Isaiah 58:5-9, Mark 2:23-3:6
February 25, 2018
The Priests of Israel were trying to figure out this new “rabbi.” He drew ever larger crowds whenever he spoke. He captivated the people with the way he taught. He taught with a “new authority.” But! What he taught was becoming more and more “controversial” to them. And his interactions with them were becoming more and more “adversarial.”
There’s one little passage we skipped over here in our reading. It’s this passage where the priests were questioning Jesus about fasting. I wanted to mention it briefly because it adds to the tension of the situation. “Why do the disciples of John (John the Baptist) fast, and your disciples do not?” Jesus answered them, “Because they’re Baptists!” No, he didn’t say that. He said, “Do the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” Now, I’m not sure I understand all the implications of that. But one thing I am sure of is that the Pharisees did! Jesus was making a bold statement about himself that would have been upsetting to them.
So, then we have this story we read today. And here the Pharisees are watching as Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field. And they saw his disciples picking the heads off of the grain. Notice, they weren’t gathering the stalks of grain, or threshing the kernels. (They weren’t throwing them up in the air to separate the wheat from the chaff) They were not even “gleaning the fields,” which meant picking up what the harvesters had left behind. That’s what the poor would do in that society. No. They weren’t doing any of that! They were simply picking off the heads of the grain, and I suppose eating them.
So, the Pharisees said, “Jesus! Don’t your disciples know that what they are doing is wrong?” “They’re violating the Sabbath law!” “They’re doing work!” And I suppose they meant, “They’re harvesting!” But that seems so bizarre! We see them as being “picayune!” That’s the best word I could think of! They were “nit picking” the law. And they were good at that! The Pharisees were all about “keeping ‘The Law.’” That is, the Torah, the Ten Commandments. That was their job, and they took it seriously. As I’ve said before, they had written 750 some additions to “The Law” – “clarifications” – nuances of things that were allowed and not allowed, so that someone would not violate the Law – especially the Sabbath law!
Jesus answers them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need?” And I believe he just gave two “digs” to the Pharisees! First, “Have you never read…” Of course they had read! They were the most well-read people in Israel! For this new “rabbi” to imply they hadn’t read something in the scriptures, or that they had missed something, would have been the first thing that “irked” them. But then he quoted none other than David. In antiquity – that is, antiquity to them! – the big players were people like Abraham, Moses, and Adam. But David was right up there, too! He was the greatest of the kings of Israel. His were the “Glory Days,” the days that all the people wanted to return to! They longed for “a king like unto David.” For Jesus to bring him into his response… well that would have irked them even more!
Do you see how Jesus “pulled no punches” with these men? They were seeing Jesus as a very popular rabbi, and one who was growing in popularity, but one who was not “falling in line” with them! And that was becoming more and more upsetting to them! And we’re only up to the third chapter in Mark!
So to make matters worse, this “rabbi” starts teaching again. But now he’s teaching them! Which I’m sure was even more “irksome!” He defines for them the purpose for the Sabbath. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” “The Sabbath was made for the benefit of the people, not to be a burden to them!” In other words, God “commanded” the Sabbath because he wants the very best for us! That’s what his commandments were all about! We can’t forget that! The commandments are not about a list of rules, they’re not about a bunch of “Thou Shalt Not’s.” They’re about the abundant life God wants for us!
You know, in the back of their minds, I have to think those Pharisees would have agreed with that. I’ve tried to give them the benefit of the doubt in recent years. I think they would have understood that about the Sabbath. The problem was that they couldn’t see past the affront that Jesus was making to them. They couldn’t see past their own pride! Then add to that this final statement “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath!” We can only imagine what they thought about that. And again, feel free to imagine the worst!
Ok then, that story led to the very next one. Jesus was still in Capernaum, his “adopted home town,” and he went back to the synagogue. He was in the very place where he had first healed the man with the unclean spirit, way back in chapter one. (One page back!) And this time there was a man there who had a “withered hand.” And it was still the Sabbath. This is the same day the disciples were picking the grain. And so those same Pharisees were watching him. Would he heal on the Sabbath? Again, that seems so bizarre to us! What do you mean it’s a sin to heal someone on the Sabbath? That seems ridiculous! It seems “picayune” to us. They’re “nit picking” the Sabbath Law again!
So Jesus calls them on that. “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” In other words, is there no discernment around this law? If the “work” that someone does on the Sabbath helps or saves someone, is that not a good thing? And that’s a good question! At another time, in Luke 14, he asks them more specifically. “If one of you has a son or an ox that falls in a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you save it?” And in both these cases, they can’t argue with him! He’s got them! So, what is their response? They “went out and held counsel with the Herodians against him, about how to destroy him.” And that’s the most bizarre thing of all! Their pride, their image before the people, was huge to them. And so, in the greatest Irony of all history, their pride made them miss recognizing the very Messiah they longed for!
So. What does this all mean for us? (I hear you cry!) Well first, I want you to consider the subject at hand – the Sabbath. That’s something we’ve lost over the years – and I think to our detriment! People’s lives are full of stress. Too many people think of Monday as a day to “rest up from the weekend!” And that’s backwards! And it usually doesn’t happen, anyway. Sabbath – rest – is so desperately needed in our world! And God knows that! From the beginning, he knew how important Sabbath was for his people, and so he commanded it!
That’s the first thing. And second is that we need to look to Jesus as our authority. We need to see him as “Lord, even of the Sabbath!” That was very hard for those Pharisees. As I said, their Pride got in the way. (I suppose you could say we’re using them as “negative examples.”) Another thing we don’t talk about much any more is “The Seven Deadly Sins!” Well, “Pride” was one of them. And of course, I don’t mean Pride as in “I’m proud of my children.” I mean the pride that puts the “self” above all others – even above the will of God!
Both of those are good things to think about during Lent! As we think of our lives, we need to ask ourselves, are we living the kind of life God wants us to live? Are we following the commandments he gave us, so that we could have the abundant lives he wants for us? And, as we think of that, are we striving to “get ourselves out of the way” so that we can be the kind of people that God wants us to be?
Take time, this Lenten season, to ask yourselves those two things.
Eternal God, we thank you for your great love for us! We know that you want the best for us, and so you command the best. Help us to look at our lives and to seek to draw closer to you, and to follow more closely Jesus Christ, our Lord. For we pray in his name, Amen.