Sunday, July 20, 2014

Something Greater

Matthew 12:1-13
July 20, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

For the last couple of weeks in Bible study we’ve been contemplating the gift of the Sabbath –a time of rest, renewal, refreshment –a time for prayer and worship, for family and relaxation. If you read the July newsletter you’ll remember that in August, we are taking a month of Sabbath, beginning after worship on August 3.We want to encourage each person in the congregation to find time for prayer and blessing, recreation, reflection, rest, and limits to work. For some of us, this will be easy; for others, like me, it will be a challenge. This scripture we are about to read demonstrates that challenge.

Jesus has promised that those who follow him will find rest, and will take on a yoke that is easy, a burden that is light. But his opponents challenge him, argue with almost everything he says and does, because he is a threat – he is upsetting the status quo. To them, this story is just one more example of Jesus’ resistance to the rules and his outrageous flouting of their customs and traditions. In their eyes, he can do nothing right. This scripture is really two stories – one about plucking grain on the Sabbath, the other about healing on the Sabbath. In the end, it is less about obeying rules than it is a reflection on Jesus’ teaching - -that a transcendent ethic of love trumps the rules. Let’s listen for Jesus’ teaching about something greater in Matthew 12:1-13.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath;
his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.
When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him,
“Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.”
He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless?
I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.
But if you had known what this means,
‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.
For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”
He left that place and entered their synagogue;
a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him,
“Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him.
He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out?
How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!
So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.”
Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”
He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other.

This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

There is a lot we don’t know about Jesus. One of my favorite songwriters, John Prine, wrote a ballad about the life of Jesus between the age of 12 and 30. The song is pretty irreverent and funny – it’s called “Jesus, the Missing Years.” In one verse, a fellow asks Jesus, "What you gonna be when you grow up?" Jesus said, "God" Then Jesus says, “They're gonna kill me, Mama…”[1]

We don’t really know for sure what Jesus usually did on Sabbath days – like so much of his life, we can only speculate. We can be reasonably sure that he did observe the fourth commandment. It’s important, too, to remember that we don’t know everything about the Pharisees. They are certainly not wholehearted followers of Jesus, but they also raise important questions. And it is helpful to remember that they were not all stalking Jesus, like little clusters of 1st century secret agents, crouching in the wheat fields, just waiting for him to slip up. They were asking legitimate questions, and engaging in the kind of debate that the Jewish tradition honors – opinions and interpretations offered, and sometimes – often, actually – hotly debated, without a final resolution.

The Gospels are not daily journals, specifying what Jesus had for breakfast or the details of every day – the weather, who was there, a joke he told. The Gospels were written with a purpose – to reveal something about Jesus to us, and thereby to reveal something about God. In the same way, the gift of the law was given to God’s people in order to draw them closer to God.

The Pharisees had a point, you see – a fair and reasonable point. Sabbath was a gift from God, a day to be set apart and honored. The law of Sabbath observance was a subject of great discussion, and even all the scholars of the time were not in agreement. But there was a prohibition against work, on that point they were clear, and these Pharisees, at least, had a valid question to raise.

After all, the disciples knew what day it was. They knew the day before that the next day was the Sabbath. They knew they were going to be hungry – happens every day. Did they think that they were exempt from the law, just because they were with Jesus? Who did he think he was?

Jesus’ response to their challenge addressed that question first, before the finer points of the law against working on the Sabbath, or whether plucking grain constituted work. Who did he think he was? Jesus’ answer made that abundantly clear. By citing the story of King David, from 1 Samuel 21, Jesus draws a parallel between himself and David. David’s survival was crucial to God’s plan for Israel, so he was permitted to eat the sacramental bread of the temple. Even more so, then, Jesus’ need for food, for sustenance, would trump the extreme legalism of these Pharisees. In a word, Jesus established a precedent.

But he was not content with that justification alone. There was a still larger argument – something greater. What could be greater than the temple? What could possibly be more important than Torah, the law? Jesus makes it plain with another reference to the scriptures – Hosea 6:6. That verse in the New Revised Standard Version says:
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

So it then would logically follow that when Jesus left the wheat fields and went into the synagogue – still on the Sabbath, mind you-- that he would answer their challenge again, in the same way. They presented him with a man whose hand was withered. Who knows whether the man was there already, or if they went out somewhere and rounded him up, in order to continue the debate. Jesus didn’t hesitate long – just long enough to remind them of the law of love. You wouldn’t leave your sheep to die in a pit would you? And isn’t a human life of greater importance than a sheep? And then he offered healing, and the man was restored.

Jesus didn’t disregard the Sabbath observance. It’s clear that he went to the temple, he remembered the Sabbath, he obeyed the fourth commandment. For all that we don’t know about Jesus, we know that. He did not revoke the law, but obeyed a higher law, the foundation of all the laws, and the greatest commandment. And this story is included in the Gospel accounts for a reason – to hold up to us the question of how to honor the Lord’s day.

Just as they disputed the issue then, we are faced with this dilemma in our time:
the challenge of balancing obedience to God’s laws, with continually seeking that “something greater” of which Jesus spoke.

Many people tend to lean harder into sacrifice than mercy, into the letter of the law rather than the law of love. Even though those particular Pharisees have retired from law enforcement, there are many, many more who would take their place, who will put judgment ahead of something greater, who will insist that laws be enforced regardless of context, regardless of the ripple of consequence. Our world is filled with people who know what is best for everyone else, and many Christians are chief among them, ready to sacrifice human life in order to win a legal argument.

This is bigger than a simple argument about Sabbath keeping.
Whether we are struggling with the humanitarian crisis of refugee children at our country’s borders, or the grievous violence in the middle east, we are called to look to something greater. When death is the consequence of disobedience for four Palestinian children whose crime was to go out and play on the beach, we have to look to something greater than rules and enforcement.

We are called, always, first and foremost, to the law of love,
to “mercy and not sacrifice,”
to the great commandment to love neighbor,
to love each other,
to love even our enemies.

Jesus did not say, “I have come to add to the burdens of humans, with more rules and expectations, so that you may all judge those who fail to live up to your standards.”
He said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. The rest that God offers in Sabbath is not only rest for the body, but also rest for the soul, and rest for the mind, and rest from efforts to control the world around us, or to control the behavior and actions of others.

Jesus never said, “I have come that you might know all the rules and obey them all perfectly.” He said “I have come that you may have life, and have it more abundantly”

To know that this one who came to give us life is also Lord of the Sabbath is to know that with all the pain and brokenness with all the violence and sorrow with all the rejection and exclusion in the world, even with all that, God is still at work in the world.

God is still God, and we are still God’s people.

Even when we are anxious or afraid, weighted down with the worries of this world, we are invited to rest in God’s presence, to trust in that universal love that is God. In so doing, we can receive sustenance and offer healing, responding to God’s call to love, to work alongside Jesus in building that kingdom, keeping our eyes fixed on him, and making all our striving not on our own desires, but upon mercy, steadfast love, upon something greater.

May we rest in God’s presence,
trust in God’s love,
and live in God’s light.


[1] John Prine - Jesus The Missing Years Lyrics

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