At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” Matt. 12:1-2
Growing up, my parents subscribed to a Christian denomination adhering to a strict observation of the Sabbath. Our church believed this day was to be practiced from sundown Friday night to sundown Saturday every week. Up until I was about ten, this meant no working, no television, no outings, and limited “fun” unless it had to do with a bible board game.
The practice of incorporating a non-negotiable day of rest was a good enough habit to get in to. I have many fond memories of Saturday hikes with my family. Our sacred day kept the busyness of life away. But the oddness of the practice revolved around its limitation to one 24-hour period of the week. What was so special about Saturday?
Looking back, I can remember the transition out of this way of life confusing. My parents found another church and told me that worshipping only on one day of the week was “legalistic” and in opposition to God’s grace. I didn’t know what all that meant at the time but the term followed me around throughout my Christian journey. I encountered people who used the word to warn others from falling into its trap. I learned that the word was often synonymous with being “inauthentic” or, God forbid, characteristic of someone “going through the motions.”
But the significance of legalism and the realization of its grasp on my own life, didn’t take root until I read these words by Tim Keller, who speaks in his book Prodigal God on the paradoxically equal sin of the older and younger brother,
“Nearly everyone defines sin as breaking a list of rules. Jesus, though, shows us that a man who has violated virtually nothing on the list of moral misbehaviors [the older brother] can be every bit as spiritually lost as the most profligate, immoral person. Why? Because sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Savior…”
My definition of sin was turned upside-down. Was the root of my sin less about my Sunday attendance and more about my personal plan for salvation?
The more I noted my compulsive compliance to order, family expectations, showing up to church functions, hi-lighting my bible in multiple colors, the deeper I plunged into my sin tendency. Self-righteousness. No, I’d never gotten in an argument with my parents. I’d never done drugs, partied, or even drove with my seatbelt off. But the problem was, I used those things as justification for my superiority over others. As if to say before God, “Look at how much better I am than that!”
A close friend of my pointed out that God has a phrase for this kind of behavior.
But the allure of legalism, finding righteousness in works, is that it puts me at the center of my salvation. I set the standard, I keep score, and I always win. Why would I want a religion I can’t tame?
To that, Jesus replies,
“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here…For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (v. 6-8)
He offers not a just a plan but a Person. He goes out and heals on Saturdays. He desires mercy not sacrifice. He turns over temples. He’s untamable, consistent, and unpredictable. He’s the foreshadowing and fulfillment of the Law. And He is here to be known, not as a historical and political figure, but as a Savior and Friend. Today.
Keep me humble in the estimation of my righteousness. Let me be wholly satisfied in Your finished work for me, that I may keep You in rightful place as Savior of my heart. – Christian