Grace Presbyterian Church
March 26, 2017, Lent 4A
The Broken Law
I am just old enough to remember a few Sunday “blue laws.”
“Blue laws,” as many of you will remember, were ordinances that, for the most part, prohibited certain types of commercial transactions on Sundays. Such laws might be most stereotypically connected to the sale of alcohol, but other transactions have also been prohibited under such ordinances – car sales, for example. In addition, some older blue laws prohibited particular activities – dancing, for instance, but also theater performances, concerts, and sporting events – from taking place on Sundays. Imagine the Super Bowl on any night but a Sunday night.
I really do have memories of walking into stores on a Saturday night, not long before closing, and seeing employees covering over the alcoholic beverages in their coolers with a tarpaulin or a large plastic sheet of some sort in preparation for Sunday. I didn’t really understand it at the time, but I thought it was strange.
Anyway, such laws are mostly gone, although one can find prohibitions on alcohol sales still in place in some counties or towns, but statewide prohibitions as used to be common seem have mostly been overturned. I’m not sure this is a great loss; it’s not as if such laws stopped anybody from buying as much beer as possible and spending all day Sunday guzzling it down, for example. But it is possible that such laws give us a good example of something that comes of a good, even noble impulse – to “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” as the commandment describes – and yet ends up useless and even possibly harmful.
The Pharisees that Jesus encounters in today’s reading had such legal interpretation down to an art form. This group – which it should be noted did not consist of rabbis or priests, but of dedicated laypeople – has been on Jesus’s case for a while as Matthew tells his story, finding fault with previous healing activities and suggesting that Jesus must have been in Beelzebul, the chief of the devils, in order to cast out devils. Here, though, Matthew’s story seems much more staged than realistic. First of all, why were Jesus and his disciples going through grain fields on the Sabbath, and second, why were the Pharisees also there on a Sabbath as well? Did the owner of the field have no privacy whatsoever?
Anyway, thus Matthew sets up a Sabbath showdown. (Quick reminder: the Jewish “Sabbath” being observed here is on the day of the week we would call Saturday, not Sunday.) You see, by plucking the heads of grain and eating them, the disciples had engaged in work – i.e. “reaping” – that was not lawful on the Sabbath, according to the decades or even centuries of rabbinic interpretative tradition developed from that aforementioned commandment, “remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Those Pharisees perched conveniently on the edge of the cornfield were quick to point this out.
Jesus responds with a different interpretation from that same rabbinic tradition, a counter-example from Hebrew history, a couple of theological jabs, and a prophetic citation. Even the religious authorities knew that some exceptions had to be made to those Sabbath regulations for priests even to be able to function as priests on the Sabbath day, so in order that the Temple could continue to function those priests were held guiltless for the “labor” they were required to do.
The story of David and his soldiers eating Temple-consecrated bread comes from 1 Samuel 21, and in fact doesn’t concern Sabbath practice at all, but speaks to the compassionate gesture of the Temple priest Ahimelech, who greatly departed from Temple ritual regulation to feed a bunch of very hungry and exhausted men with the only food on hand. It was wildly against Temple rules to do so.
What follows is a claim – “something greater than the Temple is here” – that doesn’t unfold itself easily to our understanding. What it is, though, is no less than Jesus’s claim of his own authority – as the Messiah, though that is not explicitly stated here. Being in the presence of God’s Messiah was of course not a claim that the Pharisees were prepared to accept, and thus the next test was sprung, but not before Jesus turned to the prophet Hosea’s urgent rebuke to the people to support his claims: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (6:6).
By ignoring that prophetic claim, Jesus’s interlocutors walked right into the trap that they thought they were setting for Jesus. As he and his disciples went on to the synagogue, they found there a man with a withered hand. A withered hand is many things – terribly difficult or impossible to use, a public embarrassment, a humiliation, perhaps – but it is not life-threatening, and according to those aforementioned Sabbath regulations treatment or healing on the Sabbath was only acceptable when a life was threatened. (Personally I’m glad that modern hospitals don’t adhere to this practice.) So this time this bunch of Pharisees just knew they had Jesus dead to rights.
And again, Jesus didn’t care. Noting that any one of them would have rescued a sheep from a ditch without thinking twice, Jesus makes the most basic claim possible – “so it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” – and for this the Pharisees went out set on destroying him, while a man walks away with a newly restored hand. Sensing the Pharisees’s plans, Jesus departed with the disciples as well. So it seems like nobody stuck around for synagogue that day.
It seems that way especially since a lot of the crowd apparently followed Jesus, and he “cured them all” according to Matthew. Jesus never passed up an opportunity to heal, it seems, putting him squarely in the tradition described in the passage from Isaiah that Matthew cites to round off his story.
Never passed up an opportunity to heal. How alien that sounds today.
It sounds deeply alien to us, living as we do in a time in which we live among many who never pass up an opportunity to hurt. And I’m not only talking about random muggers on the street. I’m talking about members of Congress, for goodness sake.
If indeed “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath,” as Jesus says in verse 8, then doesn’t Jesus have to be Lord of the rest of the week as well? Can we really engage in the kind of directed bigotry and hatred and assault and hurt that is getting routinely directed at immigrants, at people of color, at women, at gays or lesbians or at anyone who doesn’t fit the straight white template? Can we stand by and let that pass when we serve a Messiah who broke whatever law stood in the way of showing mercy to anybody who came across his path?
I’ll save you the trouble, friends: the answer is no.
Matthew’s closing citation from Isaiah is beautiful, but almost too soft. To have the Holy Spirit put within, to speak justice, to bring justice to victory is not meekness; it is not quietude. It is disruptive and upsetting to those for whom justice is secondary to order. To insist on ministering to those in need with mercy and gentleness is not for the faint of heart, or for the “go along and get along” type. To refer to the sermon from a couple of weeks ago, if we’re really gonna follow Christ and live as Christ lived, the sword will find us. We won’t have to go looking for it.
But the flip side of this is that Christ’s untrammeled, unrestrainable drive to show mercy also applies to us. In our own brokenness and in our own despair Christ will minister to us with that same mercy and that same gentleness. We are not, no matter how deep our sin or how broken our spirit, no matter how much of a “bruised reed” or a “smoldering wick” we might be, no law, no human barrier will keep Christ from us, from showing us mercy and grace and gentleness even as Christ shows us truth and urges us to be doers of justice. Knowing our brokenness and knowing our bruised-ness is no fun, but only then, perhaps, can we recognize that Christ ministers to us as well. And then, being so ministered, we can then become the agents or the vessels through which Christ ministers mercy to others in need.
May we never be the agents of human obstruction. May we always be the agents of Christ’s mercy. Always.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#393 O Day of Rest and Gladness; #734 Hope of the World;#103 Come Now, O Prince of Peace;#655 What Shall I Render to the Lord