Mark 2:23–3:6 (NRSV) 
Pronouncement about the Sabbath
(Mt 12:1–8; Lk 6:1–5)
23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He 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.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
The Man with a Withered Hand
(Mt 12:9–14; Lk 6:6–11)
3 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 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. 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. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Have you even been in a situation where you have questioned what a supervisor has said? I have worked in retail for eight years now and there are times where I have done something one day only to have to change it the next. After doing this for eight years I have developed a dose of skepticism that can annoy those in positions above me. I ask things that they do not want to be asked, things like why. I suggest alternative that they do not want to hear because they do not fit the ideas they have constructed at the time. I am not saying that I know what is best, to be honest I am the first to say that I am not an expert in marketing or merchandising, but I do know a thing or two about seasons and things people buy during those seasons.
We live in a culture of skepticism. We tend to respect those with a tendency to question the status quo. There is even a magazine that champions this cause that is literally named “The Skeptic”. I am not a subscriber, but I have read an article or two from this publication. We accuse Thomas of scripture as being a doubter, but we raise our children to ask those same questions. Our Meetinghouse is even located in a state whose nickname is “The Show Me State.” This strikes me as humorous because by default those with this attitude would demand proof before they accept anything. We would question every statement before we go along with the crowd. And if I understand the history of our nation that has given the state of Missouri a role in our nation that is greater than its population should carry.
There is a positive and negative side to this perspective though. We can tightly grasp onto traditions that have outlived their usefulness because we are waiting for proof of something better, or we might question the legitimacy of progression because we are skeptical of a method of research. We might also fully embrace a new concept simply because it shows signs of hope before our neighbors join in. I am not saying that skepticism is good or bad. I am saying that we have it, it is part of who we are. And being aware of our tendency toward skepticism is important to understand our place in this world.
The skeptic in culture is often seen as a hinderance. The one that questions are a problem that those in power must overcome. They become a challenge that systems must deal with before more begin to question their authority. Jesus is often seen as one of those types of people in his culture. He challenged the traditional understandings of the leaders, and because of that the interactions between Jesus and the leaders of the Jewish people were often seen as heated. The reality of the situation is that the goal of both Jesus and those with the religious power were the same. The Temple of YHWH and Jesus were both focused on the same end, bringing redemption to errant sin individuals. The difference was the approach.
Is God more concerned with the letter of the law, or the intention of the law? This is a question that people have debated from the dawn of time. At least since the emergence of the Torah. The scholars of pretty much every age of mankind have tried their hardest to determine the answer to that question. They interpret the law, they teach those interpretations and those teachings then become just as important as the law itself. Which eventually will be challenged by succeeding generations, who will glean some different interpretation and teaching that will become equally cherished as the teaching of previous generations. All the while there will be schools of thought that will hold to various interpretations at various times. Those on the outside of these debates will wonder what they are arguing about because what we see is the same but for those engaged in the debate the differences are perceived as being vast.
Jesus and his disciples are walking through the field and they are hungry, so they glean some of the grain and they eat it. For an outsider this might seem minor, insignificant really. I grew up on a farm, I know that it takes very little effort to pluck a head of wheat from a stalk and to rub it in your hands to remove the berries. I also know that if you were going to get enough grain to satisfy your hunger you would probably want to apply a very different method.
The question implied at the opening of this passage is if these disciples have engaged in work or not. I want us to think about this. You are walking along a path where fields of grain are literally all around you. In ancient times they did not always have roads like we think of roads. Yes, there were roads that were constructed, some of which are still used even to this day that were originally built in during the era of Roman rule. But those would be the equivalent of our interstate highway system. They connected the major urban centers only. Most of the roads that were used by the population were little more than a foot path.
If you look at any college campus in America, you will see these types of pathways. They are the shortest distance between point A and B. At times they might be covered with concrete, but often they are simply dirt paths worn in the grass caused by hundreds of feet treading through daily. If you have even had a dog in a fenced in backyard you would see a distinct around the perimeter of the yard where the single dog runs. And in the wild you will see commonly used pathways created by various animals that connect meadows and water supplies. Over the course of time the easiest way to walk will make a roadway of sorts, that will be visible. And that path will be used by the next person and the one after that. Some of these pathways have been used so much that after a century we can still see the evidence of the traffic.
Well at times these pathways would literally pass through someone’s field. The farmer would plow through and sow the seeds and people would just walk right on through. Jesus speaks about it in the parable of the sower and the seeds. Some of the seed fell upon the path and the birds came and at it, some of the seed fell upon the hard soils and they grew quickly and when the heat came they withered because they had no root. Both of those examples could be speaking of these trails leading from one village to another. And if the trail connecting towns happens to pass through a field, the stalks would be right within grasp of any who would walk by.
The disciples probably out of the boredom of walking simply reached out and grabbed a head of grain and began to separate the wheat from the chaff to provide a distraction. They were not necessarily gathering enough wheat to grind into flour, just something to keep them occupied. But that one mindless act caused the religious leaders to cast judgement.
From their interpretation of scripture to remove the grain from the chaff was the equivalent of harvest. And to participate in harvesting grain on the sabbath was work. And the Law says that on the Sabbath we are not supposed to work. Basically, all the disciples were doing was cracking open a peanut shell to eat the nut within.
The letter of the Law verses the intent. You can almost feel Jesus’ eye roll when the pharisees begin to talk about this. You can almost hear the cynical chuckle that might be coming from his mouth. He might be saying under his breath, “Are you serious, you are going to call the gathering of a couple grains of wheat work, really?”
He then talks about King David. There was once a day when David the man after God’s own heart and his companions were walking through the countryside, not just walking but running from Saul. David comes to the place where the tabernacle is, and the priest comes to him and asks why he is out there. David basically lies and says that he is on a secret mission for the king and he needs five loaves of bread to feed his men. The priest has no bread, only the ceremonial bread. David asks for that bread. Now this bread if it is eaten is only to be eaten by the priests because they are the only people holy enough to eat the bread sanctified by God. But the priest can tell that David is famished and if David is famished the priest knows that his followers are as well. So, the priest must decide, what is more important, feed the men with the holy bread so they may live, or withhold the food to satisfy the letter of the law? The Priest basically asks David, are these men ceremonially clean? And since they are the priest gives David the bread.
The sabbath was made for mankind not mankind for the sabbath. Yes, we should honor the sabbath by resting and worshiping God. We should set aside a minimum of one day each week to allow our bodies to cease our toils so that we can embrace and share life with those closest to us. But just like the priest and David, our resting in the arms of God means nothing if we do not embrace and share life with others.
Jesus, who is clearly annoyed by this strict interpretation of Sabbath law takes the issue one more step. They enter the place of worship the synagogue. Everyone in the community is there, and among those worshipers is a disabled man. His hand does not function properly because it is deformed. This deformity prevents this man from traditional methods of earning the money to feed himself and his family. The teachers of the law know Jesus’s character, they know that he will challenge their lifestyle and customs. So, they keep an eye on Jesus and this man. They know what Jesus will do.
“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Jesus asks those in that meeting for worship and those present are silent. Is it wrong to help others even it that means you might not get a full twenty-four hours of rest and relaxation?
This is a trick question because Jesus knows that no matter what he does he will be deemed unacceptable to these teachers. If he refuses to help the man he might be respected for honoring the sabbath, but if he then heals the man the next day he would be ridiculed for associating with people seen as sinful, because during that era of history it was accepted that illness and disability was a judgement by God for sin in someone’s life. If you were blind, it was seen as a direct result of your sinful nature and God is judging you for your sins. If you cannot walk it is because either you or your parents sinned to such a degree that God rejects and condemns you by providing a disability to prevent further corruption.
Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath, to save life or to kill? The question Jesus raises has been asked of religious leaders from the day of the prophets. “It is mercy that God desires not sacrifice.” In their attempts of fulfilling the letter of the law according to their teachings they have missed the intent of the law. In their quest to be right before God, they have rejected the most important thing of faith. In their quest to be holy they neglect God’s desires completely and, in their righteousness, they become hardened to the very people God loves, the people created in the image of God, do we ever find ourselves in that same situation? In our quest to be right do we harm those people around us who are so loved by God the father that he would sent his own son to provide redemption through him?
You can be right and still be wrong. And you can be observed and perceived as being wrong, yet ultimately be right. The sabbath day was created on the seventh day of creation, and we are commanded to honor that day so that we can keep things in the proper perspective. God urges us to rest so that we do not deceive ourselves into thinking that our actions our works and not grace make us righteous. We are commanded to rest because we need to be reminded that there is more to life than what we do. We need rest because we can become distracted so easily. But that rest can be interrupted at times if by our work we can help someone else.
We can become rigid in legality or we can focus on Christ. Jesus came to the world not to condemn us, but to save us. He lived his life to show us what life with God could be, and through his life, death and resurrection we can experience that abundant life to the fullest. We need rest, we need to passionately defend that day of rest so that we can keep ourselves in the holy rhythm Jesus showed us, but if in our desire to honor God in what we do we neglect the image bearers of God around us we fail.
We are called to be a people different from the rest of the world. We are called to be peculiar in the eyes of the world. But if we can do good, if we can encourage someone toward a life with God we should encourage life. Every Command of God has an exception, if it is to help someone caught in the grips of sin come into life with God. Yesterday was my only day off this week, yet I spent my day driving three students to camp. I gave up my day of rest so that others might be able to experience life with God more fully. I sacrificed something important for the greater good. Can I continue to sacrifice week on end? No, eventually that lifestyle will become a burden and I will no longer be able to encourage others because I am exhausted, but there are times I must for mutual benefit.
The law is there to teach us, it is not there to bind us. The commands of God are there to disciple us not to enslave us. The laws are there to promote life, to promote relationships between God and his people and his people with the world. And we can only discern when to move and when to rest if we join Christ in his lifestyle of worship, prayer and service. When we become a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others in every aspect of our lives. This comes from the discipline of work and rest, not because it is required by God to fulfill a legal requirement, but because by living the lifestyle of Christ we can promote life instead of death.
As we enter this time of open worship and communion as Friends I encourage each of us to consider our life with Christ. Are we promoting life with God, or are we promoting law? Are we being skeptical to promote life or are we skeptical because a traditional understanding is being challenged? Jesus was not afraid to challenge tradition if that challenge was based on man’s understanding of the rule, instead of God’s intent. Are we willing to challenge ourselves and respond accordingly?