Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 9), Year B

Alfred Gorvie

LORD OF THE SABBATH

 

Mark 2:23—3:6
Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 9), Year B
Analysis by Eli Seitz

 

23One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples  began to pluck heads of grain.  24The 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?  26He 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.”  27Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath;  28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” 3:1Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.  2They  watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4Then 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.  5He 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.  6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Lord of the sabbath – From Canva

“Jesus stretched himself out in death, and our lives are restored, free from the power that sin so often wants to have over us.”

DIAGNOSIS: Destroy the Evidence

Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem): “why are THEY doing what is not lawful?”
On the surface, this all seems to be about rules. Jesus lets his disciples break a rule, in broad daylight, a literal application of the saying “in front of God and everybody.” And not only that, but it’s one of the simplest rules, one that should be impossible to misunderstand: the disciples pluck heads of grain while they walk through the grain fields on the Sabbath. It’s not lawful to harvest grain on the Sabbath, everyone knows that! The Pharisees are overjoyed about having a chance to catch Jesus breaking rules, so when he goes to the synagogue, they are watching and ready to call him out for anything else. The Pharisees are human, after all. We love to catch other people breaking the rules, and we can be especially gleeful about it. The “other” presidential candidate did something that looked bad and now the media is all over them. The “rival” pastor of that megachurch on the other side of town got in trouble for financial malpractice. Well well well, how about that. So sad for them. They broke the law, and they got caught.

“Why are THEY doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” is a question that smacks of self- righteousness, and we love to ask God that question about our own neighbors. We love to watch and wait so that we can catch someone in the wrong.

Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem): “hardness of heart”
Why do we love catching people in the act of sinning so much? Because then no one will notice our own sins. If Jesus and his disciples are publicly breaking laws, no one will notice those Pharisees sneaking a little of the widow’s offering money for themselves. Or, if they do, no one will talk about it, because Jesus and those disciples failing to observe the Sabbath is the new hot topic of the day. If we focus on President Trump’s trial, no one will think about President Biden’s policies in the Middle East. If we catch someone else in the act, no one will notice our own shortcomings, our own failures, all the many ways that we ourselves have not upheld the commandments in even the last few hours.

And, the stakes are high. More than anything, we fear that someone else will find out that we are a sinner. And more than even that, we fear that GOD will find out that we are a sinner. If we can catch all those other people, especially if their sins look WORSE than our sins, we can buy ourselves some time. LOOK OVER THERE GOD, LOOK AT ALL THOSE SINNING PEOPLE! But whatever You do, please don’t notice that I’m doing the same exact thing over here.

So when Jesus was about to heal the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath, he asked his critics, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life, or to kill it?” His critics did not respond. We’ll come back to this silence in a minute. For now, let us note that we, for all our critiques, are nonetheless seen for the people we are – people with “hardness of heart.” We care more about our self-righteous sense of rules than we do for hungry disciples or people with hand deformities. We would rather throw someone else under the bus if it meant saving ourselves. We would rather let someone else suffer than admit our own sin. This is the hardness of heart that we all share, a hardness of heart born out of the fear that God will find out who we really are – sinners who deserve death.

Step 3: Final Diagnosis: (Eternal Problem): “they were silent”
So we are silent. Sticking to our rigidness. Lording over others. Making others “losers” so that we can be “winners.” Still, there is no president we can elect who has never sinned, no matter how much both sides tries to point out the failings of only the other candidate. We will never be able to prove that we aren’t sinning as much as that other person, because we probably are. And the worst part, is that God already knows, God grieves over our hardness of heart and our silence, as Jesus did in the synagogue. God already knows that we are all sinners who deserve the same fate, who are all going to end up in the same place – dead, finally silenced.

The Pharisees, like all hardened critics, may seek to destroy the messenger. Figure out how to get rid of this guy who knows the truth about us! Destroy the evidence! Because if we can’t destroy him, if we can’t stop him before the secret that we’re the real sinners gets out, it will be our own destruction that comes next instead. Obliterated for our sins – we’ll lose our reputations, our families, our friends, and, if God has anything to say about it, ultimately, we’ll lose our lives.

From Canva

PROGNOSIS: Restoration

Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution): “Stretch out your hand.”
Eventually, these critics would succeed, and Jesus would be crucified. But here’s the twist. With his outstretched arms on the cross, he comes not to destroy us, but to save us. He was dealt death, but Jesus rose up in life. In the dying and rising of the only truly sinless one, sin, death, and evil are destroyed. “Stretch out your hand” are the words that Jesus proclaimed to the one who was healed. Usually, stretching out is an action associated with what God is doing, not us. We put Jesus to death, and he stretched out his arms on the cross and died.

In the day’s first lesson in Deuteronomy, God is the one stretching out God’s mighty arm to save the Israelites from Egypt so that they can have freedom and new life (Deuteronomy 5:15). The man being called to “stretch out” his hand is an indication that something new is going to be brought out of something old, that life, healing, and restoration in mind and body are already even now being brought about. Jesus stretched himself out in death, and our lives are restored, free from the power that sin so often wants to have over us.

Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution): “Is it lawful to do good?”
Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the sins we love to count up in others and loathe to count up in ourselves are completely removed from the equation. All sinners equal in death, we are now all crucified and risen ones, forgiven and restored, sharers of Christ’s promise, and equal in new life. There is no longer fear to harden our hearts and prevent us from loving our neighbor, or to make us glory in our neighbor’s downfall. Jesus’ death and resurrection restores us so that even at our most sinfully human, we do not have to fear God, because God already knows just how very sinful we are, and yet, restored us to the new life we didn’t deserve. Our hearts are unhardened, so that we are able to see the ways that God’s laws bring about life, not death and fear. Our hearts are unhardened, so that when it comes to doing good, we no longer need to ask “but is it lawful??” Our hearts are unhardened, so that we can wait and watch for opportunities to restore, heal, and love, rather than for opportunities to call out, punish, and destroy.

Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution): “The Sabbath was made for humankind”
We are an Easter people who have died to sin and been raised to new life. We have also received the Spirit – our Advocate and Guide as we live this new life of freedom. We are no longer bound to following God’s laws as though they are boxes to be checked to reach a reward or avoid punishment. But this freedom also calls us to live beyond the letter of God’s laws, doing what is loving and Christ-like because of the Spirit at work in us, not because it is merely “lawful.” It is the difference between a Spirited and a hardened heart.

In Deuteronomy, 5:12-15, God reminds the Israelites that they are forbidden work on the Sabbath, not so they can lord it over slaves who must work twice as hard on their behalf, but in order that for the whole community to enjoy rest because they once were slaves, and they remember what it was like to labor painfully and at the mercy of others. The Sabbath was intended as a gift to bring about life, where we may find respite from work, foster empathy for those whose labor seems never-ending, consider and advocate for the well-being of those who labor, and seek to create societies where rest from labor is for all people. Only in this way is the Sabbath understood as the restoring work that God has begun in us through Christ’s dying and rising. We get to replace sin with reconciliation, grief with joy, and death with life. “Stretch out your hand” are the words that Jesus proclaimed to the one who was healed. So we stretch out our own hands, first in order to receive Jesus’ restoration, and then to help bring this restoration into the world.