A More Perfect Law

A More Perfect Law
Photo by Michaela Murphy / Unsplash

Sabbath is a really big deal. This is true for you and me, even though we don’t have many good examples or healthy conversations about it in most of society. It’s a huge concern in Jesus’s community. Keeping the Sabbath holy as a day of rest is a divine commandment and it’s part of the communal rhythm of the Israelite people. But even divine commandments need a bit of interpretation and consideration. Very little in this life is as simple as always yes or always no, black and white. In today’s gospel passage we are reminded that when there is a question about the grey areas, God would have us err on the side of grace, mercy, and love rather than rote adherence to rules.

A day of rest is good news for everyone. This doesn’t mean a day when we don’t go into the office. It means a day of rest. No housework. No errands. No catching up on emails. A day when we are obliged to produce nothing. We can rest and pray and visit each other and play. All of the things that take a back seat to work the rest of the week. Saint Paul comments in today’s passage from the second letter to the Corinthians that his body must carry some part of the death of Christ; he sees things happen in his life that are only attributable to the presence of that reality, so it must be with him. Bessel van der Kolk’s 2014 book, The Body Keeps the Score, would agree. This book is principally about how our bodies manifest responses to traumas. Traumas like overwork, oppression, poverty, continuous stress, and anxiety will all make themselves known in our bodies if we don’t ever get a break from them. A day to rest a remember our relationships with God and each other is critical to the health of the whole person and the whole community.

Beyond being a good practice for everyone’s health, keeping Sabbath serves several other functions. Having a set day when everyone agrees that no work will be done reinforces a sense of communal identity and interdependence. It is a community commitment to never treat one another in the way that they were treated by Pharaoh, for example. It also reminds the people of Israel of their relationship to God, in a similar way to tithing. Keeping Sabbath is a reminder that they are not the creators of their own freedom. The possibility of a day of rest exists because of the freedom given them by God. Setting aside a day to remember this is important, lest they begin to forget the source of their life.

This important cultural and religious practice is the backdrop for today’s passage from Mark’s telling of the Gospel. Jesus has his first encounter with the Pharisees and a disagreement about what is and is not permissible on the Sabbath. Just what is and is not work? 

We must remember that the Pharisees are not the caricature that they are often made out to be in Christian preaching and writing. This is a powerful, lay-led religious reform movement who are, generally, admired by others for their intense devotion to observance and interpretation of the Law. This is important work in their culture, even for those who are not Pharisees. Questions about good observance of the Law are relevant for every Israelite. They question and debate with Jesus because that is how they settle theological disputes. These are not self-righteous hypocrites but upstanding, Bible-believing, every-Sunday-in-Church type people, just like you and me. (Their conspiracy to eliminate Jesus is a moral issue that I hope none of us share.)

When the Pharisees question Jesus about their collecting grain on the Sabbath, Jesus reminds them of the well-known story of David and the bread of Presence. This bread is a ritual sacrifice for God and, because of its holiness, is reserved for only for priests to eat. On this occasion, David and his men were starving and so the priests permitted them to eat the bread. Jesus seems to be making the point that, even with laws about practices very close to God, there are priorities in the rules. Plucking a few grains by hand is not the same as picking up a sickle and cutting grain for harvest. Feeding themselves while walking through the field was not work.

Photo by Jonathan Harrison on Unsplash

Jesus had to have known that what came next would cause trouble. He enters the synagogue and uses his healing of a man with a damaged hand to further his point about what is and is not appropriate on the Sabbath. When they refuse to answer Jesus’s question about whether it is lawful to give or take life on the Sabbath, he heals the man before them. Immediately the Pharisees seize on this as a clear and intentional violation of their law. They head off to begin to plan his demise.

Part of the Pharisees’s outrage over this may be that Jesus seems to have set them up. The grain-picking incident and the story of David and the bread of Presence is a clever and important prelude to the scene in the synagogue. With that story, Jesus has demonstrated to the Pharisees in their own terms and technique that God values mercy over sacrifice. The bread was meant as a sacrifice only for God, but when men were starving it was permissible to show mercy and allow them to eat it. But surely, even if mercy is one of the highest of God’s priorities, the man could have waited. After all, he is not dying. Only afflicted. What hurt would one more day cause him if it meant Jesus could properly observe Sabbath?

It would not be lost on the Pharisees, having been reminded of priests, the temple, and the bread of Presence, that temple priests always work on the Sabbath. Their role in perpetuating the cycle of sacrifice to God is critical to the relationship of Israel to their maker and it is necessary work, even on the day of rest. God, then, values sacrifice over Sabbath. And if God values mercy over sacrifice, then God must also value mercy over Sabbath. Jesus, with his critique of the hard heartedness of the Pharisees and this clever series of events and conversations has beaten them at their own practice. He has both argued and demonstrated that his healing of the man is not a breaking of the law but, in fact, a more perfect observance of it than the Pharisees have made.

It’s one thing to lose an argument and another thing entirely to be made a fool of in the process. The Pharisees are a powerful group, counting many important leaders in their number. Jesus must have known that this demonstration of his would not only irritate them, but the loss of face and humiliation could have dangerous consequences for him. How important must the teaching about God’s priorities be for Jesus to risk the wrath of such men?

Jesus does not say that the Sabbath is unimportant. He prioritizes his own rest several times, even when his disciples and the crowds would rather he did not. But in this passage he reminds the Pharisees and his own followers that God’s laws are servants, not masters. They are meant to help God’s people live well together, to live for one another, to help guide decisions and set priorities. Not to serve as a checklist so that the People of God can turn their minds off, but to serve as signposts and wisdom when difficult decisions need to be made. To nudge us, in those uncertain moments, toward the disruption of routine in the name of grace, mercy, and love. 

Andrew Rampton

Andrew Rampton

Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Treaty and Treaty 3 Territory