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Question

Dear Father Angelo,

Why did Jesus do things that were not lawful to do on the Sabbath? On the other hand, the Jews did nothing on the Sabbath day, not because of their choice, but because Moses had ordered them to.

Was Jesus not going against the law itself by doing so?

And by doing so, did he not cause confusion by making it seem as if he wanted to overrule some provisions of the law?


Answer from the priest

Dear Son,

1. Sacred Scripture, from the beginning, declares that Sabbath is a holy day, that is, reserved for God: “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation” (Gn 2:3).

This does not mean that God needs the Sabbath or the worship of men.

It is quite the opposite: on the Sabbath day, God wants men to stop, rest, turn their hearts to Him and be filled with his blessing.

In fact, the blessing is an outpouring of gifts and at the same time preserves them.

2. A very important religious significance was given to the Sabbath.

Man, created in the image of God, was called to imitate God. And just as God had worked six days during creation and rested on the seventh, so man had to do as well.

St. Ambrose remarked that God rested only after creating man.

And why? “Because He wanted to rest in the heart of man”.

St. Thomas said that it is a natural right for man to reserve a portion of his time to satiate his soul with God.

This, therefore, is the meaning of the Sabbath.

3. Exactly because it was a day consecrated to God, rest was necessary after six working days.

This holy nature soon showed the great social advantage it brought along: even slaves, servants, and labourers had to stop working.

And therefore, they could rest, restore their vigor, and look forward to the goal for which they were created.

4. In the time of Jesus, a dense casuistry regulated the celebration of the Sabbath down to the smallest detail.

For example, it was not only forbidden to carry something out of one’s home, but also to treat the sick or to fix a broken leg.

It was equally forbidden to write or travel.

But since walking could not be forbidden, the number of allowed steps outside one’s home was limited to two thousand cubits (one cubit is about half a meter). Hence the so-called “sabbath day’s journey” (Acts 1:12).

Faced with such legalism, Jesus reacted by saying that “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27).

Moreover, in saying that the Father is at work all the time (Jn 5:17), and therefore also on the Sabbath, he shows himself to be equal to God and “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mt 12:8).

5. In applying the rules of the Sabbath, a few rabbis had understood that absolute rigor could not be required and that exceptions had to be made. Therefore, in the event of an accident, a person who was in danger of death could be rescued by freeing him or her from the rubble.

Likewise, when an animal fell into a pit, it could be pulled out if it risked dying there.

But if there was no such risk, one had to be content with feeding it where it was.

Jesus appealed exactly to this to justify the healing of the woman when he said: “This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the sabbath day from this bondage?” (Lk 13:16).

6. The Jerusalem Bible, commenting on Jesus’ defense of his disciples who had picked the heads of grain to feed themselves, writes: “At this time and at the time of the healings he performs on the Sabbath day (Mt 12:9-14; Lk 13:10-17; 14:1-6; Jn 5:1-18 and 7:19-24; 9 ), Jesus states that not even a divine institution such as that of the Sabbath rest has an absolute value; that it must yield in the face of necessity or charity; that he himself has the power to interpret the Mosaic law with authority (cf. 5:17; 15:1-7; 19:1-9). He has similar authority as “the Son of man”, as the head of the messianic kingdom (Mt 8:20) and in charge of establishing from down here already (Mt 9,6) the new economy (Mt 9:17), greater than the ancient one because “something greater than the temple is here” (Mt 12,6).”

7. By carrying out so many healings right on the Sabbath day, the Lord prophetically reveals the great liberating meaning of his day, that of Sunday, the memorial day of his resurrection.

8. Jesus, therefore, does not go against the law, but against a legalistic and rigorist interpretation of the law. Nor does he bring confusion, but clarity.

The Church, mindful of the Lord’s behavior, said about its laws that favorabilia sunt amplianda et odiosa sunt restringenda, that is, that the interpretation favorable to the subject must be broadened, while the unfavorable one must be restricted.

In fact, the main purpose of the law is to serve the good of man, not to coerce it.

I wish you well, I remember you in prayer, and I bless you.

Father Angelo