SCRIPTURE READINGS: [  1 COR 4: 6B-15; LUKE 6:1-5 ]

For those of us unfamiliar with the customs of the Jews, we find it incomprehensible, even ludicrous, that they were so sticky on the observance of the Sabbath Law.  Why the big fuss and petty squabbles over Jesus’ breaking the Sabbath Law?  This was because the Sabbath law was given by God Himself through Moses and therefore it is held to be sacrosanct.

But the crux of the problem, or contention, lies in the divergent way of applying this law concretely in daily life. The Sabbath Law can be interpreted widely or narrowly. The Ultra-orthodox Jews dictated the details of what constituted “work”, and hence, infringement of the law, in every imaginable scenario.  The day is supposed to be kept holy and consecrated entirely to God by reading the Torah.  Unfortunately, in their anxiety to observe the letter of the law, they overlooked the spirit of the Law.  So intent were they in making sure that they did not break the law on the Sabbath Day that they would not even lend a hand to someone who might be in trouble, because that was considered “work”.

It was this total disregard for their fellowmen in the name of giving honour to God that irked Jesus, as it is against the sin of charity.  To state His case, Jesus deliberately healed the sick on the Sabbath day, and in today’s instance, He also defended His disciples for “picking ears of corn, rubbing them in their hands and eating them.”  The intention of the Sabbath is to help them and us to remember that God is our Lord; that He is the provider of all our needs, so that we will learn to trust in His Divine providence.  It is also a time for us to deepen our bonds and relationships with our loved ones, besides giving rest to our physical bodies. The observance of the Sabbath was not intended to become a hindrance to helping those in need, or be the cause of our neglect of the essential things in life.  So in truth, Jesus did not break the Sabbath Law, but He rejected the extremist interpretation of the law.

Indeed, St Paul warned the Corinthians about being judgmental and having self-importance.  He wrote, “it is not for you, so full of your own importance, to go taking sides for one man against another. In any case, brother, has anybody given you some special right? What do you have that was not given to you? And if it was given, how can you boast as though it were not?” Even if we could observe the Sabbath Law, we should not allow pride to take the better of us.  Although holiness requires our cooperation, it is itself the grace of God.  So if we are living a holy and righteous life, rather than acting smug, we should praise and thank God in humility for His grace and pray that others who are living in sin would be able to respond to His grace as well.

St Paul exhorted the Christians to put the unity of the community and the love of Christ above all else.  Indeed, we must not act and behave like the Christians at Corinth, who were proud of their wisdom, superior knowledge and their spiritual gifts.  St Paul reminded them that all these gifts that they had received came from God; hence there was no basis for them to feel proud or superior to others.

However, the real problem today is laxity rather than strict observance of the Sabbath.  For many Catholics, the practice of the Sabbath, if it is observed at all, is often reduced to attending Sunday Mass.  Many have the impression that this is what the observance of the Sabbath is all about.  On the contrary, giving time to God is not to be confined to a Church service.  We are called to give reverence to God the whole day.   Sabbath is a day of rest so that instead of devoting ourselves to the mundane tasks of life, the non-essentials, we dedicate the day to what is truly essential, namely, the adoration of God who is our creator, and the fostering of relationships with our loved ones in the family and with friends and the Christian community.

Indeed, what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy?   It means that we do not waste the day sleeping or idling, and engaging in frivolous activities, but to consecrate the day by living well and glorifying God in all that we do.  Of course, one should take some physical rest to recuperate from the week’s labour. But to rest our body without God is not complete.  We also need spiritual rest for the soul.  The Sabbath is a time when we are called to cultivate and strengthen our union with God and with our fellowmen.   It is a time to appreciate the wonders of creation, and especially a time to bask ourselves in the love of God and to transmit this love to our loved ones and friends and even the poor.

But to exclude God from Sunday and all our activities is contrary to the spirit of the Sabbath.  Some Catholic parents even demand that Catechism classes be held on Saturdays, so that they can “finish” their obligations by Saturday evening and have the whole Sunday free to do whatever they like. Even if we have activities, these activities must be wholesome and edifying, not activities that are worldly and worse still, a disgrace to the gospel life.

This also explains why works of love and essential services not only can, but must be performed, on the Sabbath day.  If Jesus was annoyed with the scribes and Pharisees in the way they observed the Sabbath, it was because they fulfilled the requirement at the expense of charity and compassion.  Hence we read in the first reading how St Paul worked tirelessly for the gospel day in and day out.  We too must use this day well for the service of the gospel.

How then should we observe the Sabbath?  It would be ideal to begin the day with prayer, especially going early to Church, at least half an hour before the service, to spend time in prayer, meditating on the scripture readings of the day, reviewing the week’s activities, the times when we have failed to manifest the love of God, the times when God revealed His love and mercy to us; and finally, consider how we want to live life anew in the new week ahead of us.  After the celebration of the Mass, we must then take the opportunity to spread the love of Christ received at the Eucharist, either by spending quality time with our loved ones, spouse, children, elders, or visiting the sick, or rendering service to the people of God.  Can you truly say at the end of the day that your day has truly been pleasing to the Lord and that God has been glorified in all that you said and did?  If you can, then the day has been kept holy.

Written by The Most Rev William Goh Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore