June 3, 2018
Watch a video of this sermon here.
One sabbath he was going through the grain fields; 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. (Mark 2:23-3:6)
We’re back in Capernaum, or almost there. Jesus and his disciples are on their way to church on the Sabbath, and the disciples are hungry. So they pick grain as they walk through a wheat field, and eat it on their way to synagogue. Apparently, the Pharisees use this same route to church, because they are right there, asking Jesus why he lets his followers break Sabbath laws. Jesus tells them a story they already know, but as he does, he likens himself to David – claiming a kind of kingly authority that comes only from God.
In effect, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Don’t get so bound up in your rules that they become your purpose for living. Let Sabbath do its job, which is to provide rest and refreshment, and an opportunity for worship and study. God gave the Sabbath for your benefit. God didn’t create you for the sake of the Sabbath.
The three major things that Jewish understanding of Sabbath included were rest, worship, and study. But the Pharisees were so worried about breaking Sabbath law that they really couldn’t rest, or worship, for fear of breaking a rule. They had all these rules about keeping Sabbath that were not part of the original 10 commandments, but were ways of interpreting the 10 commandments.
They had become so caught up in legalism that they had forgotten the purpose of Sabbath. Instead, they were constantly checking themselves. Had they made one step too far for a Sabbath journey, or lifted a weight that was slightly heavier than they were supposed to be able to lift on a Sabbath?
They were so busy working on the “do no work” part of the commandment to observe the Sabbath, that they had forgotten the “keep it holy” part. Their definition of Sabbath and God’s intention for it were not exactly the same thing.
The Pharisees were the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people at that time. They were the ones who followed the Law most strictly, and were considered to be the most righteous. If you wanted to be considered truly faithful, you followed the way of the Pharisees. But they weren’t leading in a way that honored what God had intended.
Have you ever found yourself in a long line of cars behind a slow driver? That happened to me this week. It started out as about four of us, then grew to six, then nine, then 12, and 14. We were following a pickup truck traveling about 53-54 miles per hour in a 55 mile an hour zone.
That driver was obeying the law. He made sure he did not budge over that 55 miles per hour speed limit by staying just under it. And the line of cars behind him kept getting longer and longer.
This is a stretch of Highway 15 with just enough curves and hills in it that there isn’t much opportunity for passing. And the oncoming traffic on a Friday evening was just heavy enough to limit those opportunities further. So the line behind this pickup truck grew.
Now, you and I both know that the posted speed limit is not the real speed limit. The real speed limit is the speed at which the car ahead of you is traveling. If that car is driving 60 miles per hour, that’s how fast you can drive without having to pass the lead vehicle.
And if you meet a highway patrolman while you are traveling at, say, 63 miles per hour, even if the posted speed limit is 55, you probably are not going to get pulled over, if you are in the middle of a column of safely spaced cars traveling at that speed. If the lead car is traveling at 53 miles per hour, that’s how fast you can go. A sign on the side of the road does not dictate the real speed limit. The driver in front of you does.
I got to thinking how this driver, determined to stay within the legal speed limit, might have considered himself a leader, of sorts. After all, he was at the head of the line. The way in front of him was clear and his view of the road was unimpeded. Maybe he even thought of himself as a protector of all the cars behind him, preventing the rest of us from breaking the law by leading us down the road at 53 miles per hour. He was keeping the rest of us safe.
But the people behind him weren’t following him by choice. We were all following this pickup truck out of necessity. He might have seen himself as the leader of the pack, but in fact, he was an obstacle. This guy was so determined to not go over the speed limit that he was actually making driving dangerous by going under the speed limit. He was an impediment.
And that is exactly what Jesus was saying to these Pharisees. You are an impediment to what God intended for true Sabbath observance. You’re not letting the Spirit flow in the speed and direction it needs to go, because you are so bound up in legalism. The Sabbath was made for people, not the other way around. The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath. Not the other way around. Let’s put Sabbath in its place.
So, what does that mean to us? How do we observe Sabbath in a way that honors God, and sets aside time for rest, worship, and study? Who – or what – is Lord of our Sabbath? How can we keep Sabbath in its rightful place, not as a grudging obligation, but as a source of joyful refreshment for our spirits?
When we look at the second story in this passage, Jesus has made it to the synagogue. They’ve apparently made it through the field of grain okay, and now, Jesus is questioning the Pharisees who are gathered in the synagogue. Keep in mind that this is not the Temple in Jerusalem – it’s the synagogue, in Capernaum.
It’s the same place where Jesus cast out a demon back in chapter one of Mark’s gospel (Mark 1:21-28). It’s where people were astonished by the way Jesus taught with authority. We’ve just seen him claim authority equal to King David’s, as he argues with the Pharisees on the way into town. And now he stands in the synagogue, challenging them with a moral dilemma. Which is more important – to adhere strictly to the rules people have applied to Sabbath, or to give life? What is really lawful? What’s really right?
There’s a man here with a withered hand. Now, clearly, this man is not on the brink of death. Whatever has caused his hand to wither, however long he has endured this withered hand, it isn’t life threatening. He isn’t going to die from a withered hand, at least not right away, on the Sabbath.
But think of what that withered hand meant. It meant this man could not worship in the Temple, because he was deformed. It meant he probably had difficulty earning a living in a place like Capernaum, where physical labor was the primary form of employment. And it meant he suffered disgrace. People took one look at his hand and wondered, maybe even aloud and in his hearing, what evil he had done to deserve such a fate.
So Jesus looks at this guy and he looks at these Pharisees who are so bound up in driving 53 miles an hour in a 55 mile an hour zone, and he says, what’s really right? What’s really lawful? Is it better to give life, or to follow the rules?
And they won’t answer him.
This is one of the few instances in scripture, where we find out that even Jesus has limits to his patience. We see Jesus getting angry. The scripture uses the word he “had anger” and he was grieved because of “the hardness of their hearts.”
And I wonder, how are our hearts hardened in such a way that it grieves Christ? How are we making Jesus angry? What are the rules and the routines and the regulations and the stipulations that we keep as an unwritten law, that prevent us from traveling freely at the speed and in the direction the Spirit wants to lead us?
The Pharisees weren’t leading anymore than the guy in the pickup truck driving 53 miles an hour. And it grieved Jesus. And it grieves Jesus when we get so caught up in legalism that we prevent the Spirit from being generous in healing and supporting life.
So Jesus tells the guy, “stretch out your hand.” He does and he’s made whole. We can imagine that, just like the time when Jesus cast out a demon in that same synagogue, people are astonished and give glory to God.
Everyone, that is, except the guys in the pickup truck, the Pharisees, who hurry out to conspire with their enemies, the Herodians, to find a way to destroy Jesus. We’re only in the third chapter, barely 70 verses into the Gospel of Mark, and they are already looking for a way to kill Jesus.
So where does that put us?
Are we like that pickup truck driver on Friday, and the Pharisees who were challenging Jesus? Are we so afraid of breaking the law that we insist on driving 53 miles per hour in a 55 mile an hour speed zone? Do we see ourselves as the guardians of not only the law, but the Christian faith itself, wanting to protect it and keep it pure?
Do we think we are keeping the church safe by enforcing the rules, to the exclusion of healing and feeding people who are hungry for life? Are we afraid of the power Jesus might use in our midst, and what that might require of us? Are our hearts hardened to the familiar, the safe, the way we are used to doing things, even if it doesn’t seem to attract people to Christ?
Are we like those worried Pharisees? They had good reason to worry. This Jesus was anything but safe. He was dangerous. He still is.
Nibs Stroupe writes, “The difficult truth of the cross is that we would rather kill Jesus than be transformed by his love. … We prefer a dormant God, … subject to our rites and rituals, to the active, category-busting God who is ever present in our lives. … What field is Jesus walking through in our lives, plucking ears of corn from our sacred rituals? … What are the essential categories of our lives that Jesus threatens?”
As you approach Christ’s Table this morning, I invite you to ponder this question: What do you need to surrender to Christ, so that he can be Lord of – not only your Sabbath, but Lord of your life?
 Nibs Stroupe, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 95.