Jesus knew the rules of his religion, and yet he chose to break them. By doing so, he challenged the status quo of his time and encouraged them to consider why rules exist in the first place. How are Christians called to engage with the rules of our time? Rule-breakers and rule-followers, all are welcome!
One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 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.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 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. 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. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
A high school student sat down for a test in her U.S. history class. The student was very bright, but she was thoroughly unprepared. She looked down at the exam, and the first question asked, “Where was the Declaration of Independence signed?” Easy! She answered, “At the bottom.” The next question asked, “What ended in 1896?” With confidence she wrote, “1895.”
As funny as they are, these are actual answers to tests that students wrote in, hoping their cleverness and wit would get them a passing grade, quite a risk. You can find entire lists of these online, just google “hilarious kid test answers.”
As a student, I was never quite so cheeky. As a rule, tests were a big deal, something to be taken seriously. And as such, I always answered the questions before me, oftentimes regurgitating exactly what I was expected to know. And as a young person, I didn’t really have it in me to challenge, question, or push against the boundaries of what people expected from me, especially not on tests. But I think some kids are born with this innate ability: the curiosity and the courage to question authority and to expand the definition of what’s allowed. Any of you know children like that? For them, boundaries are meant to be tested, and rules are made to be broken.
I wonder if Joseph and Mary thought this about their first-born son Jesus, always questioning and testing and challenging their rules and their limits. And I wonder what some of his answers were on those Hebrew school exams.
What we do know is that Jesus knew the law and the Torah very well. He was well-versed in the Hebrew scriptures – he could recite them by memory, and he knew the stories of Abraham and David and Isaiah.
And yet, here we see him breaking those laws, challenging the authorities whose job it is to uphold these laws, and by doing so he stirs up controversy and conflict. He is making enemies, and Mark tells us they immediately plot against him, planning to quote “destroy him.” And for what? …for plucking grain and eating? …for healing a man’s withered hand?
How are these actions so threatening that the authorities, those in power, would conspire to destroy Jesus, a mere carpenter’s son from Nazareth?
Well, in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And God saw that it was all good. And on the seventh day, God rested (Gen 2:3).
As such, in the Ten Commandments, God specifically tells the people through Moses to, “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—… 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it,” (Exodus 20:8-11).
The Sabbath was a day of rest, a day of remembering, a holy day, set apart from all the other days to remind us of who we are and whose we are. The people of God stopped working on the Sabbath because work does not define us.
Hear that again, beloved ones striving to survive in the Bay Area in 2018: our work does not define us. Rather, what defines us is our relationship to and with God.
And over time, as God’s people tried to observe the Sabbath, some questions came up. They wondered and deliberated: “What exactly constitutes work? What’s allowed and what isn’t?” And these decisions became law, and these laws became tradition, making it “the norm,” meaning what society expected of good Jewish people.
But eventually, these laws, rather than freeing people to rest in God, became constricting and binding. Their specificity and volume led to a very legalistic understanding of religion.
Wendy Farley says in her commentary, “In contrast to living Judaism, these Pharisees are portrayed as obsessed with religious authority, traditional observances, and righteousness…Their love of Scripture and tradition make them blind to the compassion and joy that pour off of Jesus toward all of humanity….” (end quote).
All they can understand is that Jesus is breaking the rules.
And all Jesus wants them to understand is that rules should be made for the flourishing of human kind, for the purpose of creating a just and loving community that serves God through serving one another.
But the Pharisees (who in the gospels are a caricature of a certain kind of religious literalism rather than an actual depiction of most Jews in Jesus’ day) have acquired power and made a living off of upholding the rules. And that’s why Jesus is so threatening to them.
It’s not his breaking of the rules per se, but his challenging of why these rules exist in the first place. His questioning of what is at the heart of these rules, and the audacity to suggest that there might be a better, more faithful way to serve and love God.
Nibs Stroupe says of this passage. “Jesus proclaims to his own generation – and to every generation, including ours – that God is not confined to our rules about God or to our way of perceiving God. Jesus is reconfiguring our relationship to God, not just as individuals, but in the structure of society…” He continues, “The difficult truth of the cross is that we would rather kill Jesus than be transformed by his love…. It is one of the continuing mysterious realities of life in the church: we prefer a dormant God who is subject to our rites and rituals to the active, category-busting God who is ever present in our lives.
So Stroupe invites us to consider the following questions:
Jesus reminds us that the rules are not God; Scripture is not God; tradition is not God. All those things can point us to God, but they themselves are not God. We make idols of these if we start prioritizing them over a God who is Love.
Later in Mark, in chapter twelve, Jesus summarizes the law. Here’s what he thought was at the heart of each and every one of them: “…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ … And … ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” He said, “There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).
We should use these words of Jesus as a sieve, a lens, an interpretative tool to help us navigate, both in our private and public lives, as well as in our religious and civic lives, which rules and laws should remain and endure and which should be changed or laid to rest.
In Biblical interpretation, we call this the “rule of love,” and it is one tool we use to measure how much weight and authority should be placed on any given passage or law we might encounter.
Farley says, “By refusing to observe conventions for honoring the Sabbath, Jesus invites us into a terrifying form of faith in which time-honored practices are relativized by healing power, compassion, and joy.”
We are invited by Jesus into a “terrifying form of faith.” Terrifying because it is new and unprecedented and breaks the mold of everything we expect and think we know. It unmasks all the places where we put a false sense of security: be it our jobs, our bank accounts, our rules or our traditions.
But it is also life-giving and life-changing in that we find our greatest hope, our greatest joy, unconditional love, and a blessed assurance through Christ our Lord. This form of faith values the healing of individuals and the healing of the world; it chooses compassion over judgment, peace over war; life over death; love over hate and fear, and it turns our sorrows into joy. This kind of faith is the only thing that will lead to true and lasting security by ultimately placing our hope, not in the things of this world, but in God.
Friends, the commentator reminds us, “Jesus did not go to the cross to tell us how bad we are, but to point us to new life” (Nibs Stroupe).
If you are discouraged by the news, if you are disheartened by the state of the world, Jesus gives us hope by granting us new life, by showing us a new way, and that way is love. We do not have to accept things just as they are. If, no when, there are unjust policies and systems that fail to value life and prevent us from loving our neighbors as we do ourselves, we can and must challenge and question and create change. In our democratic society, one way we do this is through voting. Here in the Bay Area, you can exercise that right this Tuesday, June 5th.
I won’t tell you how to vote, for God alone is Lord of the conscious, and that is not my place, but I will tell you to let the “rule of love” guide you. Let it guide you in your personal life of faith and in your public life as a citizen of the world. Let it guide you at home, and let it guide you at work. Let it guide you in your service to the church, and let it guide you in your service to the world.
And know, that it can and will guide you because God’s love is steady and true; never-ending and always with you. God’s grace, God’s love is sufficient for you, and it is given freely. The more we come together to worship, the more we feast at this Table, the more we pray and study and serve one another, the more we bask in God’s love for us, and the more possible it is to be transformed and to be agents of transformation.
The Talmud says this:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now.
You are not obligated to complete the work,
but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Friends, some rules, some traditions, some laws need to be broken, changed, and transformed to better reflect the love of God for this world and for each and every human being. We are the Body of Christ, the Church, so who better than us to be like Christ and to go and do just that?
May it be so. Amen.