Text: Mark 2:23-3:6 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
Pronouncement about the Sabbath
23 One Sabbath he was going through the grain fields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And 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 was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26 how he entered the house of God, when Abi′athar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” 27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; 28 so the Son of man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
The Man with a Withered Hand
3 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come here.” 4 And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 And he looked around at them with anger, 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 held counsel with the Hero′di-ans against him, how to destroy him.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
It’s tempting to call this passage an early example of “rules are made to be broken.”
On this Sabbath day, Jesus and his disciples are, as usual, going from Point A to Point B, preaching his new message about God; they’re extremely hungry, and the temptation presented by all that grain right within reach is too much to resist. So, they start pulling heads off the stalks of grain and eating them, despite the fact that they’re almost impossible to chew with human teeth.
And, worse luck, a bunch of Pharisees just happen to see them. “Hey, why are they doing that? Plucking grains of wheat on the Sabbath? That’s work! You can’t work on the Sabbath!”
We have already seen how the scribes had taken the Law and made thousands of petty rules and regulations for its observance. The Pharisees then took the ball and ran with it – they tried their level best to follow each and every one of those thousands of rules, and on top of that, they expected everyone else to follow suit. So, in this case, it would seem that the Pharisees thought it better that the disciples starve rather than break a rule. Actually, the disciples had broken, not just one, but four rules – it was forbidden to reap, winnow, and thresh grain, and then prepare a meal from that grain. Four infractions from the simple act of pulling a head of grain off of its stalk and eating it! This strikes us as utterly absurd, but to the Pharisees it was a matter of deadly sin and even of life and death.
They turn then to their leader, Jesus, and obviously expect him to tell the disciples to stop what they’re doing immediately; but, true to form, Jesus does not do what they expect, and instead reminds them of something that had happened centuries earlier, when David was fleeing for his life and, in a time of great need, wound up eating the consecrated bread at the tabernacle of Nob, which was reserved as an offering to God. The offering consisted of twelve loaves, which were changed out every week. Once they were changed out, this bread became the property of the priests and the priests alone, and no one else could eat it. Yet David did. As infractions go, this was far worse than what Jesus’ disciples were doing. By reminding the Pharisees of this ancient story, Jesus showed them that Scripture itself supplies a precedent in which human need has the upper hand over human and even divine law.
In other words, Jesus tells these people that they’ve got it exactly backwards: The Sabbath and the Law were created for the sake of the people; and all the arcane and convoluted rules and regulations the scribes had derived from them , were – or should have been – also created for the sake of the people. This should have been as obvious to the Pharisees as it had been to David and as it was to Jesus – human life had been created long before there had ever been even a Sabbath, much less a set of Sabbath laws. David Lose puts it this way: “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 modicum of 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 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 [is] not capable of granting us identity but only helps us live into the identity of beloved child given us by God.”
Julie Andrews is a woman who has always been noteworthy for her organizational skills and the disciplined way she structures her life. Friends occasionally ask her whether she doesn’t feel as though all that is like a straitjacket. Her response is, “Some people regard discipline as a chore. For me, it is a kind of order that sets me free to fly.”
That is also what the Sabbath and the Law were meant to be. Unfortunately, that was exactly what the Pharisees got wrong. Following their rules and regulations had become the end it itself, not the means to an end.
Although the Pharisees as a class of people have long since passed out of existence, their legacy, Pharisaism, which is defined as “rigid observance of external forms of religion or conduct without genuine piety,” is alive and well in our world.
I saw a meme recently which states: “I’d rather attend church with messed up people seeking after God, than religious people who think they’re his enforcers.” Jesus himself said something very similar in this same chapter of Mark, just a few verses prior to today’s lesson: “On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” (Mark 2:17) It’s no accident that one of the terms we’ve come to use for Jesus is the “Divine Physician.”
It is an unfortunate characteristic of human nature that we, often unconsciously, divide others into categories, some good, and some bad. One of those divisions is between those who think and follow the “rules” – whatever they might be: Rules of behavior, rules of etiquette, rules of the road, and rules of religious practice – and those who do not. Lose writes: “We mistake the law for its end. We think following the law is the point and forget that the law was established to help others. We establish our identity based on our ability to obey the law – or at least obey it better than whatever comparison group we devise – rather than using the law to help those we would compare ourselves against.”
The heart of the law is found in the phrase “the law was established to help others.” The basis of the law is not judgment, it is love. And that love is expressed in the desire not to condemn, but to help, others.
William Barclay puts it this way: “Whenever we forget the love and the forgiveness and the service and the mercy that are at the heart of religion and replace them by the performance of rules and regulations, religion is in a decline. Christianity has at all times consisted far more in doing things than in refraining from doing things…The first claim on anyone is the claim of human need. Even the catechisms and the confessions admit that works of necessity and mercy are quite legal on the Sabbath. If ever the performance of our religion stops us helping someone who is in need, our religion is not a religion at all. Persons are far more important than rituals. The best way to worship God is to help people…The best way to use sacred things is to use them to help one another. That, in fact, is the only way to give them to God.”
Through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God promises that those who love will triumph. In the end, love is stronger by far than fear (which, I suspect, is at the heart of so much of the judgmental behaviors we see on the part of those who adhere so desperately to their rules, and are so quick and even gleeful to condemn us for not following them), far stronger than hate, and far stronger even – and especially – than death.
Our job, today, tomorrow, and always, is to go out into the world to love others as Jesus loves us, to put the law – however we understand or define it – to use for, not against, our neighbor. We will sometimes falter and even fail, but many other times, we will succeed. But no matter what the result, we know that our crucified and risen Christ is still there, forgiving, leading us forward, and loving us through it all.
The heart of the law is love. And love always wins.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
 Lose, David, “Pentecost 2 B: The Heart of the Law,” June 1, 2018, …in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2018/06/pentecost-2-b-the-heart-of-the-law/
 Barclay, William, The Gospel of Mark, The New Daily Study Bible, Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox Press, ©1975, 2001 The William Barclay Estate, p. 73