A Day of Rest and Remembrance

Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church— June 3, 2018

Mark 2:23–3:6 (CEB)

Jesus went through the wheat fields on the Sabbath. As the disciples made their way, they were picking the heads of wheat. The Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look! Why are they breaking the Sabbath law?”
He said to them, “Haven’t you ever read what David did when he was in need, when he and those with him were hungry? During the time when Abiathar was high priest, David went into God’s house and ate the bread of the presence, which only the priests were allowed to eat. He also gave bread to those who were with him.” Then he said, “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath. This is why the Human One is Lord even over the Sabbath.”
Jesus returned to the synagogue. A man with a withered hand was there. Wanting to bring charges against Jesus, they were watching Jesus closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Step up where people can see you.” Then he said to them, “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they said nothing. Looking around at them with anger, deeply grieved at their unyielding hearts, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he did, and his hand was made healthy. At that, the Pharisees got together with the supporters of Herod to plan how to destroy Jesus.

Encircling most of the the island of Manhattan is a very thin wire. It has to be at least 15 feet off the ground, but it’s higher in some places. It’s not part of any utility service; it doesn’t transmit electricity or telephone calls or Internet data. You might never notice it, and if you did notice it you would never guess why it’s there.

The wire is called an eruv. It’s put there by a group of Orthodox Jewish synagogues, and they collectively pay about $100,000 a year to maintain it. In 2011, the wire broke, near the United Nations building, and because this happened on a weekend the owners of the wire could not get through U.N. security to repair it. The fact that the wire was broken was big local news in New York.

I said that the wire was owned by Orthodox Jewish synagogures. Not all Jews are Orthodox Jews. The term “Orthodox” refers to a certain subset of Jews who follow a very strict set of rules and practices. You might compare them to the Amish. Most Christians don’t live with the same restrictions that the Amish do. We are Christians, the Amish are Christians, but we disagree about what God demands of us. It’s the same way within Judaism. The Orthodox Jews have rules that other Jews would consider unusually strict, just as the Amish have rules that we would consider unusually strict, but they are only one group within Judaism, just as the Amish are only one group within Christianity.

Orthodox Jews, today as in the days of the Pharisees, have rules about what can and can’t be done on the Sabbath. If these rules are very strictly interpreted, they prevent you from carrying almost anything on the Sabbath except within the walls of your home. You can’t carry your two-year-old, or your house keys, or your medication.

But note that there’s an exception; you can carry things within your own home. That’s not considered work under that interpretation of the law.

Of course, our modern lifestyle is quite different from the lifestyle in the days when some of these rules were written, and so sometimes observant Jews have to find ways of getting around the rules — bending them without actually breaking them.

That’s where the eruv comes in. The eruv, that little wire that you would never notice making a big loop around the borough of Manhattan, has been declared by leaders of Orthodox Judaism to be the equivalent of a wall. It basically, for purposes of the Sabbath, turns all of the area inside the wire into one big family compound — sort of like an old farm where the parents live in the big old house and the children have built their own homes on other parts of the property.

And so, if you’re within the boundaries of that wire, you’re considered to be at home. It’s legal for you to carry your toddler, or your asthma inhaler, or your house keys, even on the Sabbath.

The eruv is an act of mercy — a way of saying, “We take this rule seriously, but we still recognize that people have needs, and that’s important as well.”

In today’s Bible passage, Jesus — who was a Jew, and all of his followers were Jews — has a disagreement with the religious leaders of his day about the purpose of the laws God had given them.

Photo by Daniel Ventura — Creative Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

The first part of the passage has Jesus and his disciples passing through a field of grain, and picking the grain and eating it. Now, this was not considered stealing by Jewish law. That needs to be made clear. Jewish law provided that travelers could freely pick from grain fields in this fashion, as long as they did it by hand. Now, if you used a thresher, or any sort of tool, you were stealing, but if you just happened to walk by, and pick a few grains by hand, that was specifically allowed by the Jewish law.

You may remember from the book of Ruth that widows like Ruth and her mother-in-law could come in behind the farm workers and pick up whatever grains were lying on the ground after the workers had come through with their threshers. That was one way that people with no way to support themselves could still eat. That was the same principle.

No, the issue here wasn’t stealing — it was that the Jewish leaders considered picking grains and popping them into your mouth to be farm work, and you couldn’t do farm work on the Sabbath.

The Sabbath is mentioned in the creation story in Genesis, and keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. The idea is for a day set apart, a day devoted to rest, and to family, and to God.

In the Jewish calendar, days start at sundown, and Sabbath is observed from sundown on what we would call Friday to sundown on what we would call Saturday.

By the second century, the early church had begun observing the Sabbath on Sunday, rather than Saturday, to differentiate itself from the Jewish practice and because Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday. However, Seventh-Day Adventist churches, and Eastern Orthodox churches, continue to observe it on Saturday.

The Sabbath, whether it’s observed on Saturday or Sunday, is an important and powerful thing. It’s not part of the Ten Commandments for nothing.

In the 15th chapter of Numbers, we read about a man put to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath — that’s how strongly this law was enforced in the time of Moses.

But why is that rule there? Is it just some sort of hoop that God wants us to jump through? Is it one of those arcane laws of Moses that we, as Christians, are now free from, like animal sacrifices or not eating pork?

Some of the laws of Moses seemed very arbitrary, and we, from a modern perspective, have trouble understanding why they were so important. But they were important as the children of Abraham evolved from a collection of tribes into a nation. They were important as a reminder of who God was. While some of the laws seem strange, and some of the punishments seem harsh, we have to remember that the purpose of those laws was to help establish the identity of the Israelites as God’s chosen people.

But as John Wesley himself pointed out, the idea of the Sabbath goes back farther than the laws of Moses. The creation story goes to great pains to tell us that God rested on the seventh day, so that when we are commanded to follow the Sabbath, we are commanded to imitate God. Even though some of the laws of Moses were set aside as Gentiles joined the original Jewish believers in the early church, Wesley said the idea of a Sabbath is not one of them. It’s as important to us today as it was in the time of Moses.

It’s important for human beings to have rest. It’s also important to set aside time to worship God and fellowship with our church community. It’s important to spend time with our families.

Jesus believed in the idea of the Sabbath. But Jesus believed in the Sabbath as a force for good, not as a way of condemning people.

Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ criticism of the disciples by pointing out that sometimes mercy — the spirit of the law — outweighs the letter of the law.

He tells the story, which you can read in 1 Samuel 21, of David, on the run from Saul, appearing before the high priest and asking for food for himself and his men. Few people knew yet about the conflict between Saul and David, and the high priest certainly didn’t so David actually lied to him and said he and his men were on a secret mission under orders from Saul.

The priest said the only food in the temple was the shewbread, ceremonial bread which was meant only to be eaten by the priests. David asked the high priest for it, and the high priest gave it to him knowing full well that it was a violation of the laws of Moses for anyone but the priests to eat that bread.

Think about the communion elements. Normally, if Dad or another ordained minister were here, you’d be set up for communion this morning. If someone wandered in here before Sunday School and just started eating the communion bread, and drinking the grape juice, disrespectfully, you’d be offended, and you would try to stop them from doing it.

But if someone had dangerously low blood sugar, and the only food available was the bread and grape juice you had set aside for communion, you’d give it to them — not because you wanted to disrespect the Lord’s Supper, but because the first law, the primary law, is for us to love God, and the second law is to love other human beings as ourselves. And those laws take precedence, because they are where all of the other laws come from.

Jesus told the Pharisees that the Sabbath was made to benefit people, rather than the other way around. And he also said that the “Human One,” as the Common English Bible translates it, or the “Son of Man,” as older translations put it, was Lord over the Sabbath. He, Jesus, had full authority to set aside the rule if mercy demanded it.

The Pharisees had lost their sense of perspective, and insisted on the strictest possible observance of the Sabbath, even if it was harmful.

Jesus then pushes the issue a little further. Jesus goes into the synagogue, where there’s a man with a withered hand.

Now, the very strict Sabbath laws as put forth by the Pharisees allowed emergency medical care on the Sabbath, but only for life-threatening situations. This was a tragedy, a disability, but not a life-threatening situation. And so, the question was, would Jesus heal the man with the withered hand? Or would he say, “Come back tomorrow”?

Jesus knew he was being watched by the Pharisees. But he did not back down. He even told the man with the withered hand to stand where everyone could see him.

Then, he looked the Pharisees right in the eye.

“Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” he asked them. They didn’t answer.

As the Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary points out, that question about saving life or killing is an interesting one. It was clear that Jesus was not saving this man’s life, at least not in a physical sense; that’s the whole point. If the man had been dying, and Jesus had healed him, there would have been nothing the Pharisees could have objected to. But in this case, it was the quality of life, not life itself, that was at stake.

The commentary I just mentioned said that by talking about saving a life or killing, Jesus actually referred to the Pharisees themselves, who were about to begin plotting against him. In fact, Mark portrays this as sort of the last straw, the tipping point that causes the Pharisees to begin plotting with supporters of King Herod on how to do away with this troublesome teacher.

Jesus makes the larger point that the Sabbath is supposed to be a force for good, a force for life — something to benefit people, not keep them in pain one day longer. It’s something to bring us closer together and closer to God.

There are numerous studies that prove the physical and health benefits of relaxation. Stress causes numerous health problems — it’s bad for our heart, bad for our blood sugar, and bad for other aspects of our health. Some time to relax, and unwind, and set aside our problems is important.

But the Sabbath is not only supposed to be a day of rest; it’s supposed to be a day of worship.

John and Charles Wesley were big believers in spiritual disciplines — not only the Sabbath but communion, and prayer, and fasting. They encouraged their followers to take communion whenever it was offered.

The whole emphasis of their Methodist movement was to encourage people to grow spiritually, When we honor the Sabbath, not only as a day of rest but as a day of worship, we benefit ourselves by strengthening our relationship to God.

But that requires that we see the Sabbath as a spiritual discipline, not a made-up rule. The Pharisees had lost track of this idea. For them, the Sabbath was just another way for them to prove their own holiness, or to look down their noses at someone who they considered unholy.

Jesus doesn’t want us to observe the Sabbath just as a way to earn spiritual Brownie points. But Jesus doesn’t want it to be just football day, either. Jesus wants our Sabbath to be a day of reconnecting with him, with our families, and with ourselves. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy ourselves, or even watch a little football. But it means we have to have our priorities in order. We need to make the Sabbath something intentional, a way of honoring God and loving others as we love ourselves.

But we have to keep our observance of the Sabbath — or any other spiritual law — in perspective. And the Sabbath is something we should look in the mirror and challenge ourselves to follow, not something we should use, like the Pharisees, as a weapon against the person down the street.

The Pharisees were using the Sabbath in a way that would have denied food to the disciples, in a way that would have denied healing to a disabled man.

We need, as Jesus said, to look at all of our spiritual rules and principles in the light of doing good, or evil, and we need to recognize that Jesus is the authority over all of them, and if Jesus leads us in an unexpected direction, it’s incumbent on us to follow.

The Sabbath is made to serve us, but we are made to serve Jesus.

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