Continuing our road trip with Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, we hear today more accounts of Jesus’ early ministry. This week’s reading follows after last week’s, in which Jesus taught in the synagogue and cast a demon out of a possessed man. In today’s reading, Jesus casts out more demons and heals many of the sick. Now, because of the way our lectionary divides up chapters from week to week, It is easy to miss a key detail about this passage. From the teaching in the synagogue to the exorcism of the demons, to the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, to the various other healings, everything takes place in one day. Furthermore, this isn’t just any day. It’s the Sabbath.
Now, you may recall from your CCD/Sunday school classes that the Sabbath was a very special day to the people of Israel. You may even recall that the third of the Ten Commandments is to keep holy the Sabbath. The commandment says,
Take care to keep holy the Sabbath day as the Lord, your God, commanded you. Six days you may labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord, your God. No work may be done then, whether by you, or your son or daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or ass or any of your beasts, or the alien who lives with you. Your male and female slave should rest as you do. For remember that you too were once slaves in Egypt, and the Lord, your God, brought you from there with his strong hand and outstretched arm. That is why the Lord, your God, has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
It’s a long commandment! It’s equal in length to the first commandment, to worship God alone. All the other commandments are quite short. So it seems that, not only does God want his people to keep holy the Sabbath day, but he wants them to know why it’s important.
Back to the gospel—it’s a key detail that Jesus is curing and preaching and casting out demons on a Sabbath, because this is going to be exhibit A in the charges brought against Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees. As we see from the third commandment, it is absolutely forbidden to do any sort of work on the Sabbath!
But before we cast judgment on the Pharisees, we can try seeing it from their point of view. There’s a good reason not to work on the Sabbath. Back then, for the Jews, the Sabbath was on Saturday. For us Christians, of course, it’s Sunday. And back then, just as today, It is easy to see the Sabbath as just one more day to work, one more day to make money. Whether you’re a farmer, a coach, a student, a teacher, a salesman, a retailer, a lawyer, a tradesman… there’s a never-ending pile of work to do. Sunday becomes the catch-up day before the work week starts. Think about the irony of that statement! We need a work day just so we can get ready for the work week.
It’s all too easy to make excuses for keeping the store open on Sunday—after all, everybody does their shopping on Sunday! Well, they wouldn’t if all the shops were closed! Just look at England, for example. Nobody shops on Sunday because nothing is open. The shopkeepers need their rest too. But you’re right, it would be unreasonable to close on Sunday, because then all my competitors would still be open. They would have an advantage over me. If we all closed on Sunday, it would be a game of chicken to see who would open back up first. Well, speaking of chicken, I can think of one company that decided to do close on Sunday, and their business is booming.
Now let’s return to the work that Jesus was doing on the Sabbath. He read from the scriptures, he preached, he exorcised demons, and he healed the sick. We have to understand that this is not the sort of servile work that is clearly prohibited in the commandment. Rather, each of these “works” actually underscores the very meaning of the Sabbath. As we have said before, the Sabbath is a day to remember that we have been set free. As Jesus preaches, he sets the people free from ignorance. As he exorcises, he sets the people free from demons. And as he heals, he sets them free from illness. This is the meaning of the Sabbath, when God set his people free. If God did such a thing on the Sabbath, how could Jesus do otherwise? Of course he is going to preach and heal on the Sabbath.
Following his example, those of us who are in the ministerial or medical vocations will necessarily have to work on Sundays. But for many of us, we would do well to re-examine the way we spend Sunday. Is it truly a day of a different character? Is it a moment to rest from the act of creating? Is attending Holy Mass to give thanks to God first among my priorities, or do I try to “squeeze it in” while I‘m rushing here and there?
We can take a cue from Jesus’ example in the gospel. After a day of preaching and healing, he takes time to go to a quiet place and pray. He takes time to rest in the presence of God and to be in communion with the Father. Then, after having prayed, he has the strength to go back to his work of preaching.
The point is, the Sabbath is a gift to mankind, given not because God needs a day off, but because we do. It is too easy to lose sight of what is most important in life. We need a day, at least once a week, to recuperate, recreate, remember.
We need a day to remember that we are not slaves anymore! I think we forget that. Sure, we are not literally owned by another person, because that kind of slavery has been abolished. But I’m talking about a willful slavery—a slavery that we willingly hand ourselves over to. And this willful slavery can take many forms. It could be slavery to work, as I have just described. It could be slavery to a sin or to some addiction. We need a day to be set free from that sin by coming to confession. We need a day to celebrate sobriety. Maybe it’s slavery to sports or a hobby—sports are great, don’t get me wrong. Video games are OK in moderation. But if it’s getting in the way of Mass or keeping us from spending time with the family, it has become an idol in our life. Whatever the source of our slavery, we need a day to worship like the free men that we are. We need a day to give thanks to God and enjoy the many blessings we have.
Without that Sabbath day of rest, we will eventually become like Job in the first reading today. Despondent, despairing, thinking of life as drudgery and misery. That is not what God wants for the people he came to set free! He wants us to flourish and grow into the holy men and women he created us to be. For freedom’s sake we have been set free.
And, this is the meaning of Christian freedom—I’ve preached about this before—that we are given freedom for excellence! Freedom to pursue virtue and happiness, true happiness that comes from a righteous life. It’s not the false freedom that the world offers—the ability to do whatever I feel, as long as I don’t “hurt anybody.” That’s not true freedom, because when you or I sin, when we pursue vice and not virtue, the whole Body of Christ suffers. The Body of Christ needs you to be virtuous. If one part of the body is sick, the whole body feels it. There’s no such thing as a sin that “isn’t hurting anybody.”
Don’t settle for slavery to sin. Don’t settle for an inferior type of freedom. Don’t fall for the tricks of the Enemy. Rather, be free today. As St. Augustine wrote, “Love, and do what you will.” What he means is that you were set free by love, for love. Live in the love of Jesus Christ today, and celebrate Sunday, the day we Christians were set free.
 Deuteronomy 5:12
 Sermon on Love, 8