Have you ever been in a situation where everything you did was monitored, and where every move was analyzed? This was the case with Jesus. Once again Jesus cut right across the religious rules and regulations. One Sabbath, when he and his disciples were going through the corn fields, his disciples began to pluck the ears of corn and eat them. On any other day it was perfectly legal for people who were traveling to take an ear or two or a handful of grain to munch on.
The problem was that this was the Sabbath and all work was forbidden. What was allowed six days of the week was forbidden on this day and the penalty was death, assuming that what they were doing could be seen as reaping or harvesting.
Since people could not agree about what was work and what was not, (reading-golf-mowing grass-gardening-fishing-sewing-cooking) the different rabbis weighed in. Some said medical care could be offered to someone if their life was in danger. If a wall fell on someone and they were alive, they could be rescued, but if they were dead, the body had to be left until the next day. Cold water could be poured on a sprain, but a fracture had to wait until tomorrow. A cut finger could be bandaged, but ointment could not be applied on the Sabbath. Basically, an injury could be kept from getting worse, but it could not be made better on the Sabbath.
The Pharisees believed that God had called them to make sure everyone lived according to the religious rules every day. They figured that Jesus would immediately stop his followers when they were caught breaking the Sabbath rule. Instead, Jesus suggested a reversal to the law, saying that people were not created to be the victims and slaves of the Sabbath laws and rules. Jesus understood that the Sabbath was created to make life better, not worse.
The basic difference between Jesus and the religious leaders was that Jesus did not believe that faith and belief in God’s love consisted of rules and regulations. For too many, following Jesus is only about abstaining from work on the Sabbath, attending worship, praying, reading the Bible and acting like a Christian in everyday life.
These are all good things to do, but love, mercy, forgiveness and service are at the heart of being a follower of Jesus. People are more important than rituals and rules.
In the second part of this scripture, we read about Jesus healing a man whose hand was deformed. His life was not in danger. He would not be any worse off if he had been left until the next day.
Seeing the religious leaders in the crowd and knowing that they were looking for something they could use to bring charges against him, Jesus anticipated their questions with one of his own about whether doing good was allowed on the Sabbath. They said that it was. He healed the man, knowing that there was nothing they could do to him.
For the Pharisees, it was all about rituals, rules, laws and regulations. The Pharisees believed Jesus had broken several and had to be punished. For Jesus, it was mostly about making lives better.
It is not that we should ignore the religious rules but how are we going to live but out the intent of the laws? They were created to help us live happy, healthy lives in community. They tried to meet needs.
The Illinois Great Rivers Conference, of which we are one of 800 churches, is firm about pastors observing a Sabbath; and taking time away from ministry. If I work 7 days a week, I’ll eventually burn out and be less effective. I’m not always real good at it but I try to take Friday as my day of renewal, reflection and re-creation. Jesus is not breaking the rules but demonstrating the purpose of doing good as the real purpose of the Sabbath.
The reality was that the Disciples plucked grain to survive, not to sell or plant or keep for the next day. Was this really work? Should we not be allowed to eat every day of the week?
Some of us remember the “Blue Laws” when stores and gas stations were closed. With all the people traveling on weekends and the trucks that carry products seven days a week, can you imagine what it would be like if most travel was limited one day a week?
Historical records tell us that the man with the withered hand was a stonemason and needed both hands to do his job and provide for his family. The man needed to be healed on this Sabbath so he could do his job.
The religious leaders were not all bad. Without them, the people had no legal ways to determine or interpret the laws like our supreme court does.
The people were stretched and strained beyond the old and safe categories in ways that demanded a rethinking of Scripture, traditions, God, everything that we think we are doing for God and everything that we believe God is doing for us.
Jesus reminded them about a time that King David did a similar thing to provide food for his troops and no one opposed this.
Jesus seemed to be attempting to unhinge Sabbath day observances from the penalty oriented
oppressive practice that had developed. The day had turned into a day of “work” in trying to decide what could and could not be done rather than it being a true day of rest.
Jesus’ declaration that the Sabbath was a gift from God to humans for people’s benefit not only restores the early biblical concept of the Sabbath, but also anticipates the rabbis’ teaching concerning the sanctity and meaning of the day. Jesus readjusted the Sabbath for renewal, reverence, obedience and expectancy Jesus reframes the Sabbath as a gift from God. A gift with strings and stipulations is not a gift but a bribe.
Law and discipline frequently threaten to eclipse love and delight in our world, and this is what often happened when the Sabbath law was worshipped instead of God. The Sabbath frequently turned from gift into curse. What is important however is the spirit of the law, which must be retained even through the strictest observance of the laws. Rabbi Heschel, one of the greatest rabbis of Jesus’ day once wrote, “One must sacrifice the commandments for the sake of the human, rather than sacrifice people for the laws.”
Earlier in Jesus’ ministry, the religious leaders wrestled with the concept that Jesus had the authority to forgive sins. Now Jesus is declaring that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. The Pharisees were waiting to pounce on Him at the slightest infraction of the laws.
Tradition did allow for the superseding of strict Sabbath observance in order to save a life. The problem the Pharisee’s had was that they felt Jesus was healing UNNECESSARILY on the Sabbath. For Jesus, it was necessary that the fractured be made whole, regardless of the day, perhaps even because of the day. For the Pharisees, what was one more day with a withered hand or demon possession?
For Jesus, the religious leaders were no longer stewards of the day for God, they were self appointed owners of the Lord’s day, gatekeepers for what was right and what was wrong, what could and should be done and what was unnecessary to do. From Jesus’ perspective, the Sabbath must be spent sharing grace, peace and great love.
The cumulative effect of Jesus’ actions and attitude adds up to a need for the threatened leaders to figure out a way to eliminate him. Already in the 3rd chapter of Mark’s story the seeds for Jesus’ end are planted and the plot is underway to kill him.
How do we receive what God gives us while refraining from legalism and power games? There is an ongoing need for Christians to reclaim this gift of grace and open it anew for our own benefit.
What would it be like if we had one day a week in which we are detached from the dependence of external obligations, a day on which we stopped worshipping the idols of technical civilization, and a day on which we used no money? What if we had an opportunity to mend our shattered lives; to collect rather than to dissipate time? What if we had a day especially for transformation and for witness to the world as to who our God is and who we are as God's covenant community? What if we made it the most special day of the week; where we really rested so we were more productive the other six days and met needs, but not wants; where we spent time with people, really caring about them and touching their souls in a caring, loving way.
Jesus suggested that the test for all institutions including the church is “does it serve people?” Jesus applied this test to the Sabbath. Institutions are not scared, just people. The institutions that are the most effective and longest lasting are those that are flexible and adapt to the changing needs of people. Nations exist primarily for the welfare of people, not the outmoded notion of complete sovereignty or to throw its economic and military weight around as a sign of its prestige and power to permeate injustice, no matter how entrenched by time and place.
The question is not whether what we are doing on Sunday is work, but does it build up people, does it help to make life better for folks, does it demonstrate God’s love and forgiveness?