by Malcolm Maclean
Gospel: St. Mark 2: 23 - 28
We are familiar with the scenario of an individual being escorted round an ancient castle or palace by an old guide. At some stage in the tour the visitor discovers that the guide is actually the owner of the castle, a person with great knowledge of its history and of the original intentions of the builders. The visitor will be pleased if he has not made any critical assessments during the tour, and he will be embarrassed if he has given his opinion on any aspect that has turned out to be wrong. Of course, such an incident is not very serious. Yet it does picture what happened in the incident we will consider this morning.
The Pharisees saw themselves as experts on the Sabbath and they practiced a range of ideas which they thought suitable for keeping it. Often the individuals they came across were unable to assess their teachings on the Sabbath, which only enhanced themselves in their own reputation as teachers of the law. It is likely that the disciples of Jesus may not have been able to respond to the criticism of the Pharisees, but the Saviour of the disciples was more than able to do so. In his response, he revealed that he originated the Sabbath and therefore knew its purpose. His claim to be the initiator and sovereign of the Sabbath is stated in his assertion, ‘The Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.’ His knowledge of the basic purpose of the Sabbath is seen in his statement, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.’
The incident in the cornfield (2:23-28)
We are not told why Jesus and his disciples were in a cornfield. It was common for paths to go through such fields. As they made their way through the fields the disciples ate some of the heads of grain. The presence of the Pharisees indicates that it was a public spot.
It is well-known that the Pharisees had many laws regarding what was acceptable Sabbath behavior and they included among them the activity done here by Jesus’ disciples. The error of the disciples in the eyes of the Pharisees was not taking what belonged to someone else (Deuteronomy 23:25 allowed them to take a little as they walked along), but in doing ‘work’ (a kind of harvesting) on the Sabbath. When they saw what the disciples were doing, they confronted Jesus about it.
What can be said about the outlook of the Pharisees? They were persistent (Mark uses the imperfect tense to describe their ongoing criticism of the disciples), perhaps they imagined they had cornered the disciples without them having any way to escape. We could say that their ideas were ludicrous and loveless, and that would be true. An honest assessment will deduce three other features: first, they were not defending a biblical view of the Sabbath, but a manmade rule which they had devised; second, they had a wrong sense of proportion – they regarded optional religious rituals as more important than legitimate human needs; third, their view of the Sabbath had not made them akin to the Lord of the Sabbath (this is obvious in that Jesus had not criticized his disciples for their actions). The Pharisees in their effort to protect the Sabbath had trivialized it, distorted it, and made it a day of joyless conformity to their notions.
How did Jesus respond? He made three comments: he mentioned a biblical incident in which David recognized higher requirements than ceremonial rituals; the second summarized the place of the Sabbath; and the third focused on himself. In proving the first comment, he reminded the Pharisees of an incident from the life of David when he broke the prohibitions of the ceremonial law and gave consecrated bread to his hungry men (it is possible that the incident took place on a Sabbath because that was the day on which the priest replaced the consecrated bread). That passage was sufficient to show that his disciples had not done anything wrong when they ate of the grain. If normally-forbidden food is available, it is right for hungry people to eat it.
There is more to the relevance of that previous incident and the situation of Jesus and his disciples. David, although hungry and leading a group of hungry men, was on his way to the throne of Israel. In a higher sense, Jesus and his men were hungry, but the Pharisees were criticizing the One who was on his way to the throne of God. The religious formality of the Pharisees had made them blind to what was happening before their eyes. The King had arrived and in criticizing his disciples the Pharisees were expressing rebellion against the God they professed to serve.
Second, Jesus forced his critics to think about why God initiated the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a divine provision for man, brought into existence for his overall benefit. God has not given this gift to other creatures (I know the fourth commandment forbids humans using domestic animals on the Sabbath, but the command is not addressed to the animals). The Sabbath not only highlights man’s dignity, but also his uniqueness in God’s sight. Further the Sabbath is God’s provision for all humans. Jesus does not say that the Sabbath was made for Jews alone. Nor does he say it is for any particular group. Instead it belongs to all the race equally.
Of course, to say that the Sabbath was given by God does not specify why it was given to man. Yet we discover elsewhere in the Bible why God gave it. Its main purpose is that humans would rest, which is not the same as idleness or engaging in one’s hobbies. It is true that our bodies need physical rest, but normally that is found during the night hours when we are in bed. So we need to ask ourselves regarding the way to find rest. Here are some suggestions, and we can begin with what is said about the original Sabbath.
In Genesis 2:1-3, we have a summary of the first Sabbath on which God rested from his work of creation. His rest was not one of inactivity, for he was still engaged in his works of providence; nor was not the rest of indifference, as if he was not interested in his creation; and it was not the rest of exhaustion, as if he had stretched his powers to the limits. We get some insight into what is meant by God’s rest in Exodus 31:17: ‘It [the Sabbath] is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.’
Instead God’s rest included rejoicing in the finished work of creation. God takes great pleasure in his actions because they are perfect. This divine celebration was the fuller version of God’s cry of delight that was expressed very day of the creation week (apart from the second day). Further his rest was refreshment in the fellowship of his people (Adam and Eve would have praised him for his splendour, discovered a sense of security in that he was in control, and experienced satisfaction in being reminded that their God had done all this for their good.
Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30 reminds people where they will find spiritual rest. In that passage he speaks to those who were burdened by the demands of the Pharisees who did not lift a finger to help them. In contrast, Jesus gives rest in two ways: first, he gives rest from striving to earn salvation – instead of working for it, they receive it by trusting him. Then they continue to experience rest by learning from him, and that is what we should do in order to enjoy the Sabbath.
Third, Jesus in his answer caused the Pharisees to think about him when he called himself the Son of Man and said that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. The title ‘Son of Man’ comes from the prophecy of Daniel describing the Messiah who was to receive the heavenly kingdom (Dan. 7:13-15). So Jesus was stating that he was the One whom Daniel predicted. One aspect of his pre-eminent position is that he is also Lord of the Sabbath. His listeners would have recognized immediately one implication of his claim. Since the Lord of the Sabbath is God, here Jesus is claiming to be divine. And since he is divine, then he has authority to decide what is allowable on his day, which means that his disciples were not doing anything wrong.
A lesson that comes from this incident in the grain fields is that we are not to turn the Sabbath into a day of spiritual bondage. Instead we are to recognise that we have high responsibilities to perform on the Sabbath, that we have to think about God’s purpose for the Sabbath, and we have to acknowledge that Jesus is the divine Lord of the Sabbath. With these details in mind we can approach the other incident recorded by Mark, the story of the man in the synagogue whose damaged arm was healed.
Sermons and Bible Commentary/Analysis for the 3rd sunday after Sleebo
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