Deuteronomy 5:2-4; cf. Numbers 14:20-23).[iv] This is absolutely true, regardless of how close or how far the final composition may be from its historical origins. The same dynamic is at play for us, who remember the Words of Institution each Sunday. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that the preacher leans into the content of the text as reaching beyond its own historical context to generations yet unborn (e.g. Psalm 22:30-31).

Our Jewish neighbors can help us understand this more deeply. A podcast I listened to last year helped me to relate the message of the Sabbath to our present, workaholic culture, an episode titled “Sabbath and the Art of Rest” by the New York Times columnist Ezra Klein.[v] In it, he had Rabbi Judith Schulevitz on to discuss her book, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, which argues that the observance of the Sabbath will never really work unless the community does it together. If everybody is constantly working and never takes a break, it exerts enormous pressure on everyone else to do the same thing, and thus the costs in our competitive capitalist culture are much higher for taking that break.

During the episode, they discussed a social experiment performed at Princeton in 1973, called the Good Samaritan Experiment. In it they asked what groups of people were most or least likely to stop and help someone who was obviously distressed or in need. The study showed that it wasn’t a lack of knowledge about the biblical stories, or a lack of virtue, that were most responsible for a refusal to stop and help. Rather, the study showed that it was those who were the busiest, who believed they were late to give a speech, that were least likely to stop and provide aid. So, it seems, the Sabbath really is for humanity.

It is not hard to take the next step and recognize that when we are hyper-busy, we are even less likely to stop and care for other life on earth. In the Eco Bible commentary series, Rabbis Leo Mark Dee and Yonatan Neril rightly note the industrial farm system in light of the call for Sabbath for animals as well as humans.[vi] Despite the fact that nature, on its own, is a “self-murdering system of survival” that, as a creation of God, appears to be God’s strange will, we are also called to view that natural world as something more, something also beautiful and harmonious in reflection of the Holy Trinity, as St Gregory of Nazianzus once argued.[vii] Luther also argued for a change of attitude toward animals and other creatures. In the Lectures on Romans, Luther writes, “anyone who searches into the essences and the functioning of the creatures rather [than] into their sighings and earnest expectations is certainly foolish and blind” since “he does not know that also the creatures are created for an end.”[viii] We are so busy working to churn out a profit and to feed ourselves that we profoundly abuse the earth and the life that shares this place we all call home, an especially egregious sin if we are meant to reflect God’s image in a way that rises above a mere struggle for survival. Animals in factory farms are abused in ways that are difficult to comprehend, and they endure suffering that is at times worse than what nature alone would inflict, from being crammed into small spaces in their own feces, to cages so small they cannot turn around, to disease, to witnessing each other being slaughtered, to mutilations. Except for those who have been lifelong vegetarians, we have all depended on the lives of these animals for our own lives, which have been sacrificed for us. Thus, we also have violated the Sabbath against these animals who have no relief. By seeking to change these systems, we bear witness to the life of the world to come, where the lion and the lamb lie down together, and the creation itself shares in the redemption of the children of God (Isaiah 11:6-9; Romans 8:18-23).

“The Marrow of Wheat” and “Honey from the Rock”

There is also a care for creation theme in the Psalm this week, as well as a Law and Gospel dynamic. The trouble is that the lectionary understandably stops at verse 10 for brevity. It captures the sudden, almost jarring transition from festival celebration and praise to prophetic critique: “hear, O my people, while I admonish you” (Psalm 81:8). Then the command to have no other gods is reiterated. After verse 10, we hear that the Israelites did not heed Adonai, and thus Adonai hardened their heart. Yet God promises quick renewal and protection for their repentance, with the last line promising “the marrow of wheat” and “honey from the rock.”

It is worth highlighting this because in the Psalms (as in many biblical texts) the imagery for blessing and salvation is often imagery of a bountiful earth, good food, and plentiful harvest. When our actions damage the earth in a manner that harms this bounty, we are stealing a blessing from others that God intends. And because we live in a world of such busy-ness, we are too busy to stop and heal it.

Psalm 81 is also thought to have been sung during the Festival of Booths.[ix] This is the festival during which the Israelites remembered the wanderings in the desert with the mobile tabernacle, but also the time of celebrating the abundance of the earth in the fall harvest. Moreover, after the return of the exiles it was also a time of celebration of the rededication of the temple with candelabras as symbols of divine light, and water poured over the altar. The Festival of Booths is also the setting for Jesus’s conflict with the religious leaders in John 7, which is also a dispute about healing on the Sabbath like Mark 3. For those preachers who subscribe to canonical interpretation, as I do, some inspiration may be drawn from this portion of John, which would again relate the meaning of the festival and its themes of a bountiful earth to the One who is the Bread from Heaven, the Light of Life, the Gardener of Creation (John 20:15).

“Earthen Vessels”

The epistle reading also has an eco-theological thread. The heart of this reading is how God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, what we call the theology of the cross. The imagery for our weakness, however, is “clay jars,” or “earthen vessels” in an older translation. We have the treasure of the light of God’s glory in the face of Christ, but we have it in these earthen wares, of his suffering body and ours. Made from the earth we also feel the pain of this earth in its present condition (Romans 8:18-23). The twist, however, is that our weakness leaves no room for doubt about Who does the work, and therefore Whose glory is revealed.

This means that rest for animals and for the earth is also rest for us; we’re just doing more theology of self-glorification if we get so busy in the fight for the environment that our activism is utterly devoid of rest and grace.[x] As Luther rightly understood, a life of constant work with no rest basically means one believes they can or must save themselves and those they love, which is both impossible and unnecessary because Christ has taken our burdens and given us rest.

Our calling is to bear witness not in strength but in weakness. After all, it is the weak and weary who need rest, not the strong. Because God became human and suffered for us, the journey toward the gift of God’s divine life is not away from the earth but into it, into the fully human, into the earth from which humans were made, the earthen wares in which God is pleased to place this glory.

Originally written by Gabriel Morgan in 2024.

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[i] See Margaret Daly-Denton, John: An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing Him to Be the Gardener (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019), 49-52. In Hebrew, the phrase פָּנִ֖ים לֶ֥חֶם הַ (Ha Lechem Paneh) basically means “Facing-Bread,” where the Israelites are instructed to place it in God’s presence, or facing God, always (Ex 25:30). There were twelve loaves arranged in two rows of six, as a sign of the covenant and as a food portion for Aaron and his descendants; the priestly tribe of Levi did not inherit a portion of land and thus did not usually grow their own food (Lev 24:5-9; Deut. 18:1-5). The same phrase in Mark is rendered as ἄρτος τῆς προθέσεως, or “Display Bread,” in the sense of being laid out publicly. In the Greek Orthodox Church, they still call the preparatory laying of the eucharistic elements on the credence the “prothesis” based on this ancient phrase. It is important to note that Deuteronomy 23:25 specifically permits the action of plucking grains by hand from a neighbor’s property, which indicates that the dispute can only be about the Sabbath. Similarly, Leviticus prohibits a landowner from “gleaning the edges” of one’s field, to instead leave them for the poor and the travelling immigrant (23:22); in Hebrew, a גֵּר (Ger) has the sense of a resident foreigner or immigrant as well as of a traveler, particularly one who needs mercy or hospitality, or perhaps also an itinerant teacher with their disciples. The land Sabbath is also relevant, during which the land is to lay fallow, but during which the produce is still used for food (Lev. 25:1-7). If one cannot even pluck grains to eat on a Sabbath, then it would seem to follow that one could not eat during the land Sabbath at all, an absurd conclusion.

[ii] “In what sense can Jesus claim David as precedent-setter—unless he is understood to be the offspring who will sit on David’s throne?” Donald H. Juel, Mark, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1990), 54. Although M. Eugene Boring considers Mark to be much more cautious about comparisons between Jesus and David than Matthew, he agrees that the central issue is Jesus’s authority to interpret and apply the Sabbath, in Mark: A Commentary, New Testament Library Series (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 156.

[iii] “If a man has a pain in his throat they may drop medicine into his mouth on the Sabbath, since there is doubt whether life is in danger, and whenever there is doubt whether life is in danger this overrides the Sabbath” (Mishnah, Yoma 8.6, in Juel 1990, 55–56).

[iv] “[Moses] exhorts the new generation of Israelites to regard the Law as their own covenant with God (5:3) . . . ” Gordon D. Fee and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., eds., The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 156.

[v] Ezra Klein, “Sabbath and the Art of Rest,” New York Times Opinion, 3 January 2023.

[vi] Leo Mark Dee and Yonatan Neril, Eco Bible Volume 2: An Ecological Commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (First ed. Jerusalem: Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, 2021), 183-5.

[vii] Andrew Linzey, “So Near Yet So Far: Animal Theology and Ecological Theology,” The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology, Roger Gottlieb ed. (New York: Oxford, 2006), 350; St Gregory of Nazianzus, Theological Orations 2.24-6.

[viii] Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans (ed. William Pauck; Library of Christian Classics 15; London: SCM, 1961), 237, in Linzey 2006, 353.

[ix]  “On the ‘blast of the trumpet’ on the first day of the autumn cycle, cf. Lev. 23:24; Num. 10:10,” Hans-Joachim Kraus, A Continental Commentary: Psalms 60-150 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 149. “Only to this festival is a two-week duration assigned such as חדשׁ and כסה could embrace. According to Lev. 23:24 and Num. 29:1, the festival time begins with a great convocation. As the appointed time of this first celebration the חדשׁ (new moon) is recognizable (Num. 29:6)” (148).

[x] For more on this Lutheran grace-centered approach to climate activism, see H. Paul Santmire, EcoActivist Testament (Cascade Books, 2022).