In the Beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the first story of creation in Genesis 1 an orderly and organized account in a perfect seven days, developed by the priestly class of the ancient Israelites as the people’s faith in God understandably withered under the oppression of exile in Babylon, we are told God took nothing and made a vast, beautiful, ever expanding universe including humanity among other life.
And then God rested. On the seventh day God rested taking it all in and proclaiming it all good indeed blessing all of it. A sabbath day which in the ancient tradition and law of Judaism was a day to promote God’s commitment to humanity’s well-being, to save and preserve life.
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. Deuteronomy 5:12-15
This is precisely what Jesus is referring to in our story from Mark this morning when he says,
“The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath.”
It’s probably helpful here to briefly unpack what happened just before and right after Jesus said what he said about the sabbath. Sabbath for Judaism begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday the last day of the week, the seventh day. And so, Jesus and his disciples were making their way through the wheat fields and some were picking the heads of the wheat. Doesn’t seem like a big deal to us. He’s not stealing. Furthermore the law prohibited harvesting to the edges of the fields, and demanded leaving wheat for gleaners, travelers in need of food.
What should stick out to us immediately is that some Pharisees are following Jesus and his disciples around, almost stalking him, harassing them. But in this story of Jesus we call Mark’s gospel, Jesus has already healed a paralyzed man and proclaimed his sins are forgiven, he has recruited and dined with a tax collector, went on a preaching tour and announced his ministry attracting many followers. ALL of those acts were potentially offensive to the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Scribes. So even though we are only at the end of chapter 2 we should not be surprised that the local religious authorities are out on a Saturday watching Jesus’ every move.
In response to the accusation of working on the sabbath, Jesus recounts the story of King David doing something even more sacrilegious by eating food only the priests were ceremonially allowed to eat to prove his point that need overrules the law. King David will be a central character for our messages in the weeks to come by the way
The story immediately shifts to a synagogue where we find Jesus on the Sabbath encountering a man with a withered hand and challenges the authorities on the righteousness of healing his hand saying, “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”
The storyteller says the man stretched out his hand and it was made healthy, he was restored not only to wholeness in body but to his community he was now accepted fully, no longer mocked for his disability, nor taken advantage of by others, no longer considered cursed or contagious by the suspicions of ancient times. He was now whole in the whole sense of wholeness.
And, the result we are told, the religious authorities got together with the Herodians to plot to destroy Jesus. To bring this into perspective this unlikely marriage of religious and political parties of the first century to devise a plan to kill Jesus would be like Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow agreeing on a common enemy and actually working together to eliminate that enemy.
Ponder this. Healing and restoring wholeness of life to the man with the withered hand was so extreme that violently opposed groups came together to plot death for the healer.
Two things are going on behind the scenes of this story that are important for the first century audience and for us as we hear it anew today.
The purpose of the Law is being misunderstood. According to blogger and biblical scholar David Lose, “The biblical witness is clear: God gives us the law to help us get the most out of life and, in particular, to help us get more out of life by helping others, by looking out for them, by taking care of them and, by extension, each other. In this way, the law creates a level of order that makes human flourishing more likely. Law offers a measure of protection, particularly important to those who are most vulnerable. Law establishes a stability that makes it easier for us to prosper. All of these things the law does. Which is why God’s law is holy and we are taught to know, revere, and follow the law.”
But, Lose claims, “as important as the law is, it is and shall always be a means to an end, a tool, a mechanism in service to a greater purpose. It is not an end in itself; following the law is not itself the purpose of the law, and the law not capable of granting us identity but only helps us live into the identity of beloved children given to us by God.”
So for the religious authorities then, as do some well-meaning religious folks now, the law had become an end and a legalism resulted that does two things: it judges everyone we believe is not following the law whether religious or civil laws to our standards as high or low as they may be, and this rewards or punishments legalism creates a social system where-in law and order become a god of sorts and thus the system – those who make the laws and enforce the laws become exempt from the very laws they are sworn to uphold – laws intended to protect the most vulnerable among us, children including teenagers, the poor, the orphaned, the mentally ill, the elderly.
When serving law and order comes before basic human needs the law is no longer made for humanity – humanity has become servant of the law.
We are no longer innocent until proven guilty, we are guilty until proven innocent if we make it to the courtroom to defend ourselves. That is the experience of many black and brown communities in our nation.
By standing up to the Pharisees, the scribes and the Herodians, Jesus proclaims that the law was made for humanity not the other way around, that people matter to God more than law and order.
Of course law and order was the way the Pharisees, the scribes and the Herodians maintained their power, their wealth, their privilege and so Jesus was meddling in their status. He was calling them out again for not upholding the first law of God, to love God because they were busy loving themselves first.
Jesus was organizing a resistance to their authority for not obeying the second law of God, to love their neighbor because they were too blood thirsty for condemnation, too ready to trample them under their oppressive practices including the temple tax.
Jesus is turning the social order of his time and his people upside down as he announces the arrival of the kingdom of God. Those who benefited from the law and order mentality were threatened to lose their high and mighty status, their privilege especially when this loose cannon is out their healing the scum of the earth with withered limbs on the sabbath – who will he restore to full status in their community next blind beggars, prostitutes, lepers, the mentally ill, the addicted, foreigners, criminals?
Truth is Jesus continues to turn the world upside down. Just when we think we have a hold on everything, just when we think we are the ones establishing law and order, we get our world flipped over by Jesus and his love and grace. Our world that says if you obey, if your good, if your right you don’t get punished and you certainly don’t get executed – but he did. And perhaps still does today.
Crucifixions as a form of capital punishment may be a thing of the past but our world is full of crucifixions yet today.
People are condemned every day mainly by well-meaning religious folks because of who they are, where they come from, how they talk, how they dress, who are how they worship, how they decorate themselves, who they love. And every condemnation is another nail in the cross of Christ.
Jesus was not condemned for picking grain or healing on the sabbath, but for challenging the status quo, those with privilege and power, the power to destroy him. And try they did. Succeed they did not. For God so loves all that God made and there is unmeasurable power in God’s love, enough to raise even us from condemnation and death to newness of life, life here and hereafter.
This is why Jesus is Lord even over the Sabbath and desires to be your Lord and Savior today. Amen.
Text from my Message for Today based on Mark 2:23-3:6 June 3, 2018 Central Christian Church, Bourbonnais, IL