23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
3 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 2:23-3:6 NRSV)
Jesus has just begun his ministry and he’s in trouble already. I suppose that’s what Savior’s are for, aren’t they? He understands the journey he’s taken on and time is of the essence in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus wastes no time: there’s ministry to be done and a message to spread. It’s going to upset the status quo. So be it.
There’s a lot in these few verses: politics and culture vs. sabbath rest.
Someone came to see me in my office a few years ago. It seems that she was considering entering seminary but she was concerned about something: church politics. Politics exists no matter where you are. It’s what makes the world go ’round. You can use your political expertise for good or for evil.
Jesus is making his way through a grainfield. He’s having to work at it: that’s unlawful on the Sabbath. His disciples pick a few grains to munch on as they move through it: that’s unlawful on the Sabbath. There are men of God watching Jesus’ every move. Don’t you wonder what they’ve left behind in the office or the mission field? It seems that the most important thing they have to do is follow Jesus and trap him.
They’ve taken the law from a gift from God to a legalism used to trap and punish the offenders. Torah is a living document, much like our U.S. Constitution. It’s meant to be read within the context of the culture so that humanity can follow God and live well. These particular religious leaders are hanging on to the status quo for dear life. That is their idol. Any change from what is being done must be stopped at all costs.
When have you been a legalistic Pharisee? Not all of them were that way. In fact, some were friends of Jesus. Legalistic keepers of the law often need compassion. They’re hanging on to the past unable to adapt to change. Change can be scary and it moves far more quickly today than it did 200 years ago. Or even 50 years ago.
Traditions get lost in change. Routines that were once life-giving and life-enhancing often become life-taking. Churches suffer over this. “We’ve always done it this way” are the deadly words of the church. Leaders must ask often, “why are we doing it this way? Is it life-giving or soul-sucking?”
As we age, we watch our friends and colleagues pass away. That is the ultimate change, because we’ll never see them again in this life. We grieve their presence and missed opportunities. Young people come along taking what we call change as normal and making it work. It annoys us because, “these young people don’t know the traditions.”
Legalistic Pharisees hang on to the status quo for another reason: holding on to their own privileged status. It’s pretty cool being at the top of the mountain. And when climbers get too close, we push them down and keep them down because we refuse to imagine a life sharing the top with others.
Jesus loved the law. He made it clear that he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He understood Torah (Law) to be a gift of God for the people of God. It was meant to enhance life and to set apart the worshipers of God as an example of how to live right.
His indictment of legalism was direct and straight-forward. In this text, he was criticized for traveling and gleaning and healing on the Sabbath. He points to David, who used the holy bread set aside for the priests to feed himself and his companions. No, his disciples weren’t starving. But, they would have been if they hadn’t taken some of the grain to eat.
What really upsets Jesus, though, is the scene in the synagogue. A man with a withered hand can’t work or take care of his family, if he has one. He’s a drain on society rather than a contributor to it. Yes, he could have waited a few hours until sunset to heal the man. But, his question rings true today: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?”
Healing that man in the synagogue in the presence of God was a sacred moment. A time to respect humanity, to affirm life through healing, to hold life before God.
But, when we’re upset and can’t see compassion for what it is, we get angry and we want to hurt. Jesus has barely begun his ministry and already the legalists are plotting with their political enemies, the Herodians, to destroy him. It’s a shame.
What these law-abiding Pharisees need is a day off. A complete and total sabbath rest.
What does Sabbath rest mean to you? Perhaps a nap, or enjoying a hobby. Lunch with friends and family. A day to relax: read, listen to music, take a long walk. Good start! (Especially the nap!)
It occurred to me this week that Adam and Eve were created and immediately had a Sabbath rest. Hm. That’s significant. But, that’s only the beginning. We read in two different places in the Old Testament about God’s insistence on us taking Sabbath rest.
First, because God rested after six days of creation. God rested from work to enjoy what God had created. Sabbath rest is a holy time that we take to remember God’s creative activity and to enjoy it. That walk you take is a reminder of that creative activity and an opportunity to enjoy it and honor it and preserve it.
Second, it was to be a reminder that we were slaves in Egypt where we worked seven days a week with no rest. Sabbath rest is meant for everyone: slave and free, man and woman, children and even work animals. When we take Sabbath rest, we are reminded of our own liberation from captivity and slavery.
Slavery to jobs or the almighty dollar. Slavery to idols that get between us and God. Slavery to the false prophets who announce what is wrong with the world and how they’re going to fix it.
In this text, Jesus is reminding everyone who is listening, including you and I, that the Sabbath is meant for liberation and restoration. Watching how others treat the Sabbath is just as unlawful as not honoring the Sabbath at all.
What do you need? A nap? Rest? How about time alone with Jesus? Time with scripture. Prayer time.
What do you need? How do you care for yourself on your Sabbath rest day? How can you return thanks to God for all God has done for you?
First step: take a nap! Rest. Enjoy the fact that you’re alive. Revel in doing nothing or doing something that you don’t do the rest of the week.
Second step: give the legalists some compassion. They’re all tied up. Invite them for a rest from everything. Invite them to relax.
All glory and honor be to God.