In my last post, I asked the questions: where did we go wrong? Where did Israel go “wrong” in its keeping of the ordinances? Can the Law become an impediment to grace? A stumbling block to the shalom that we all seek and God intends for creation?
As I have repeatedly argued, observance of the Law, specifically the command to keep Sabbath, is done with an eye towards preserving life and providing rest. In those commands and in that rest, you can find the seeds of life that anticipate God’s restorative, healing purposes for the world.
However, is this how we typically read passages like Mark 2:23-3:6? No, no we do not. Instead, we fall back upon well-worn tropes of Law v. Gospel, and we miss the deeper rest that God intends in the Law, and that Jesus points to in his response to the Pharisees. Here is the passage:
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 human beings, and not human beings for the sabbath; 28 even so, the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” 3:1 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. -Mark 2:23 – 3:6
I can guarantee you that you’ve probably heard a sermon on this passage that goes something like this: Jesus and his disciples are minding their own business when the evil Pharisees come along to muck it up. We know all about those Pharisees. They are nothing more than legalistic rule keepers. They don’t like Jesus, so they are going to use the rules to show he is not who he claims to be. The Pharisees carefully wait and watch him break the Sabbath command, and when he does, the trap is sprung. He has broken the rules, game, set, match.
The moral of the story when we look at it this way? Don’t be a Pharisee. We are Christians; we are about grace, not rules. Law v. Gospel. Rules v. Freedom. Don’t be a rule follower, be a rule breaker like Jesus.
Say it however you like, but every time we hear this nonsense we are left with the impression that the entire Christian faith can be reduced to the advertising slogan of Outback Steakhouse: “No rules, just right!” Rules are bad. The Law gets in the way, and we aren’t under the Law. Grace, it’s all about grace. Law is the enemy of grace.
Now, on one level, that is true: it is all about grace. It is all about how God is gracious to us, and loves us despite ourselves. But is Law the enemy of grace? Can we reduce this text to nothing more than Law v. Gospel? Rules v. grace? If you do that, I think you miss the point entirely. The point is that the Pharisees miss out on the grace of the Sabbath; they miss out on the rest and healing present even in the rules because they are too busy, too full of their own plans and ideas to experience the rest God has for them.
Even the Pharisees understood that there were times and places when the Law could be broken. Jesus taps into this when he talks about the story in 1st Samuel 21 when David broke the Law and fed the bread of presence to his men in order to preserve their lives (though Mark gets it wrong; it wasn’t Abiathar, it was his father, Ahimelech). What he did was acceptable because life, healing, rest, wholeness – shalom, that’s the Hebrew word for it – shalom required breaking the rules for the sake of life.
Jesus taps this set of insights again when he asks them: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” And what was the response of the Pharisees? Mark tells us they were silent. They were silent because Jesus had spoken truly. Jesus had not simply broken a rule, he had broken it in the way it was always meant to be broken. He broke it to preserve life, to bring healing, restoration, and rest to those who were hungry or afflicted.
But if it’s not the Law — the rule keeping — that’s the problem, what is? Mark tells us plainly in 3:5. The text says: 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart…” The issue at stake for Jesus is our hardness of heart. The issue is that deep within each of us is a hardness that resists what God had always intended in the Law. God gave the rules as a pattern for our lives so we could live well with God and our neighbors. The Law is about bringing healing and peace to the brokenness of the human heart. The entire Law itself has rest, true rest, true Sabbath in mind so that we might become a people who are like leaves on the tree of life, bringing healing of the nations. (Ezekiel 47:12; see also Revelation 22:2 and its twelve crops of fruit)
But in order to do that, we need to learn how to rest, how to abide, how to trust in and be healed by God’s loving presence. Our hearts and souls long for, crave the kind of rest that a true Sabbath might bring.
But instead of rest, instead of shalom, we fill our hearts and our heads and our hands with busy-ness. Busy, busy, busy, busy. We live in what I think is the busiest age in the history of humanity. Our hands are filled with smart phones; our eyes are overwhelmed with the magic of technology, while our souls lack the nourishment of God’s restful presence.
We need, we long for, and unfortunately, we are ignorant of the rest that God intends for us — we are a Sabbath-less people! Our rules fail to actually serve life! We live in a bureaucratic age where everything is done in triplicate, well, just because…
This is the hardness of heart Jesus sees in the Pharisees. They demand, as we often do, that others observe the rules and social mores of our day with a hardness of heart that tries its best to fence out the free gift of God’s grace-filled presence meant to flow from us out into the world. Our hardness of heart turns us from the healing that will make us whole, and instead, turns us inward in a way that makes no room for others, much less healing or rest.
Jesus sees it in them; Jesus knows it in us. Yet, while part of him is rightfully upset, his heart also weeps. He weeps for them and he weeps for us because the rest we seek can only come through contact, through relationship with the One who gave us the command to rest in the first place. And not only does his heart weep, he also speaks his word of shalom to us if we have ears to hear. That word of shalom comes in his very presence and person.
He stands before us just as he stood before those Pharisees, and he declares that not only was Sabbath made for human beings, but that He is the Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord of our rest. In his life-giving presence alone we come face to face with God’s restful, peace-filled intention for us given from the creation of the world. Jesus himself embodies; Jesus himself is the One who is our Sabbath, our rest. The command to observe the Sabbath was given as a promise of the day that was coming when we would meet him, and see and know the One for whom we were made.
We were made for Him, and he calls out to us today; calling us to rest and peace. If we will acknowledge his Lordship, he tells us, the Lord of the Sabbath will give us what we need most.
This is what he does for that man with the withered hand. He calls out to the crippled man and says, “Come forward.” Actually, that’s a bad translation of the Greek phrase “egeire eis to meson.” Jesus actually says, “Rise up into the midst.” Raise up. Be resurrected, be lifted up here in the presence of the busy-minded. Come forward and bear witness to what dwelling in the presence of the Lord of the Sabbath brings. In that moment, that man tastes of Jesus’ resurrection power, and he is immediately restored and made whole. Jesus, Lord of rest gives that man a taste of what the Sabbath was really all about.
And the same Jesus who called out to that man calls to us today: “Come forward.” Rise up! Be raised up! And there, just behind his command is the question he is really asking: are you busy today? Are you busy? Are you too busy? Have you been busying yourself with the cares of this world to the point that you have gone deaf to his voice? Are you in need of rest? Are you making room, resting enough in Him so that you too might be changed?
Jesus tells us in Matthew 11: “28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Do we believe His words today?
Stop. Be still. Rest. Observe the Sabbath. If you give him a little of your time, I assure you, he has a word of peace to speak to you. Come into his presence and be healed as he calls us from death into life.