Unless I misjudge you, I can’t imagine anyone here got in arms about what was going on in that Scripture reading. Is anybody appalled that the disciples, having no food, plucked some heads of grain from a field on the Sabbath, rubbed them in their hands to separate the wheat from the chaff, and ate them? We would be more concerned about whether they were trespassing and stealing than we would be about whether they were doing something that amounted to work on the Sabbath.
Would it cause consternation if you saw someone healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath day? Amazement, yes, but consternation, no. We’ve had people pass out in church, especially after giving blood, and our people who are skilled in healing always act quickly to make sure they are okay and take care of them. Can you imagine me telling them to go back to their seats because it is a sin to work on the Sabbath?
But this is where people were when Jesus was around, so the questions I want to look at with you this morning are: how do people become so stuck in such narrow, rigid convictions that they are willing to kill someone who challenges those convictions; and as we look at our lives do we find anything similar?
The first question is to discern how the situation Jesus dealt with came about. We have to go all the way back to the Exodus from Egypt to begin tracing an answer. After leading the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai. Slaves were not used to making decisions for themselves or governing themselves. The Commandments were intended to provide a set of guidelines for life in community when the Hebrews settled in their own land. The fourth commandment was “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; the seventh is a Sabbath to the Lord, and you shall not do any work.”
This is not intended as a punishment, something to keep you from doing something you really wanted to do. This is intended as a gift. For generations these people had been slaves. Every day was like every other day. You get up in the morning and you make bricks all day then you go to bed. The assumption as they move forth into freedom is that this is what you do. You work hard every day. God says no, you need rest as well, and so do your animals and your slaves if you ever have them. Work six days, but rest one. Even the Lord rested on the seventh day after creating the heavens and the earth.
In time, over decades and generations and centuries, the law about Sabbath observance took on a very different tone. Especially after the Babylonian exile, which prophets and historians viewed as being brought on by unfaithfulness to God and God’s law. The emphasis for many following the exile was on following the Old Testament laws, dotting every i and crossing every t. That meant great study and debate went into analyzing each law and its implications. For Sabbath law, the debate was over exactly what constituted work. How far could you walk, what could you do about fixing lunch, could you get your ox out of the ditch? The joy and blessedness of the day of rest was crowded out by the paralyzing fear that God was keeping track of every move you made on the Sabbath and if it was one more move than allowed by Sabbath law then your goose was cooked. The Pharisees were the ones obsessed with making sure people knew and obeyed the law – they saw themselves as God’s watchdogs. They did it for a good purpose. They believed the key to right relationship with God was obedience, so they wanted to protect people from the consequences of being disobedient by being ever vigilant. They were the “no sayers,” and every society needs some.
Claire, bless her heart, was the “no lady” at our house when the children were small. There was a famous day when Erin had heard “no” so many times that she angrily shook her finger at Claire and said, “No, no, no, no, Mommy!” But she knew how to balance the no’s with yes’s and with affirmation and hugs. The Pharisees did not seem to know this balance. When people were hungry on the Sabbath and did what they could to feed themselves, it was “no, no, no, no.” When a man with a withered hand was healed on the Sabbath, it was “no, no, no, no.” Are you kidding me? Is everything that black and white, that without heart? Is God so rigid and uncaring?
The telling question Jesus asked the Pharisees was, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” What fulfills the law? They had no answer, because this was not the question they asked about actions taken on the Sabbath. Their question was, “Does this action constitute work according to the law?” Jesus wanted to know if the law is fulfilled by doing good or by doing harm on the Sabbath. He didn’t include the option of doing nothing, because that was the same as doing harm if you have it within your power to do something good for the other.
People who approach life as the Pharisees did like life to be black and white. Either this action is against the law or it is not. We can look it up in a book and get the answer as to whether anything is bad or not, and it’s not up for discussion. When Jesus started reframing the question and looking at the motivation for actions as part of the judgment criteria, it introduced gray areas into the conversation. This makes Pharisees mad, because they lose control. If you lose control of the discussion about one law, the others will probably not be far behind. You know you can’t budge an inch and you don’t, and you are willing to fight the threat to your control. So after Jesus asks the question which they cannot or will not answer and he heals the man, Luke says “they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” All for eating some grain and healing a man’s hand on the Sabbath. Later he will get in more trouble for bending other laws, like hand washing and cleanliness, like eating with tax collectors and sinners, like forgiving sins. The response of the Pharisees seems so irrational and over the top as we read it.
Until and unless we risk taking a look at how we handle it when we are confronted by change. While the two stories about challenges to Sabbath observance were pretty irrelevant to us, I believe I can get each and every one of you up in arms with just two examples, out of many possibilities, of how we react to being challenged to change.
I hate the labels liberal and conservative, but to make this point quickly I’m going to use them. I’ll start with an example for the liberals among us. For a generation Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land, granting women the right to make decisions about their own bodies, including having a baby aborted. I expect this to be overturned in the next few years and there will be a great debate about what the new normal will be. The Pharisaical response will be to demand that not one thing be changed about the current status quo because you can’t take away my rights. It’s black and white, either you have rights or you don’t. I’m thinking Jesus might like for us to think about whether we are really comfortable with over half a million babies being aborted in our country alone each year, many just for the sake of convenience, and see if we can find a better way.
Now for an example for the conservatives among us, another constant debate. The laws of the land are generally very permissive about gun ownership. There are regularly movements wanting to change the law to be more restrictive about who and what kind of guns are permitted and when you can carry them. The Pharisaical response is that not one thing can be changed about the status quo because the founding fathers set it up in the constitution. It’s black and white, either you can have guns or you can’t. I’m thinking Jesus might like for us to think about the difference in weaponry and society between the 1770’s and the 2000’s and find a better way.
So have I made everybody angry yet? If not, think about those written or unwritten laws or executive orders that get you most fired up. Which ones will make you turn against anyone who questions them at all? That will help you understand the response of the Pharisees to Jesus that day and throughout his ministry, the response which eventually led to his death on the cross. It began with good religious people who were unwilling to have the assumptions upon which they based their lives and faith called into question.
Jesus never called for the abolition of Sabbath observance. He wanted to restore it to its roots of being a day of rest and gratitude and doing good, not evil. He wanted to lead people to live by the spirit of the law, which gives life, rather than by the letter of the law, which gives death. The Pharisees could not envision the joyous, positive faith this approach could lead to. Instead of seeing an even stronger foundation being built for faith, they thought Jesus was chipping away at and eroding the foundation that they were deeply invested in maintaining.
My hope for this morning is that we all recognize that we and the groups we identify with have some Pharisaical tendencies in maintaining some status quo that we think is crucial but that may or may not be on point with God’s vision for the world and for our lives. May God grant us clarity, wisdom, and humility in discerning the differences between our priorities and his, and the courage to act on what we learn.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
January 29, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church