One Sabbath [Jesus] was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 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: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the 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?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23-28 ESV)
Picture the following scenes: A relatively new Air Force person who does her own thing ignoring the orders, manuals, rules, and regulations. What is her superior officer’s reaction going to be?
A teacher’s class is out of control – and while he is in fact a good teacher and has good classroom management the students have worked out that there are no consequences from the school, from the Head Teacher for their bad behaviour. How do we feel about such students?
A church leader who has ordained a pastor only to discover that the ordination vows – the promises made seem to have no bearing on what the new pastor actually does – as he teaches his own spin on things and picks and chooses when he will be confessional to his church and when he won’t. How does the church leader now feel about the ordination?
It is not hard to imagine the superior officer throwing the book at the maverick, ourselves thinking that those disobedient students need some swift discipline, and the church leader has his head in his hands as he regrets the ordination and resolves to check candidates more thoroughly next time. We recognise and understand the need for rules and regulations, the need for obedience and if not that then compliance and the nuisance and even danger caused by people who ignore rules claiming that they don’t apply to them.
So here’s a thought – Jesus is like a maverick member of the Air Force –he generates the emotions similar to that generated by spoilt uncontrolled children – and causes people (in this case the Pharisees) to think that if Jesus keeps going on like he does then he will give them a bad name.
We tend to hear the Gospel today with our usual frameworks – Jesus is the good guy so everything he does must be good – the Pharisees are the bad guys so we can boo and hiss at them whenever they come on stage. This tends to reinforce the idea that Jesus does good and so his followers should do good and Christianity then becomes thought of as ‘being good’ and ‘doing good’ (which, depending on your definition of good, can even bypass Jesus!).
Now, of course, I’m not about to say that Jesus isn’t good but I am going to say that there were many times in Jesus’ life when he didn’t look good – when he challenged the way things were done – when he threatened order and piety – when he seemed like an arrogant maverick – worse than that, one who seemed to blaspheme and even claim to be divine – having the audacious view that God was much closer to him than God is to us (after all, Jesus called God ‘Father’ and spoke as if he was God).
The Pharisees wanted the Kingdom of God to break into the world – and surely that is what Jesus spoke about – his first teaching in Mark is “The time if fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The Pharisees were laymen – not priests – pious and disciplined men – who believed that obedience to God would bring the blessings of God and the coming of his kingdom. Jesus had taught in the Sermon on the Mount and no doubt there were Pharisees in the crowd – “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matt 5:17) and “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
And now Jesus seems to treat the law and righteousness with a cavalier attitude – and while plucking some grain from a field might be trivial, where will it end? I don’t hear the Pharisees being rude so much as concerned – Jesus is new on the scene – it is chapter 2 after all! – but Jesus doesn’t give them an answer. Instead he reminds them about David, fleeing from Saul, who ate the bread from the altar reserved for the priests. Jesus intensifies the situation because in his example it was God who established what was to happen in the temple – these were his rules being broken. Jesus doesn’t cite rules and regulations with the Pharisees so they could get into a legal debate over which law applied – he simply gives an example when rules were broken and then simply says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” which is really saying that he will do what he wants. For people who like rules, regulations, standards, criteria for determining good and bad, Jesus was simply frustrating – he goes on to say “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (my emphasis). In effect he’s saying “I’ll do what I want because I make the rules”.
Go on, you try it. Take that view and see how far it gets you. It won’t be long before the world of rules and regulations, right and wrong; the need for order and conformity will come crashing down on you.
It got Jesus nailed to a cross – strung up by corrupt legal processes – when even the false witnesses can’t agree, then you have someone who has really rattled rules and regulations. Jesus died as a lawless one, a criminal, a blasphemer – which suggests that rules win.
Not so! This Sunday is a reminder that in fact rules don’t win and death doesn’t have the last say but that Jesus was right – he does make the rules for he even defeated death’s regulation that we should be separated from God. Jesus defeated death’s power by living again because God raised him from the dead. He is Lord of this world and that includes the Sabbath and anything else we might like to consider.
It is a sad consequence of human sin that we prefer rules and regulations to love and freedom. By nature we can’t handle love and freedom because we will selfishly turn them to our own ends and imprison those around us to do what we want them to do. We recognise that we need laws to live peacefully and with minimum chaos. We like behavioural controls and expectations because they give us targets to make us feel good and standards by which to judge others. With this attitude we turn Jesus into a Moses and make Christianity into rules about being good.
Our Gospel today points away from rules and to Jesus himself. He is not a new law giver but our Lord. The only Lord! We do not reject rules and laws – remember the Sermon on the Mount – so yes we follow them but we do so critically, not blindly – and we follow them only in so far as Jesus says. Christian behaviour is not based on rules but on a relationship – a relationship established by Jesus who reveals himself as our Lord and who reveals himself to be our Saviour, our rescuer – also revealing that God truly loves us. We tend to do things for those we love – not because we’re forced but because it is a sign of our love. Of course we do this imperfectly and the functions of rules and regulations can help us assess, amend, and do better but we no longer follow them just because they are there. The law was made for people, not people for the law – instead we were made for love.
Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath and is Lord of everything today and therefore he is still scary and frustrating for many people. It would be much easier if he gave some rules and things to do and if we want to we could give them a go. Instead he gives himself to us and he tells us to trust him – him alone – and not our performance or behaviour. We like rules and regulations even as teenagers when we fight them – we’re glad that they’re there. Instead when we meet Jesus he washes us, and guides us, and feeds us, and blesses us and then says ‘follow me’ as we go back into our world with the command, the order, the law to simply love – love God and love those around us. Following Jesus then means that the world will regard us as different because obedience to the rule of law is not our defining principle – instead we are prepared to follow Jesus.
Is Jesus truly worth following? Look to the cross and see why!
- Mark 2:23 - 28