August 21, 2014
Dear brothers and sisters,
The good news today comes to us from Mark 2:23-28.
As he was passing through a field of grain on the sabbath, his disciples began to make a path while picking the heads of grain. At this the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?” He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry? How he went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat, and shared it with his companions?” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
I get the feeling that the Pharisees were constantly lurking about as if they were religious police. That’s the first point that Jesus was making. The Jews didn’t need religious policy; they needed priests and others who were instruments of God’s mercy and forgiveness. The sabbath was instituted to allow people to rest from their labors so that they could rest with their God, communicating and communing with Him. What was initially a gift became a twisted labyrinth of regulations to restrict and enforce behavior unnaturally. There are always those among us who create and use power over the rest of us and employ enforcers to assure their authority is maintained. That’s the history of the tension and struggle between authority and individual rights.
It’s interesting that while both Matthew and Luke include this story, neither one includes the verse, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” Luke includes the rest of the verse but Matthew does not. This is a very powerful statement. Why did Matthew and Luke omit it? Scholars agree that both had Mark’s gospel available to them when writing their own gospels. Why did they choose to be less radical? Was it because by the time they wrote certain rituals were being developed by the new church centered on Jesus’ teachings? That the sabbath was again being emphasized as a day for prayer and reflection on Jesus’ message, for communal sharing of food and wine? Were Matthew and Luke unwittingly enforcing new sabbath rules instituted by Peter and the other early church elders?
Barclay puts is well, “Religion does not consist in rules and regulations. To take the matter in question — Sunday observance is important but there is a great deal more to religion than Sunday observance. If a man might become a Christian simply by abstaining from work and pleasure on the Sunday, and by attending Church on that day, and saying his prayers and readings his Bible, being a Christian would be a very easy thing. Whenever men forget the love and the forgiveness and the service and the mercy that are at the heart of religion and replace them by the performance of rules and regulations religion is in a decline.” Jesus made no effort to establish a new religion or a new church with its attendant rules and regulations. He came to help the Jews understand and live the life that God intended for them all along. He summed it up as loving God, loving ourselves, and loving each other.
But the second point that Jesus wanted to make with the Pharisees is that he was lord of all even the sabbath. He had been given this authority by His Father. All the rules and regulations made up by men were subject to him; they must all adhere to his teachings which was, after all, the word of God. That had to be a threatening challenge to the Pharisees. It upended their world and their status within that world. Whenever people in authority and power are threatened, they strive to increase and demonstrate their authority and power, to quell radicals like Jesus. Just look at what happened in Ferguson, Missouri!
Jesus is lord even of the sabbath. However, his lesson to me is that he never uses his authority and power to enforce or enslave or punish. He only uses it to provide proof of God’s love for me, His compassion for me, His mercy upon me. I have been trying to develop the habit before I speak or act to ask myself if what I’m about to do is from a source of love. It really helps, although sometimes my selfish emotions prevail — my desire to control and manipulate, to judge as a way to assert my superiority, to try to induce guilt as a form of punishment, the list can go on. If I always act in love, I will always being doing the will of God, following the example of His Son Jesus. I will be treated sometimes as he was — rejected, humiliated, threatened, and worse. That’s the way of the cross, though. That’s the way he has shown and asks me to follow. It’s hard!