Perhaps the showdown that occurs most often in the Gospels is the one between Jesus and the Pharisees over what is lawful on the Sabbath. Jesus, always the rabblerouser, spends His Sabbaths healing, teaching, eating, and generally being a pain to the ritual law.
It is because He realizes what we looked at yesterday - any legalistic keeping of the Sabbath becomes a burden not just on the Sabbath-keeper, but on everyone around him, as well.
Take the crippled man, for example. His arm is shriveled; he is in need of healing. Jesus, they both know, has the ability to provide him with the healing that he so desperately needs. But it happens to be the Sabbath. A legalistic keeping of the Sabbath requires Jesus to turn away from this man, introducing a new burden into Jesus' heart. He could help, but He was required not to. This is terrible. It also puts a burden in the heart of the crippled man. He could have been healed, had it been any other day of the week. But it happened to be the Sabbath, and so he would be forced to carry his cripple one more day.
This is what Jesus was talking about when He kept asking the Pharisees, "Does this seem right to you? Is this Sabbath thing really the right thing to do? This Sabbath could burden two men."
Or take another example, the one of Jesus and His disciples breaking the heads off the wheat in a field on the Sabbath to satisfy their own hunger. There are several considerations here. First, the men are already walking through the field; they are likely already stepping on some of the life that is developing in this ground. If they do not make purposeful use of the produce of the field, they are simply assaulting the ground by walking through it, rather than making it meaningful.
They are hungry; they will have to satisfy their hunger somewhere. If they do not pluck the heads from this grain, then they will have to work to prepare a meal later in some other place. And this would be even more work than plucking the grain is. Or if they do not prepare their own meal, they will have to trouble someone else to prepare a meal for them. Think about the hospitality custom of the day. Whenever the disciples arrived wherever they were going, their host would naturally wonder if they were hungry. If they showed up hungry, they have now required something of their host on the Sabbath, thus breaking his Sabbath for him because of the nature of hospitality. If he does not break Sabbath for them, he is a bad host. Which is worse?
And there is something else going on here, too. Plucking the heads off the grain is something most of us would probably do mindlessly. It is natural for us to pick at the plants as we walk through a field, at least, for many of us, it is natural. Jesus says that's not what's happening here. It's not mindless what the disciples are doing; it is very mindful. It is for a purpose, to fulfill a need. To fulfill several needs - to make the land meaningful, to honor the Sabbath of others, and to satisfy the hunger of the disciples. There's nothing about this that is mindless.
And shouldn't the Sabbath be mindful? Isn't that part of keeping the Sabbath?
When Jesus gets into it with the Pharisees over the Sabbath, it's always about these kinds of ideas - needs, mindfulness, meaningfulness, burdens. Jesus is very aware of all the dynamics that go into keeping the Sabbath, and those that are at play in breaking it. Tops on His list are the needs of others and avoiding the creation of an additional burden by His Sabbath practice. (Although it ruffles the feathers of the Pharisees, it creates no burden on them for Him to break Sabbath. It does, however, draw them to argument, which they do like it's their job, so aren't the Pharisees also working on the Sabbath?)
I think this is apt for those of us who attempt to embrace Sabbath practice in our modern world. We must be mindful of needs and burdens. We must be aware of what's going on and how our practice of Sabbath either contributes to or detracts from all that is happening in the world around us.
There is a danger in this, of course, and that is that we can become so attuned to "needs" on the Sabbath that our Sabbath can become all about serving rather than resting. We can emerge from our Sabbath more weary than when we began. We can give over our entire set-aside time for the sake of others and not have any of it left either for God or for ourselves. And this is no good, either. It is burden in the other direction. There is a very real threat that the needs, demands, and expectations of others will make our Sabbath a burden on us, if we read Jesus in such a limited way as to say that we must do good works on the Sabbath.
And so, we can approach the Sabbath neither purely like a Pharisee, creating an undue burden on everyone, but nor we can approach it purely as the surface reading of Jesus would suggest, creating a burden on ourselves. There is one more lesson here that I think really brings Sabbath practice into focus, and I will share more on that tomorrow.