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Dear Catholic.com visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

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Jesus Christ, Lawbreaker

Accused of breaking the law, Jesus proclaims himself 'Lord of the Sabbath.' What does that mean?

The Gospel of Mark tells us of Jesus’ lawbreaking:

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.

And the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, ”Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?”

And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:23-28).

Did thunder rumble in the distance as Jesus pronounced this last phrase? It would certainly have been appropriate if it did, since to be “lord” over something is, in this sense, to be its ruler, its absolute master . . . and every Hebrew in Palestine knew very well that it was God himself who had instituted the Sabbath, on the seventh day of creation.

Yes, Jesus presents a less astounding argument as well (though still startling enough to his contemporaries): King David did this without your criticizing him, therefore I, Jesus, David’s successor, can do it, too. Technically speaking, Hebrew priests profaned the Sabbath every week by working to replace the showbread in the tabernacle, and after the new loaves were set out, the priests ate the old ones (Exod. 25:30, Lev. 24:5-9). David, who cannot have been a priest in the ordinary sense—a priest, that is, after the order of Aaron (he belonged to the wrong family, that of Judah)—laid claim to this priestly privilege by eating the showbread himself and even offering it to his men. Now Jesus (also a Judahite, not a Levite) asserts for himself membership in the same “new extraordinary priesthood” to which his forefather David had prophetically laid claim. But “lord of the Sabbath” was something else again.

That title implied another argument altogether, an argument too flabbergasting for most Jews to entertain long enough even to put into words. “I, Jesus,” said the Nazarene in essence, “am lord of the Sabbath; and as such, I am sovereign over it. It’s mine; and I will do with it as I please, with or without your leave. If I keep its restrictions, I keep them because I choose to do so, not because they will make me good or because not keeping them would make me a sinner, but simply because it is seemly for me to do so for the time being, just as it was becoming of me to accept the baptism of John. But make no mistake: Moses’ law does not apply to me now and never did apply. Moses was not lord of the Sabbath—he would have rent his garments, in fact, had anyone dared to call him that—but I am. I can dispense my servants from some of it, or all of it. I can even abrogate it altogether if I so choose, so that it will apply in its original form to no one any longer—not even to you Jews. If I so choose. This is what I, Jesus, mean by ‘lord of the Sabbath.’”

Certainly a neat, tidy answer—but what an answer!

And so the problem of our Lord’s so-called lawbreaking turns on nothing less than a correct appraisal of his own identity. What Jesus was doing and saying couldn’t ultimately be separated from the question of who Jesus is—and that was the whole difficulty in a nutshell.

The Catechism explains the lawbreaking problem in this way: “In presenting with divine authority the definitive interpretation of the Law, Jesus found himself confronted by certain teachers of the Law who did not accept his interpretation . . . guaranteed though it was by the divine signs that accompanied it” (582). Were the signs, in fact, divine? And in what sense? On these kinds of questions hung all his right to appropriate that astounding title—lord of the Sabbath—and without that right, his appropriation is usurpation. And yes, blasphemy. Confronting the absurdity they thought could be “discounted” was (and still is) inescapable.

The apostles were the first to confront this Sphinx’s Riddle. For them, there was no getting away from it, since the devils had been screeching it in their ears for weeks! “And demons,” Luke records, “came out of many, crying, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he [Jesus] rebuked them, and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ” (Luke 4:41). And the apostles knew already that many of his miracles had been accompanied by this same demand for secrecy. When he raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead, “her parents were amazed; but he charged them to tell no one what had happened” (Luke 8:56). And then, speaking to witnesses at Decapolis, where he opened the ears of a deaf man, “he charged them to tell no one; but the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it” (Mark 7:36). It appears that Jesus really did seek to control the time and the pace at which the profounder facts about himself were revealed.

Yet what did “Son of God” really mean in this context? As we’ve seen, Nathanael of Cana was able to cry out, at the very beginning of his journey without any training from Jesus at all, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” And in that private setting, Jesus accepted the affirmation and made no attempt to shush the confessor. What, at that early stage, had Nathanael meant by the term?

Son of God, according to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, was a title “applied in the Old Testament to persons having any special relationship with God.” In the book of Job, for instance, the angels who present themselves before the Lord are called “sons of God” (1:6). “Angels, just and pious men, the descendants of Seth,” the Encyclopedia continues, “were called ‘sons of God’ (Job 1:6; 2:1; Psalm 89:7; Wis. 2:13; etc.). In a similar manner it was given to Israelites (Deut. 14:50); and of Israel, as a nation, we read: ‘And thou shalt say to him: Thus saith the Lord: Israel is my son, my firstborn. I have said to thee: Let my son go, that he may serve me’ (Exod. 4:22). The leaders of the people, kings, princes, judges, as holding authority from God, were called sons of God.”

All this being the case, is it possible that Nathanael meant nothing more than “I accept you, Jesus, as our long-awaited messianic king”? Possible, yes—but to insist on that “nothing more” ignores the display of supernatural knowledge that occasioned his outcry, and also the more advanced state of development that the term had reached by the eve of Christ’s advent. “The theocratic king as lieutenant of God,” often a type of the messiah to come, was also called “Son of God” in the Old Testament. Perhaps the plainest example of this is Psalm 2:6-7—“I have set my king [David] on Zion, my holy hill. . . . You are my son; today I have begotten you”—an excellent illustration of how the prophecies about “messiah as God’s own Son” acquired a more literal meaning as time went on.

We need not assume then, that Nathanael was ready at that point to make anything like an exact affirmation of the divinity of Christ that would have passed the test of orthodoxy we would find in later Catholic creeds, but he almost certainly did use “Son of God” to avow a newfound belief, at least, that the Nazarene must represent some kind of unique personification of God’s saving purpose.

It was a start, anyhow.

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