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Mark 2.23-3.6

 When I was in seminary, the church as was serving as youth pastor had a change in leadership. About midway through my time at Richland Hills CC, we had an interim pastor, Dr. Robert Schomp. Dr. Bob, as most people called him, had spent something like 40 years pastoring congregations in the Southwest. After retiring from full-time ministry, he trained to serve as an interim.

          Well, since at that time I was in the seminary’s field education program, and thus doing essentially a required internship at Richland Hills, he inherited the task of being my supervisor. This meant that we had many long, deep conversations about ministry, the church, theology. During one of those conversations, Bob told me about one of his first pastorates after seminary. As I recall, it was a small to medium size congregation in a town somewhere a little east of Dallas. Bob was concerned about the issue of Civil Rights. Because of his faith and his reading of Scripture, he believed that African-Americans should have the same rights as white folks, that everyone ought to be treated equally. He supported integration and Civil Rights legislation.  Because this was a faith issue, he spoke about it in his sermons, it came up in his teaching and writing. People knew where he stood and a lot of them didn’t agree.

          Complicating matters, Bob associated with a prominent, outspoken African-American pastor from Dallas. It was both a professional relationship and a friendship. This pastor was deeply involved in Civil Rights efforts in the Dallas area and frequently in the papers and on the TV news. He was disliked by many supporters of the status quo. Some of the elders of the church came to Dr. Bob and told him that they didn’t think he should associate with this African-American pastor. As I recall it, Bob’s reply was something to the effect of “This is the United States and I’m free to associate with whoever I want to. And besides—and more importantly—this is a matter of faith and morality—it’s the right thing to do.” The elders were not pleased.

          Soon thereafter, the Schomp family went on vacation. Bob took, we might say, a time of Sabbath to rest and revitalize. While he was away, the elders conspired against him. They formulated and executed a plan to, in Mark’s language, destroy him.  

          Not long after the family returned home, a couple of the elders showed up at their house and told Bob he had been fired.

          Why? What was his crime?

          He had chosen unity over segregation; equality before God over white supremacy, community over separation; compassion over tradition/law, the Gospel over social convention; love over rules.

          He had challenged the status quo, threatened “things as they are,” by trying to follow in the way of Jesus Christ.

          It is this type of conflict that we see in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus and some of the religious leaders of Capernaum are in conflict over how to properly observe the Sabbath. First, as Jesus and his followers walk through a grain field, some of the disciples pluck the heads of grain and the Pharisees accuse them of violating the prohibition against doing work on the Sabbath. Then, Jesus enters the synagogue, as was his custom on the Sabbath, and encounters a man whose hand is doesn’t work properly, it’s “withered.” Those same Pharisees are watching closely, hoping to catch Jesus violating the Sabbath law. They seem intent on discrediting him by branding him a lawbreaker

          Now, there are a couple things that need to made clear here. First, the observance of the Sabbath as such is not the issue here. Sabbath observance is commanded by God. The OT/HB gives three justifications for resting on the seventh day. First, after creating all things, God rests on the seventh day, making it a holy day, a sacred time. Second, the Sabbath is held up as a day to remember God’s gracious act of liberating the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. Third, Sabbath observance is a sign of the perpetual covenant between God and the Jewish people. Notice that the focus of all three of these justifications is on God’s action. The Sabbath points to God and God’s gracious, life-giving actions. Each of these divine acts brings great benefit to humans: life, freedom, relationship with God and one another. Just as each of these Divine actions allows human flourishing, so too the Sabbath that commemorates them is meant to promote human flourishing. The great 20th century Jewish scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel argued that the Sabbath is deeply important because it provides “a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence [from] external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping idols of technical civilization, a day on which we can use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature.” [Heschel, The Sabbath: It’s Meaning for Modern Man, 1952, HarperCollins reprint 1999, 19]  It is a day of God-commissioned rest and peace, a time of revitalization and refocusing on our relationship to the God who made us all and, consequently, on our relationship with one another, not as consumers and competitors, but as fellow beloved children of God. Jesus, as a good Jew, would surely agree with the importance of this observation.     

The second important point I want to make about the Sabbath conflict in our scripture reading is that there was not universal agreement among Jewish authorities as to what constituted work on the Sabbath. Some folks would have agreed with the Pharisees, some would have defended the disciples. As for healing on the Sabbath, no law in Judaism forbade it. A close reading of Jewish law and traditions, makes it clear that there were exceptions which overrode Sabbath law, matters of necessity or urgency that took precedence over the command to rest and refrain from work. For example, in the Mishnah, the collection of oral commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Mattiah ben Harash says that in cases of life-threatening illness, or the possibility of such illness, it is allowable to give medicine. He adds, “any matter of doubt as to danger to life overrides the prohibitions of the Sabbath.” [Yoma 8.6; Mishnah; quoted in Donohue and Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina, 115] That strikes me as a principle that might well apply in a variety of circumstances. 

So, the Pharisees in our scripture do not represent typical Jewish thought and practice. What Jesus is condemning is not the Sabbath itself, much less is it Judaism. Jesus is condemning the legalism that elevates rules above people and the literalism that insists on strict observance of ritual or practice while forgetting the very meaning and purpose of the act.

This is not a Jewish problem; it is a human problem. Anyone can fall into this trap. Right after I graduated from college, I was called to serve jury duty. It was a case of breaking and entering. The defendant, who was about my age at the time, and a partner were accused of breaking into a local textile mill, busting open a snack machine, and absconding with the money box, full of, very heavy, coins. A witness saw them cut through the fence and break into the mill and watched them leave. He then flagged down a passing police officer who gave chase and eventually apprehended both men. They were found to have all the tools necessary for the crime, but, strangely, the money box was not in the car and was never found. I’m still confused by this: had they dumped the money during the chase? If so, when and where? The police officer didn’t see them do it. As a result, we had evidence sufficient to convict the young man on most charges but not on the main charge of theft.

This point was made by a fellow juror during our deliberations and I agreed. Then I said, “I’m pretty sure this guy is guilty of theft, and I would like to nail him for it, but we can’t with the evidence we have.” Well, my words drew the ire of a fellow juror. Why, she wondered, was I so eager to “nail” this young man? He was a repeat offender and this was his third strike. Under the laws of North Carolina at that time, conviction on any count would potentially result in a very long jail sentence. How could I speak so cavalierly, so self-righteously of punishing him? What effect would a conviction have on the rest of his life? What type of future would he have?

Looking back, though we had no real choice but to deliver a guilty verdict on most counts, I have nonetheless come to think she was right and I was wrong. She felt compassion. I didn’t; I just wanted to enforce the law. Why was I so eager to condemn, with no thought for person I was condemning? I saw the defendant simply as a criminal, a cancer on society, a lawbreaker who must be punished. My fellow juror saw the defendant as a human being, one who had done wrong, but a human being none the less. Looking back, I think she had a far more Christ-like attitude than I, the soon-to-be seminarian and future preacher.

Her disgust with my statement mirrors Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees when they refuse to say whether it is lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath. Jesus is angry and deeply grieved by their hardness of heart. They are so focused on maintaining religious rules that they have forgotten the meaning of the rules. The Sabbath was made for humans—it was instituted by God to promote human flourishing: to provide a day of rest; a day for recreation, for re-creation; a day to draw near to God; a day to remember the blessing of life and that the purpose of our work is to promote and facilitate life and thriving. If the Sabbath was made for humans, then surely any act that promotes human flourishing is permissible on the Sabbath. Picking grain to satisfy hunger and healing a man’s useless hand, those acts may violate the letter of the law, but, surely, they are consistent with the spirit of Sabbath.

The same principle applies to all religious practices, and I suspect many other aspects of life. God’s concern, Christ’s concern is always first and foremost the flourishing of God’s creatures: not ritual correctness, or even abstract justice, but human flourishing. Compassion for human need supersedes law, rule and tradition. As John Wesley said, we ought to feel “[dislike toward] every offence against God, but only love and tender compassion to the offender.” [quoted in Placher, Mark, Belief Theo. Comm., 53]

I’m reminded of a story I heard many years ago about Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor of New York from 1934-1945. The story exists in several forms, but it appears to be an account of an actual event; the earliest account of the incident was published in 1945, LaGuardia’s final year in office. According to the version I heard, LaGuardia would occasionally invoke a state law permitting mayors to preside over local courts. So one winter’s night during the Great Depression, the mayor showed up at the night court in a poor part of the city and gave the judge the night off. Soon, a ragged looking old woman was brought before him, accused of stealing a loaf of bread. She admitted the crime, but explained that her daughter’s husband had abandoned her with no resources and two children, and now her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving.

However, the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. ‘It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor,’ the man told the mayor. ‘She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.’

“LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, ‘I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail.’ But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous hat, saying, ‘Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.’”

The shocked woman was presented with $47.50. She gave fifty cents to the shopkeeper and so left with $47, the equivalent of $1075.90 today, to support her needy family.  

[Afterwards, “some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.” As told in Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel (2000); the source of this version of the story is McCutcheon, James N., “The Righteous and the Good.”  in Cox, James W.,  Best Sermons 1. New York: Harper & Row, 1988, pp. 238-239; while the oldest version of the story appears to be Cerf, Bennett, Try and Stop Me.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945, pp. 268-269.]

 LaGuardia did not see this woman as a criminal. He saw her first and foremost as a human being. So, he was able to have compassion and find a creative solution to the dilemma presented by both her crime and her need.

There is no doubt that the Sabbath, and all the OT laws, are intended to promote or enable human flourishing; they are God’s good gift. But if we focus too much on law, scripture, ritual or tradition, we make idols of them and forget their purpose.[1] When law, scripture, ritual or tradition become objects of our love instead of tools meant to benefit humanity, when that happens, then we lose our ability to love our fellow humans [Wendy Farley; “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, B/3, 96]. We were made not to follow rules, but to be like God and love one another. And as Paul observes, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” [Rom 13.10] Amen.     


[1] At this point in my delivery of the sermon, I inserted some comments on scriptural authority, comments which I cannot now exactly reproduce. The gist was: Our faith is not in rules or traditions, but in the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. After all, our faith is not called “Biblianity” but “Christianity”—we don’t believe in the Bible; we believe in Christ whose story is told in the Bible. [I came across this observation flipping t