Second Sunday after Pentecost Year B
The gate was pad-locked and the fence was eight to ten feet high as I recall, but my friend and I were determined to get in, so we climbed over. The sun was out, a gentle breeze blowing, the temperature was hovering around 75 degrees – it was a perfect day to play some tennis and take a break from our studies. But it was also Sunday, the Lord’s Day, and historically this seminary was part of a tradition that took Sabbath observance very strictly, even the library was closed all day, so that none of the students would break the Sabbath by studying. Being in this kind of environment made me wonder if God really intended all these extra rules to enforce God’s commandment to “observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy?” Or for that matter, what was God’s purpose for the ten commandments and all the rest of those laws in the Hebrew scriptures.
I could certainly understand the prohibitions against killing and lying and stealing and adultery, after all those are behaviors that diminish life, they take something from someone that no-one has the right to take – in a way these were intended to remind us that we are not God and to give us broad parameters in our relationships with each other, to live lives that “respect the dignity of every human being” as we affirm in our baptismal covenant. But the underlying assumption that I must obey a set of rules in order to please God or even to gain God’s approval seems superficial at best. Didn’t Jesus teach that God looks on the heart while we mortals look on the outward appearance? And couldn’t I outwardly do all the right things for selfish reasons and still look like I was being a “holy” person?
Peter Enns, the biblical scholar whom we have studied in our Adult Forum, says that the Ten commandments and the other dietary and ceremonial laws found in Leviticus, were meant to distinguish the Hebrew people and the God they worshipped from the surrounding cultures and their gods in the Mediterranean world, to set them apart from their contemporaries, or in biblical language to make them holy. The root meaning of the word holy is “to set apart” for a specific thing, in this case to set apart a people to worship and follow the one true God. So in one sense, holiness has very little to do with morality, with what is good and evil and everything to do with what our behavior looks like, being set-apart to act in a certain way.
But Jesus, it seems, wants to reintroduce the true meaning of what it means to follow God and God’s laws, not in mere external obedience, but in internal fulfillment. That’s why I think this passage in our Gospel reading today is crucial for us to understand how Jesus deals with his Jewish tradition and especially the scriptural idea of the law. The idea that God gave the Hebrews the law in order for them to live up to God’s standards or else God would punish them doesn’t seem to be Jesus’ approach.
When Jesus and his disciples were hungry they gleaned some grain from the fields and ate, which was perfectly legal under Levitical law, except on the Sabbath. So the Pharisees questioned why Jesus was doing something unlawful (by the way, the unlawful thing Jesus and his disciples did was probably two-fold – doing work on the Sabbath – plucking grain, and walking too far – the number of steps you were allowed to take on the Sabbath was limited to somewhere around a half a mile). Jesus responds with a statement of purpose and perspective. First, Jesus gives us the laws’ original purpose, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” In other words the purpose of the Sabbath law is to serve the needs of humanity and not for humanity to be a slave to the law. Where it served humanitys’ need – hunger, for instance – the law gave way to the needs of humanity. Second, Jesus gives us a revelatory word of perspective when he says, “so the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Jesus’ identity takes precedence over the Mosaic law, or as Jesus puts it in another way, “I have come to fulfill all the law and the prophets.”
The alternative that Jesus is proposing here is that if God is most fully known in the person of Jesus, even more than how God revealed God’s self in the law, then by following Jesus and the way of life Jesus is teaching and living, then we too are fulfilling the deepest expectations of the law. The fulfillment of the law is a matter of the heart not of external performance. Fulfilling the law answers the question in whom do we trust, ourselves, in attempting to outwardly conform, or God when we surrender our hearts to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.
Putting it another way, how do you respond to the ones you love? Hopefully, by loving them, by doing what is in their best interest. So to love God is simply responding to God’s love with our heartfelt best, to be the people God intends us to be. God has already accepted us and loves each one of us and as we respond to that love we do what pleases God. Look at what Jesus does next in our reading today.
On another Sabbath Jesus was in a Synagogue and a man with a withered hand was there. The Pharisees were again watching Jesus to see what he would do. As an aside, whenever we are more concerned about someone else’s behavior than our own, except if someone is being harmed in some way, then we need to take our own moral inventory, remembering the log in our own eye. Now back to Jesus, the man with the withered hand and the Pharisees. Jesus uses this opportunity to teach by his actions the intension of the law. He says to the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill? And they were silent.” Now this really ticks Jesus off and he is visibly angry at their hardness of heart, their lack of compassion for a fellow human being who is suffering. So Jesus heals the man’s hand.
If any of us would have been there, we would have reacted with awe at what Jesus has just done, restoring life to this man who was not able to be as productive as he could with two good hands especially in that day, when any physical deformity was seen as a judgment by God that there was something wrong with you. But in the face of Jesus restoring the fullness of life to this man, the Pharisees went off to plan the destruction of Jesus’ life.
Here again we see the principle that Jesus is trying to teach us - that following the law was meant to give life, to make our lives better, to help us reflect the character of God in our interactions with each other. But when those laws are used to denigrate and control others in order that we might feel better about ourselves then we have lost the purpose of those laws. Following Jesus means loving others with the compassion Jesus had and recognizing our face in the face of the one we are called to love.