Our Synoptic Gospel passages each end with Jesus saying that the Son of Man is ‘lord of the Sabbath’. This statement of his own authority rests on Jesus’s demonstration, by appeal to Scripture and the deeper principles of the Torah, that his interpretation of Sabbath law is authoritative. In him the Law is being fulfilled, not laid aside.
The dispute is followed in all three Gospels by a similar one, where the Pharisees again accuse Jesus of breaching the Sabbath, this time by an act of healing. Jesus’s response suggests that the Sabbath is faithfully kept by doing good in the service of life (Mark 3:4). Across both passages, Jesus’s authority in handling the Law finds expression in words and actions that affirm and restore.
Ben Shahn’s Supermarket is a quintessential image of American consumerism, even appearing on the cover of a book on the subject (Gagnier 2000). Shahn was known for his leftist politics, and it is tempting to read the work as a critique of life under capitalism, perhaps contrasting its angular, jagged shapes—evoking the metallic artificiality or even violence of industrial mass production—with the natural, softly sweeping lines of the pastoral Wheatfield, discussed elsewhere in this exhibition. Yet Shahn himself linked Supermarket with Wheatfield and two other prints, Silent Music and TV Antennae, as ‘abiding symbols of American daily life, to be celebrated and brought into awareness’ (McNulty & Shahn 1967: 114). He also gave a copy as a gift to the owner of a local supermarket that had suffered a fire.
Perhaps therefore the artwork is better understood as a simple affirmation of people’s ordinary lives in ambivalent social and economic contexts. Considered thus, its patterning of shapes and colours evoke a sense of lightheartedness, whimsy, even humour rather than harshness. This affirmative mood is closer to that which characterizes the authority of Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels—for example, in many of his parables (Bailey 1983)—and serves to illuminate it.
Bailey, Kenneth E. 1983. Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)
Gagnier, Regenia. 2000. The Insatiability of Human Wants: Economics and Aesthetics in Market Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)
Kulju, Jen. 2017. 'Ben Shahn Exhibition Benefits JMU Students, Madison Art Collection, James Madison University', https://www.jmu.edu/news/arts/2017/04-03-ben-shahn-exhibition.shtml, [accessed October 21 2020]
McNulty, Kneeland and Ben Shahn. 1967. The Collected Prints of Ben Shahn (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art)
12 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. 2But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” 3He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5Or have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.”
23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24And the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25And 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: 26how he entered the house of God, when Abiʹathar 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?” 27And he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; 28so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.”
6 On a sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. 2But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath?” 3And Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4how he entered the house of God, and took 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 with him?” 5And he said to them, “The Son of man is lord of the sabbath.”