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A young man was the youth pastor in a rather conservative church. At one meeting of the youth he decided to teach on evangelism. The church was conservative enough, that films had never been shown within its walls; however, the youth pastor decided it was time they introduced some modern tools to engage the youth, but so as not to upset anyone, he selected a film that documented the work of missionaries. We’re talking simple, safe, black-and-white religious-oriented movie. He showed the film, but less than hour after the film projector had been off the group of elders in the church called him in and asked him about what he had done. They asked, “Did you show the young people a film?” In all honesty he responded, “Well, yeah, I did.” “We don’t like that,” they replied. Without trying to be argumentative, the youth worker reasoned, “Well, I remember that at the last missionary conference, our church showed slides—” One of the church officers put his hand up signaling him to cease talking. Then, in these words, he emphatically explained the conflict: “If it’s still, fine. If it moves, sin! You can show slides, but when they start movin’, you’re gettin’ into sin.”
The church has been largely unsuccessful, but this has not deterred the church throughout the ages from trying all sorts of angles to keep folks from “gettin’ into sin.” Some of those attempts were extreme.
In the fall of 1541 a certain preacher entered Geneva, Switzerland with a serious plan to bring religious reform to the city, so that the folks there would quit sinning. One of his first acts was to draft a set of laws that would govern the populace. Some of the laws were fairly typical of his day: swearing, gambling, drunkenness, and sexual immorality were outlawed.
But some of the other laws were probably as strange then as they seem now. People were not allowed to play cards, speak disrespectfully to others, feast, dance, sing, create art, wear jewelry, or skip church. Oh, and all children had to be named after characters from the Old Testament. There were plenty of male names to go around, but I’m guessing there were a lot of Ruths and Esthers.
First time offenders were usually let off with a simple warning, but second time offenses drew a fine of some sort. For those who were bent on wearing earrings to the town dance, steeper penalties were enacted. Some lawbreakers were banished from the city. A dad who insisted on naming his son Claude spent four days in jail. A rebellious kid who got into a fight with his parents was beheaded. Women found pregnant out of wed-lock were drowned (along with her lover if he could be found). In the enforcement of his rules, the preacher was no respecter of persons. His step-son was found guilty of adultery and his daughter-in-law was caught behind a haystack with another man. All four of the criminals were executed.
Today, this preacher is considered one of the great theologians and his teachings provide the foundation for many churches. History has a way of washing away the dirt, even so, I’ve never really been a fan of John Calvin. (There’s a rant just waiting to boil over!). But it wasn’t just Calvin. From the beginning, the religious have attempted to legislate morality and the same was true for the Pharisees in the time of Jesus.
Our Gospel reading today begins with the third of three conflicts Jesus has with the Pharisees. In the first, Jesus is found eating with the wrong sorts of people, leading the Pharisees to ask Jesus’ disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” The second incident involved fasting. The Pharisees asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?” Today, they call Jesus out because they believe that Jesus and his disciples are “working” on the Sabbath.
We know that keeping the Sabbath holy is in the top ten commandments (#4): “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.”
What were Jesus and the disciples doing? As they were walking along the road they passed a wheat field. Reaching out, they pulled a stalk of wheat and nibbled on the grain. The pulling of the stalk was viewed as “harvesting,” therefore, it was work. They had committed a most grievous sin!
Jesus does not deny that they have plucked some wheat, but instead, he points to another incident when David and his men were hungry and also broke the law by eating the bread that was reserved for the priest, yet David and his men were not condemned. (It is a completely different sermon, but Jesus has just set himself on an equal plain with great King David.) Jesus then says, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” Jesus says, “You’ve got it wrong. The Sabbath was given, not as something to be legislated. It was given to you as a gift. It was given to you as a time of renewal for your body and your spirit.” The very next incident in our Gospel shows this.
It is again the Sabbath and Jesus enters the synagogue. There is a man with a deformed hand and Jesus asked him to stand so that everyone could see him. Jesus then asked the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” They knew the answer. They knew what was right, but they were so caught up, not only in maintaining the law, but also proving Jesus wrong, that they refused to say anything. “They were silent. [Jesus] 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.”
The key to understanding these incidents occurs when Jesus asked the man to stand in the center of the room. The man does, and Jesus asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” You see, Jesus was not asking about the law, Jesus was asking about the man. By having him stand in the center of the room, he was asking the Pharisees, “What do you see? Do you see someone who is suffering? Do you see someone who is deprived of a full life? Do you see someone afflicted?” That deformed hand could also represent a deformed soul. Somewhat caught up in sin. Someone who has been emotionally harmed. Someone who has given up on life. And Jesus could very well have asked, “What do you see? Are you unwilling to forgive them, to heal their souls, just because it is the sabbath? Are you unwilling to restore them to spiritual health, because of some rule you have established? This is the sabbath for crying out loud! Of all days, this is the day of healing, of rest, of renewal, of worship, but you are so worried about someone plucking a head of wheat that you can’t be concerned with those souls that are dying all around you.”
I’ve always said that no one wakes up and decides, “Oh, I think I’ll become a heretic today.” It comes from strong held beliefs. The same applies to the Pharisees. I don’t believe they intentionally sought to oppose God, but over time, they had these strong held beliefs about God and how He worked and that is through the application of the Law. They then became so obsessed with this application of the Law that they no longer saw the person as the pinnacle of all God’s creation. Instead they saw the person as a “project.” Someone who needed to be legislated into holiness. When Jesus entered the scene, they could either recognize the truth he was speaking or reject him, become hard hearted. They chose the latter and like petulant children, they stuck their fingers in their ears and cried out, “We can’t hear you.” But, because Jesus was gaining followers, because the people they so desperately wanted to legislate into holiness were following after this trouble maker, the Pharisees, Herodians and others begin looking for a way to destroy Jesus.
What does this look like in our own lives? Imagine, if you will, that it is the sabbath and you are the man in the temple, the one with the withered hand. You’ve not been able to care for yourself or your family. You are in constant pain. You are looked down upon because you are a drain on society. You are considered sinful, because God does not afflict the righteous with such trials. Jesus ask you to come and stand before everyone in all your brokenness and sinfulness. Imagine you are that man.
Now here is a truth: it is the sabbath and… you are that man, that woman. You are the one afflicted, hurting, looked down upon, sinful. Jesus, the one and only source of your healing stands before you, but someone raises a question and in so doing, reminds everyone of God’s Law: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Question: How would you like for Jesus to respond?
Today’s lesson: “Go and do likewise.”
Let us pray:
Father of love, hear our prayer.
Help us to know Your Will
and to do it with courage and faith.
Accept the offering of ourselves,
all our thoughts, words, deeds, and sufferings.
May our lives be spent giving You glory.
Give us the strength to follow Your call,
so that Your Truth may live in our hearts
and bring peace to us and to those we meet,
for we believe in Your Love.