transfiguring Sabbath

Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6

I tell you again:
I am regularly struck
by how important these stories of Scripture are—
how vitally relevant,
how needed they are—
in our living and in our world.

I invite you this morning to picture our text as it unfolds.
Initially, we have Jesus walking through a grain-field.
Probably not parting the stalks and walking right through the crop,
but on a footpath.
There weren’t roads.
Romans built what roads there were—
and only between places significant to them.
Elsewhere there were well worn footpaths,
and where a footpath went through a farmer’s field,
he would plough right up to the edge of the path,
leaving the way for people to get through.
You remember the parable
of the sower sowing seed in his field,
and some seed fell on the—path?

So, we’re picturing Jesus
making his way through a grain-field
on a probably fairly narrow footpath
(a farmer’s not going to be overly generous with his land!),
ripe grain probably standing three to four feet high on either side of him—
disciples trailing along behind,
plucking heads of grain presumably to eat—
which was explicitly permitted in the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:25).
You couldn’t gather enough to carry with you.
You couldn’t harvest,
but you could graze your way through a grain-field.

we need to pause here in our imaging
to make a quick point about our translation.
Once again it obscures something important going on here.
The Greek vocabulary, the word placement, the sentence structure
(you know these fascinating things!)
are such that our text actually reads:
the disciples were plucking grains and making a way for him.
Not foraging on an existing path,
but forging a new path.

And it’s the same language
Mark used to begin his gospel
quoting Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’”
(Mark 1:3; Isaiah 40:3).

This is the royal imagery of a king,
who in the Jewish tradition
can make a road wherever he wants—
over whomever’s land—
through whomever’s fields and crops.

Now that’s probably not what happened,
you understand.
It’s Mark wanting to make a theological point.

So we have a story about something that happened,
and then we have theological affirmations
Mark saw the opportunity to load onto the story to make his point—
in effect saying more than what happened—
something not about what Jesus did—what the disciples did,
but about what Mark believed about who Jesus was.
Which is fine; it’s fine.
It’s just something to keep in mind.
Scripture isn’t always about what happened.

So we’re back to our image
of Jesus walking
with the disciples behind him
in single file—
maybe two by two—narrow path—
plucking grain.

Then we also have to picture the Pharisees following along behind,
Behind the disciples because they saw what the disciples were doing.

So Jesus in front.
Twelve disciples.
Undisclosed number of Pharisees.
It was a parade through the corn field or the barley or the wheat.

And though I tend to imagine Jesus walking
the height and breadth of the land,
there’s no need to imagine that this Sabbath walk
involved more than the 1000 steps allowed on a Sabbath.
Especially since there were those Pharisees at the tail end.
They wouldn’t, after all, disobey the Sabbath laws.

Now I’m thinking the Pharisees
were probably none too happy to be in a grain-field—
thinking, “This isn’t what I signed up for.”
But they had been assigned the task of keeping an eye on Jesus
to try and catch him in something said or done
that could be used against him.

And they did—
the disciples picking the grain.
Not that there was anything wrong with the picking of grain per se.
It was rather the picking of grain on the Sabbath.

Now in my mind, this gets rather humorous.
Not just the parade through the grain field,
but the Pharisees,
at least twelve people removed from Jesus,
yelling up at him—
past the disciples
about whom they were speaking—
who were between them and Jesus,
“Hey, Jesus! Your disciples are picking grain on the Sabbath!”

And the disciples looking behind them,
at the Pharisees leveling their criticism about them past them,
“What are ya’ll fussing about?”

And Jesus striding on, way ahead,
asking about David.
And notice how he asked about David.
“Have you never read about David?”
Isn’t that like asking if a Latin teacher hadn’t ever read about Plutarch?
Of course they had read about David.
“You remember when David did this?
He and his men were hungry,
and he took the Bread of the Presence—
sacramental bread—holy bread—
bread he wasn’t even supposed to touch,
and he distributed it amongst his hungry men,
and they ate?”

In terms of Mark’s writing,
notice the link made between Jesus as royalty
(his followers making the road before him)
and David as royalty—
both with the power and authority of royalty.
You can see it, right? The theological point.

Not the point.
I mean, it’s a point Mark wants to make,
but the real point is that David ignored religious rules—
religious protocol,
to address the need of his men.
And Jesus claims that right.
Now here’s where it gets a little tricky—
He claims that right not for the need of his disciples.
They weren’t starving.
There were pretty clear understandings
that in life and death situations, Sabbath law could be suspended.
This wasn’t life and death.
This was pleasure.
This was fun.
This was a walk through the field.

Silence from the back of the parade.

And here’s where it gets even trickier.
Because they could have actually responded,
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact, we have read about David,
and we’ve read that particular story to which we think you refer.
But we only think you refer to it
because you’ve actually got it all wrong (1 Samuel 21:1-6).
Abiathar wasn’t the high priest.
There was no high priest in that story.
Ahimelech was just the regular priest.
David was alone in that story, his men weren’t there.
There was no mention of hunger in that story.
David did not enter the house of God,
and the story says nothing about the bread being eaten
(John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrigan, The Gospel of Mark
in Sacrina Pagina [Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002] 111).

Jesus got the Scripture wrong?

Why didn’t the Pharisees call him on it?
Such was the authority of Jesus?
So focused on Jesus were they,
that they were utterly befuddled?

Jesus got the Scripture wrong?

Now he wasn’t making things up.
No, it’s all implied in that story in 1 Samuel.
Why else would David take bread but to eat it.
And he mentions his men even if they’re not there.
But it’s not the letter of the story that’s important to Jesus—
it’s not important who the priest was.
It’s what’s not said but assumed that’s important—
that even the priest acknowledged the importance of David’s need
over the sanctity of the bread.
Scripture isn’t always about what happened.

And I’m guessing there was a pause.
I’m guess Jesus was waiting.
“Are they going to let me by with this?
Okay. They’re not going to challenge me
on this scripture retelling.”
And he went on walking and talking,
“The Sabbath was made for humankind,
not vice versa.”
My guess is if they had challenged him on the Scripture
(as he just about blatantly invited them to do),
he would have gotten to his point of affirming that the Sabbath is for humankind
by way of affirming the same about Scripture.
Scripture is for humankind,
not vice versa.
“And so the son of man is lord of the Sabbath.”

Religion is made for people, not vice versa.
We still get that confused.

That bit about the son of man being lord of the Sabbath?
Again, not the point.
A point—
a christological affirmation of power and authority probably added by Mark.
But it’s added on to what Jesus was talking about—
celebrating creation can be a good part of celebrating Sabbath.

Here’s the thing—
the mind bender for the day:
the Pharisees were actually reacting to what Mark said happened
that didn’t happen,
that was nonetheless true.
I’ll say that again.
The Pharisees were actually reacting to what Mark said happened
that didn’t happen,
that was nonetheless true.
They were reacting to a path being made for a king.
They were reacting to that kind of authority given to Jesus.

And Jesus confirms their concern
by claiming authority to prioritize people over religion.
“You’re right to be worried about me
if you’re more worried about the letter of the word
than the word made flesh.
You’re right!”

Here’s the other thing:
that’s not just a Jesus thing! That’s not just a Jesus truth.
We need more people prioritizing people over religion—
and explicitly because that’s what their religion teaches them to do.
Imagine the power in our world
of people saying, “My religion teaches me
that my religion isn’t as important as you are.”

Which brings us to our second story.
The scene switches to the synagogue.
It’s still the Sabbath
(or maybe it’s another Sabbath).
Mark strung these stories together, remember—
maybe not chronologically, but thematically.

Our second story begins Jesus again entering the synagogue.
So maybe he had been in the synagogue,
left for a quick walk through the grain-fields,
and was now back?
Or is this could be indication of the regularity of Jesus entering synagogues?
Or maybe what we’re to hear is again,
another question about Sabbath from the Pharisees—
again another confrontation about Sabbath expectations.

Because a man was there with a withered hand.
And the Pharisees watched him to see if he would cure him on the Sabbath
so they might accuse him.
They’re focused on Jesus
in order to accuse him.
That’s what our text says—
which is in keeping with them following Jesus through the fields—
in keeping with the regular confrontations throughout these chapters—
which is to say that technically the Pharisees were doing their job—
which is to say technically they were not honoring the Sabbath!
They were intentionally focused on Jesus, not on God.
Now take just a second to think about the theological irony there!

Obviously aware of the Pharisees (and their questions/concerns/plans),
he asked them, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?”
And he looked at them with anger
grieving their hardness of heart.
He was angry at them;
that’s important.
But his anger came from grief;
that’s important too.
Much more recently Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote,
“The ancient rabbis knew that excessive piety
may endanger the fulfillment of the essence of the law”
(Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath:
Its Meaning for Modern Man
[New York: The Noonday Press,1951] 17).
Jesus, of course, being one of those ancient rabbis!

For these Pharisees in this story
were more interested in the law as a trap
than they were in honoring the law—
whatever they might have said in the way of justification.
And so they were more interested in the law as a trap for Jesus
than they were in the need of this man
whom they never saw
as anything except means to an end—
using the challenging reality of his existence
as their weapon.
They never saw the man.
They just saw how they could use him.

Jesus though, saw the man—
facing life with his own set of challenging circumstances.
And his understanding of the law did not forbid him to help;
it expected him to.

He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand,”
and as the man did, his hand was restored.
Technically Jesus didn’t do anything the Pharisees could object to.
He just talked.
There weren’t any rules about not talking on the Sabbath.

But the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired
with the Herodians against him
how to destroy him.
Now that sounds like a really appropriate Sabbath focus to me doesn’t it to you?
More evidence of their priorities.
Herodians were those invested in the secular power of Herod.
Normally Pharisees and Herodians would have kept worlds apart—
focused on what each felt most important.

So we note there were unusual alliances.
We have these unusual alliances
within the ranks of those who followed Jesus
(consider the zealot and the tax collector),
and we have these unusual alliances
in opposition to Jesus
(Pharisees and Herodians).

Which leads to this significant question:
what’s important enough to bind us together
despite our significant differences?
What binds us as a church together despite significant differences?
What binds churches together despite significant differences?
What binds the people of God together despite significant differences?
I wish we could answer that.

What do you think Jesus saw when he looked at the Pharisees?
Because he saw them, didn’t he?
He saw the man, right, and his withered hand?
I think when he looked at the Pharisees
he saw men who had allowed grace to wither—
who in prioritizing the letter of the law
had let the spirit wither.

Now, our stories in no way comprise a rejection of Judaism—
nor even of Pharisees per se,
but the mentality of absolutism—
of dualism—of certainty,
and the prioritization of being right—
of religion as control—
as system—
as ideas—
not relationships.

We’re not talking about devaluing Sabbath.
And the ancient rabbi would agree with the more modern one.
“What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us”
writes Heschel (Heschel, 89).
“What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us.”
“Yes. Precisely,” I think Jesus would have said.

Sabbath and religion and scripture are all to be seen
transfigured into light and love.

So important these days.
There are too many people prioritizing religion
over what religion is supposed to help us be and accomplish.
Too many people judging on the basis of religion
instead of loving as an expression of their religion.
Using religion as means to some end as a weapon.
Not seeing the hurting people in front of them
in desperate need of gospel—good news—
in desperate need of words of grace and truth.

I’m not saying religion isn’t important.

It’s like children need structure
to be comfortable—
to feel safe and secure
as they grow.
And then they also need to resist it
in order to grow.
And, growing, they will question the structure,
the rules, the expectations—
all for the good.

Because we want them to take what is right
and reject what is not.
We want them to assess and discern for themselves.

We want them to move from external motivation
to internal.

But it’s a process.
It’s sequential
and consequential,

and comprises one of the most challenging tensions of parenting.

As Dawn Baker has many a time said,
“When your child is running through the busy parking lot,
and you yell, ‘Stop!’,
you really don’t want an argument.
It’s not the time or place to affirm the child’s autonomy—
the child’s independent spirit.
You want and you need to be obeyed,
so then when they’re older, as they grow,
they assess the rules, they assess the context,
and they can choose for themselves
not to run through the busy parking lot
when you’re not there to watch them.

Our stories are in no way to reject our need for Sabbath.
We need it far more than we celebrate it.
“What would be a world without Sabbath?
It would be a world that knew only itself
or God distorted as a thing
or the abyss separating Him from the world;
a world without the vision of a window in eternity
that opens into time” (Heschel, 16).

We so need Sabbath.
You so need Sabbath—
contemplative time—
reflective time.
We so need what is not valued in our world and our culture—
of go go go do do do.
We need to be removed;
we need isolation;
we need solitude;
we need sabbath;
we need rest.

It’s not about being tired—
though it’s that too.
It’s about competing priorities;
it’s about peace and wholeness and holiness;
it’s about recognizing limitations
and then transcending them
in affirming them.

It’s about obedience
to the spirit
that begins with the letter but cannot end there.

it’s about rest.
Well, you circle round again.
It’s about depth.
Circle round again.
It’s about setting apart and being set apart.
Circle round again.
It’s about transcendence.
Circle round again.
It’s about us and the way we live our lives given transcendence.
Circle round again.
It’s about peace within that challenge.
Circle round again.
It’s about how we see people—
see the people in front of us and care for them.
Circle round again.
It’s about God.

Thanks be to God.

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