One sabbath (Jesus) 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 deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts and said to the man, “Stretch our 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.
The gospel reading in this week’s lectionary picks up the last two of a series of five confrontations Jesus has with the Jewish religious leaders. Questions are being raised about his ministry: who can forgive sins but God alone? Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners? Why don’t his disciples fast? All are legitimate questions, and in Mark’s gospel, they are questions that the reader should be asking.
Jesus’ response to their questions show how radical he was, and how different following him was from traditional Judaism. Jesus claims authority to forgive sins (putting himself on equal footing with God), to have come to “call not the righteous but sinners,” and declares that his disciples can’t fast until he himself is taken away! These perplexing responses are summed up when Jesus says, “no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins; and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” The old traditions, rules and laws of Jewish religion, Jesus is saying, cannot contain who he is and what he is doing.
And this brings us to Mark’s forth and fifth example of Jesus’ collisions with the religious leaders. In our world, working on the Sabbath is taken for granted. Western civilization laughs at the notion of not working on Sabbath, let alone merely walking, picking grain and healing someone! It is nearly impossible for us to understand the importance of Sabbath in ancient Judaism. In his eye-opening book, The Sabbath, Abraham Heschel describes how the Sabbath is to Israel their wife, and quotes the Rabbi, Al Nakawa;
“Just as the groom does no work on his wedding day, so does a main abstain from work on the Sabbath day; and therefore the Sages and ancient Saints called the Sabbath a bride.”
To work on the Sabbath was to desecrate the sacred, to trample on what is holy and akin to cheating on ones spouse. So while today we may look at the rules the Pharisees put in place for the Sabbath as silly and arcane, in their minds they were protecting the most sacred gift that God had bestowed upon them.
So what can we learn from these two encounters? Much. So I will focus on the final scene, in which Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. First, in what ways are we like the Pharisees? Do we watch others, looking to accuse them, to tear them down? I see the Pharisees watching whether Jesus will heal this man on the Sabbath, and I am reminded of us Christians who watch to see whether a prominent pastor or Christian writer will affirm the LGBTQ community, ready to pounce and denounce if their beliefs does not match ours. Are we letting rules get in the way of Jesus’ healing power? Do we explain away Jesus’ teachings as not possible in today’s world instead of putting them to practice in our lives? Are we too focused on being right, instead of doing what is right?
Second, we must see that Jesus has abolished religion. The purpose of religion is to make sure that you are doing everything right to be on God’s good side. This is why the Pharisees had so many rules, because that way they could know they were “in.” Following all of God’s commandments can make you a very moral person, but it does not make you a Christian. Timothy Keller writes,
“The gospel does not say, ‘the good are in and the bad are out,’ nor, ‘the open-minded are in and the judgmental are out.’ The gospel says the humble are in and the proud are out. The gospel says the people who know they’re not better, not more open-minded, not more moral than anyone else, are in, and the people who think they’re on the right side of the divide are most in danger.” (Keller, King’s Cross, 47)
So what replaces religion, what is Christianity? It is faith. Faith, in the New Testament, is not believing in the sense of saying, “Yes, I believe in Jesus.” Faith is trust. Trusting that Jesus’ is who makes me right with God and nothing I do. Trusting that doing what he says will lead to life, life for others and myself. Faith is placing our allegiance in Jesus and nobody and nothing else. We proclaim that “Jesus is Lord,” not money, not sex, not power, and that everything in my life must filter through who he is.
As we go out this week, let this week’s verses guide us. Let us experience the freedom from religion and rules and experience the awesome responsibility of caring for those in need in the name of Christ. Let us tear down the walls, norms and rules that keep others from knowing the healing love of Jesus Christ.