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plucking the heads off the law

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock

{Deuteronomy 5:12-15; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6]

[Sung]:  “Where have all the ‘blue laws’ gone, long time passing?  Where have all the ‘blue laws’ gone, a long, long time ago…”

With apologies to “Peter, Paul, and Mary” and any copyright laws that their 1969 musical offering involve, indeed: Where have all the “blue laws” gone?  Was their passing a good thing or not?  How do you tell?  Were they “good” or “bad” laws?  Did they meet their purpose?  What was their purpose?  More to the point, what help does today’s gospel lesson provide in offering responses to these questions?  “The sabbath was made for [humanity], not [humanity] for the sabbath.”1

Depending upon your interpretation and maybe your politics, Jesus seems to do his own thing, appearing to follow “alternative facts”, which makes him appear to be indifferent to the Law.  Or is he instead the embodiment of a different and deeper perspective.  Which is it?  

Today’s gospel lesson from Mark provides two, sequential stories that combine to indicate a clarifying (albeit, challenging) connection between law and life.  I find the following insight illuminating in this connection.  “Learn the rules well so that you can break them properly.”2

Together, you and I have gone through the fifty days of Easter.  We have marked Christ’s Resurrection, Ascension, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. In this, I admit to being slightly disconcerted to find ourselves in a kind of “back to the future” experience in this gospel because after a full easter we now re-enter the early stages of Jesus’ public ministry.  The context of today’s gospel lesson comes from the events of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and his being sent into the wilderness to be tested and tempted by Satan.  All of which clearly set the early foundation of a larger story -- a story of a cosmic battle between what is “good” and of God with that which is “evil” and against God.  It is this struggle, this dramatic battle that sets the stage for today’s gospel, the telling of which comes through a narrative that includes the specific figures of Jesus and the Pharisees.  

In the telling of today’s stories (there are, as I say, actually two, sequential stories), the Pharisees are portrayed in the gospel’s perspective as opposing Jesus and (by extension) opposing God.  In Mark’s writing, the literary function the Pharisees play is reminiscent of a Greek chorus.3  Standing at the edge of the action, they judgmentally observe that Jesus associates with “tax collectors and sinners”; and they snipe at his proclivity to provide healing and the forgiveness of sins.4  Like the right-wing pressure group they were, the Pharisees stalk Jesus and his disciples in hopes of gathering enough damaging evidence to discredit him and the movement that is growing around him.  Clearly, the Pharisees are threatening Jesus.  What’s the reason?

From the edges of the field, Mark describes the Pharisees spying on Jesus and his men as they go through the grainfields, plucking the heads of grain.  Evidently, Jesus and his band were very hungry.  Being on a mission, away from home and moving constantly, they lived off the land.  But the drama of the scene erupts when this harvesting work occurs on the sabbath day.  As our timely lesson from Deuteronomy reminds us, by law (that is, in the sixth of the Ten Commandments, to be precise) no work is to be done on the sabbath.  The immediate question before us is: What is it about “no work” on the sabbath that Jesus and his gang don't get?  We shall see.

Sidebar: Do you think the Pharisees would have been watching the grainfields so assiduously if ordinary people had been plucking the heads of grain?  Why do you think they were so focused on Jesus?  Again, we shall see.

In any event, at the sight of this grainfield infraction, the Pharisees eagerly whipped out their smartphones and took videos of what Jesus and his disciples were doing.  They especially took pains to include the video’s time & date stamp, which indicated that these taped actions in fact occurred on the Sabbath Day.  With this prosecutable evidence in hand, they rushed from the field’s edges and unceremoniously confronted Jesus with this tattle-tailing indictment: “Look, your disciples are breaking Sabbath rules!”5  Tisk.  Tisk.  Tisk.

In what will become a characteristically familiar form of martial arts rhetoric, Jesus turns the intended force of the Pharisees back onto them by adroitly posing his own countering question: “Haven’t you ever read what David did when he was hungry, along with those who were with him?”  

(At this riposting question, I can imagine some schmoe  Pharisee clutching his head in anguish and muttering to himself: “Oh, no, not a Bible pop quiz!”).  Nonetheless, Jesus continued, “have you not heard how [David] entered the sanctuary and ate fresh bread [right] off the altar, with the Chief Priest Abiathar right there watching – holy bread that no one but priests were allowed to eat – and [what is more, David himself] distributed [the holy bread] out to his companions?”6  Somebody call the Bishop!

To put a sharp point to his observation and to up the ante of the situation, Jesus offers one of his pithy, transforming punchlines that in effect closes the curtain both on this scene and its argument:  Jesus says, “The sabbath was made for [humanity], not [humanity] for the sabbath.”7  Game.  Set. And Match!

If, as I suggest, the day’s gospel provides us with an insight into the symbiotic relationship between law and life – God’s life, in particular -- what is the meaning of what Jesus says about the sabbath?  What does Jesus know about the connection between law and God’s life that we can easily miss?  The answer to this question lies in knowing the biblical story of David and the holy bread and how Jesus uses it as a scale-tipping scriptural allusion.  Hint: His point is much larger than keeping the sixth Commandment.

It seems from the lesson that soon after this confrontation with the “Bible police” that Jesus went to worship in the local synagogue.  It was, after all, the Sabbath Day, and Jesus (at the very least) is a good, faithful, practicing Jew.  Yet, upon entering the community’s synagogue, Mark tells us that there was a man in the congregation with a visibly withered hand.  The Pharisees, still following Jesus and recording his every move, wondered if this itinerant rabbi would take the bait – the bait of healing the man – in the synagogue -- on the Sabbath.  “Inquiring minds want to know!”

Seeing the man’s withered condition but also the malicious intentions of his enemies, Jesus spoke to the man and invited him to “Come forward”.8  As the man moved tentatively into the attention of all present, Jesus asked what in effect was a rhetorical question about the purpose of the Law with a series of simple questions: “What kind of action suits the Sabbath best?”  “Doing good or doing evil?  Helping people or leaving them helpless?”9  The text says that no one dared answer him.  The text also reports that eyeing the room full of ostensibly faithful, worshipping people of God, Jesus was filled with a deep anger at their fearful silence – a silence that gave faint cover to the hard-hearted religion they held.  And in his profound sense of grief (for anger is always rooted in sadness), Jesus acted.  He healed the man’s withered hand.  But there is more.

The second story in today’s gospel narrative ends with a terse but telling description: namely, that the Pharisees immediately left the worship space and conspired to make a pact with the Herodians to do away with Jesus.  

The telltale point of this observation is that the puritanical Pharisees, with their strict and harsh interpretation of the Law and the Prophets, joined the “Herodians” in a version of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.  Far from holding the Law and the Prophets, the Herodians were supporters of the poser “King of the Jews”, Herod Agrippa, whose position was completely subsidized by the occupying Romans.  Clearly, Jesus is that threatening to both these parties’ sense of power and control.

Let me draw my remarks to a close by saying two things.  

The first is, to repeat the old adage, “Learn the law well so that you may break it properly”: It speaks to the point that Jesus makes in this gospel.  Another truism augments this point about what the Law and the God-life have to do with one another.  That truism is “first things first”.  And what is always first in being God’s people is – wait for it -- God!  In particular, the sixth Commandment calls us to “observe the sabbath day and to keep it holy”.10  Part of the meaning of the sixth Commandment certainly focuses on how we “observe the sabbath day” and how we keep it “holy”, how we keep it not like any other day of the week.  Yet, the central purpose of the Commandment is for God’s people to remember and to honor God, especially on sabbath occasions to rest our souls.  

Because of what I regard as a superficial (and even self-serving) interpretations, Jesus can be seen by some not only as being indifferent to the Law, playing fast and loose with the guiding tradition, but also and more erroneously as replacing the law.  This is an untrue perspective.  It is also a dangerous one – dangerous to the extent that it fosters antisemitism in what is technically called “supersessionism”: a belief that followers of Christ replace the Jews as God’s people.  In this extreme notion, one can hear the hateful, self-pitying cries of the neo-Nazis in 2017, in the so-called “Unity March” in Charlottesville, Virginia : “The Jews will not replace us”.  

Clearly, this is not what Jesus was demonstrating in the grainfield or in the synagogue.  What he was pointing to by way of allusion to King David is that something greater than David was in their midst, the proof of the pudding was in Jesus’ power to heal and to restore life: a particular sign of what life with God is like and what the sabbath makes time and space to remember.  

The second closing observation comes from an imaginative interaction that I can see occurring between the man with the withered hand and Jesus.  With the tension of the showdown in that synagogue, with all eyes on the man and Jesus, the Lord invites the man to “come forward”, “to stand where we can all see you”.  Then the command: “Hold out your hand.”  At this point, I can imagine a stage-whispered interchange between the man with the withered hand and Jesus.  At Jesus’ invitation to “stretch out your hand”, I can imagine the man responding quietly to Jesus: “I will stretch my hand out, if you stick your neck out!”  At the cross, that is exactly what Jesus did.  

In the final analysis, this is what the Law is for and what all Law must provide: a mechanism by which we remember God and to honor the life-giving faithfulness of the Maker of heaven and earth.  Amen.


1.  Mark 2:27

2.  Dali Lama XIV

3.  Andrew McGowen. “Lord of the Sabbath”, Andrew’s Version: Thoughts on the RCL readings, Proper 4; Year B

4.  Mark 2:10-11; 13-15-17

5.  The Message. Mark 2:24

6.  The Message. Mark 2:24 – my emendations

7.  Mark 2:27 [RSV]

8.  Mark 3:3b

9.  The Message. Mark 3:4

10.  Deuteronomy 5:12

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