Journey with Jesus (Mark) - The Sabbath
Mark 2:23-3:6, 1 Sam 19:1-12, 21:1-6, Psalm 113
We are in the fourth week of a five week series called Journey with Jesus. We are following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. So far we have seen that Jesus is the Son of God, he has the power to heal, and he has the authority to forgive sins. We learned last week that Jesus’ power to forgive sins transforms lives. We also learned that Jesus seeks people who have turned their back on God. Jesus was also missional last week, taking something from the wider culture and using it to explain the Good News. Today, we will see that Jesus also has the authority to interpret the law. Throughout, we have seen that Jesus butts heads with the religious leaders and this morning we will see that the conflict with the religious leaders escalates. The basic idea of the day is what Jesus says in Mark chapter 2:27: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” What this means is that the sabbath was made for humans to help us grow closer to God and be better able to reflect God’s character in the world. To help us understand this better, we will first look at the sabbath in general. Then we will go through the Mark passage.
I live in Cote Saint Luc, which is a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, and the sabbath is a thing there. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday religious Jews do not drive (they walk everywhere), they don’t cook, they don’t even turn lights on and off. In the Christian tradition we don’t keep sabbath in the same way, but many of us have a living memory of a time when Christians kept a sabbath of sorts on Sundays. On Sundays, people went to church, they didn’t do housework or yard work, and all the stores were closed. I am going to talk about sabbath again during Lent because that is what I am going to do for Lent: keep a sabbath of sorts.
How was sabbath understood in Jesus’ day? In the Old Testament there are very few rules about the sabbath. You must rest during plowing and harvest (Exod 34:21). You may not collect sticks (Num 15:32-6), you may not kindle a fire (Exod 35:3), and you may not work (Exod 20:10, Deut 5:14). No definition is given for what is meant by “work.” (Davies, W.D. and D. C. Allison. Matthew 8-18. ICC. (T&T Clark, Ltd., 1991), pg 311.) Because of this, the religious leaders (the scribes, the Pharisees) had a very important role in society, which was to interpret the law for the people so that they could follow it (Pheme Perkins. "The Gospel of Mark". NIB vol. VIII. (Abingdon Press, 1995), pg. 560.). As a result, they developed lots and lots of rules in order to help people keep the commandment "do not 'work'” on the sabbath.
Eventually all these rules were written down in a collection of books called the Mishnah, which still exists to this day. The Jewish leaders were very aware that they had an excessive amount of rules about the sabbath. In the Mishnah it says, “the rules about the sabbath...are as mountains hanging by a hair, for the teaching of Scripture [on the sabbath] is scanty and the rules many” (m. Hag. 1.8; quoted in Davies & Allison, pg. 312). I’ll give you a real life example. We used to live next door to a rabbi. We invited his daughters over to play soccer in our backyard on a Saturday afternoon. Saturday is the Jewish sabbath. Their father said no because playing soccer was not allowed on the sabbath. Why? Because you can’t work, which means you can’t turn over the soil, for farming. But in soccer, you might need to level the field, which is turning over the soil, so therefore you can’t play soccer on the sabbath. We didn't play soccer that day.
In Jewish tradition, these rules are constantly debated. They view the mishnah as a book with which they have a conversation. This was true in Jesus’ day as well: different religious leaders would debate different rules. According to Pheme Perkins, it is likely that “different teachers [would have] disagree[d] over whether the disciples were violating the law” (pg. 556) in our Mark passage this morning. Let’s see what happened there and what Jesus said.
Starting in Mark 2:23 it says, “One sabbath he 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?” [This is the story that we read from 1 Samuel this morning] Jesus continued, ‘David 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.’” Let’s stop there. What is happening?
Jesus’ disciples are plucking heads of grain. The Pharisees think it is not lawful. Perhaps they are accusing the disciples of harvesting the grain. Jesus responds with a story in which David found himself in great need. As we read in 1 Samuel, he was fleeing for his life and in need of food. He violated the law by taking the bread of the Presence, but eating that bread saved his life. There was a real emergency. In Jesus’ day there was a tradition of breaking the law or the sabbath rules in cases when a real emergency was happening. That’s what David was doing, and the Scriptures do not condemn him for it. Are Jesus’ disciples in an emergency?
Well, we know they are not starving. They have just dined with Levi and in the previous paragraph, which we didn’t read, they are not fasting. It appears that they were not in an emergency. Why did Jesus make this comparison with David’s story? Jesus is saying that just as David had the authority to eat the bread of the Presence, so Jesus has the authority to declare that his disciples are not breaking the sabbath by plucking the heads of grain. Jesus gives an explanation that says he has this authority. Starting in verse 27: “Then [Jesus] 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.” Jesus here claims that he is lord of the sabbath. He has the authority to argue with the religious leaders about sabbath rules and declare his disciples innocent of breaking the sabbath. This is adding authority to Jesus. He is Son of God. He can heal. He can forgive sins and transform lives. He also has authority to interpret the law, an important job only reserved for the religious leaders.
He explains his reasoning to the Pharisees for his interpretation. His reasoning in this case is that the sabbath was made for humans. It was made for humans to grow closer to God and be better able to reflect God’s character in the world. The disciples are enjoying a sabbath walk with their lord, Jesus Christ. They are following Him, spending time with him, deepening their relationship with him, delighting in Him. This is what we are supposed to do during our rest on the sabbath. Picking heads of grain does not distract from the disciples’ time with Jesus, but the Pharisees accusations do….
In this section, we see Jesus having authority to interpret the law. This was a legitimate debate. But in the next section, we see that Jesus does not break the sabbath, while the Pharisees do.
Let’s read starting in chapter 3:1: “Again [Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who has a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” Already the Pharisees are breaking the law because they are engaging in behaviours that divide them from God. They are intentionally trying to accuse Jesus. Let’s keep reading, starting up again in verse 3, “And [Jesus] 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.” This comment is directed at the Pharisees. Jesus knows what is in their hearts. They are seeking to do harm. They are seeking to kill. Let’s continue reading in verse 5: “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.”
First of all, Jesus does not violate the sabbath at all in this synagogue. All that happens is that the man stretches out his hand and is healed. There is no law against that. Jesus is keeping the sabbath AND doing good.
Secondly, the Pharisees do violate the law and the sabbath. Their actions were intended to do harm. They are determined to kill, which clearly violates the law. Also, their hardness of heart is separating them from God, the opposite of what it supposed to happen on the sabbath. The sabbath rest is supposed to help us reconnect with God. We should not engage in activities that separate us from God, like the Pharisees did.
Why did they act this way? According to Pheme Perkins, “the Pharisees are engaging in a political plot against Jesus, who exposed their malice when he challenged them to interpret the Law and then healed the man without breaking the law” (pg. 559). They have lost the desire to follow God’s will. They do not like Jesus’ challenges to their traditions and beliefs. They do not like his challenges to their interpretations of the law. This is foreshadowing something Jesus says to them in Mark chapter 7, verse 8 & 13 where Jesus says to them, “You have abandoned the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition...Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” The Pharisees have lost sight of what the law is for and what their rules are for. As Jesus said earlier, “The sabbath is made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath.” The Law and the rules that were created to help people follow the law are supposed to help people connect with God and reflect God’s character in the world. Jesus, as the Son of God, challenges the Pharisees because their interpretations do not reflect God’s character in the world. Instead of responding with humility and prayer, they respond with hate and plot his murder. They value their traditions, their rules, more than God. They sacrifice God for the sake of their traditions, forgetting the purpose of those traditions. And they intend to break the law through murder….
Well, it’s easy for us to look at the Pharisees and point the finger, accusing them of valuing their traditions more than God. But we have to be careful of the very same thing. Do we hold onto traditions or systems of belief too tightly? Are we at risk of missing new things that God is doing during our time in history because we hold too tightly to human traditions that have been passed down to us? In all things it is important to remember Jesus words about the sabbath: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” All spiritual disciplines, Christian belief systems, and traditions are like that. Spiritual disciplines, Christian belief systems, and traditions were made to help people (us!) to be faithful to God, not only in doing good, but in demonstrating God’s loving character to the world. Jesus’ responses to the Pharisees about the sabbath did not get rid of the sabbath, but renewed the sabbath, changing its focus to be on Christ, but keeping the essence and purpose of it.
Just as Jesus reached out and healed the man with the withered hand despite the Pharisees objections, so Jesus wants to reach out through us to bring healing to our hurting world, despite objections we might face.
Many theologians today are reevaluating the way we share our faith in the church and in the world. For many years the focus has been on doing things correctly rather than on whether people deepen their relationship with Jesus and reflect God’s loving character in the world. Brian D. McClaren is one voice among many encouraging churches to focus on living their faith in Jesus. The way to refocus, he says, is by emphasizing love. Just as Jesus renewed the sabbath in our Scripture today, so Jesus is working to renew our churches through an emphasis on radical love. I feel fortunate to be at Briarwood, a church that has been seeking God this way for decades. The mission statement I say at the beginning of every service is one that Briarwood had before I started: that we are an open community for all, invited by Christ and inviting others to joyful worship and loving action in the world. This is what God is guiding us to be….through our traditional and our contemporary music, through our old and our new activities, in everything that we do. So let us remember that all of the things we do are intended to help deepen our relationship with Jesus and reflect God’s loving character in the world. Let us be humble and prayerful to follow Jesus when Jesus wants to renew parts of our life together. This is the essence of faith and of the Christian life: continually seeking Jesus and continually reforming ourselves to be more and more like Him, a community of loving action in the world.