The three Synoptic Gospels each tell our story slightly differently, but all imply that Jesus, rather than the Pharisees, is the one who stands in continuity with God’s will for the Sabbath. This contrast is especially marked in Matthew, where the story comes directly after Jesus’s saying that, ‘my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30). Matthew’s framing implies that the Pharisees have made the law into a ‘burdensome yoke’ (Basser and Cohen 2015: 283). This is ironic given that the Sabbath is meant to bring rest from the burden of work. The Pharisees are presented in the Gospels as having turned the mandate to rest into an unnecessarily arduous religious labour.
Ben Shahn’s Handball was painted in 1939, using photographs taken in New York several years earlier as source material. The social context of the painting includes the phenomenon of ‘enforced leisure’, an initiative under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ to engage the unemployed in productive, community-building physical activity.
Shahn’s painting does not depict such organised collective exertion. Rather, it shows figures engaged informally and unofficially in a small-scale, improvised game; some are absorbed by it but others, in the foreground, adopt loitering postures. Considered in the social context of Depression-era America, this depiction ‘complicates the meaning of inactivity’, asking whether, in the absence of employment, leisurely play is only ‘productive’ when officially sanctioned (Fagg 2011: 1358).
One source from the time observes how, ‘enforced leisure drowned men with its once-coveted abundance … its taste became sour and brackish’ (Lynd and Lynd, 1937: 246). In contrast, in its depiction of informal, improvisatory play—generating absorption in some participants but loitering detachment, perhaps even boredom, in others—Handball suggests a vision of sport and leisure as organic and unburdened: ‘ritualised occurrences within ordinary, everyday life’ (Fagg 2011: 1366).
By comparison, Jesus interprets the Sabbath rules in a way that reemphasizes their role in meeting ordinary human needs and joys. The question of whether his followers’ way of resting is formally authorized by the religious officials of the day is incidental given that deeper purpose.
Basser, Herbert W. and Marsha B. Cohen. 2015. The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions: A Relevance-based Commentary (Leiden: Brill)
Fagg, John. 2011. ‘Sport and Spectatorship as Everyday Ritual in Ben Shahn's Painting and Photography’, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 28.8–9: 1353–69
Lynd, Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd. 1937. Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company)
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.”