Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 3, 2018
Mark 2:23-3:6 Commentary
There is no joy or delight in any of life, including on the Sabbath, if rules eclipse all else. In Mark 2 and 3 Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees ends on a note of murder. Just about the last word in the whole story is “kill.” It’s only appropriate, of course, since the Pharisees had turned the Sabbath into a deadly, deadening day anyway. The rules had become so important that even God dropped out of sight, not to mention other people.
Once upon a time, somewhere way, way back, the people who cooked up all those ancillary rules had the best of intentions. The same was true of the rules some of our parents and grandparents followed. I learned the hard way in my first church that if you poke fun of the rules of yesteryear, you will hurt someone’s feelings. After a sermon in which I lampooned some Sabbath excesses of my own tradition, a man tearfully reminded me that although he agreed that those rules were arbitrary, he still loved the grandma who meant well in enforcing them. True enough.
But it’s in the nature of rules to take on a life of their own. Sooner or later they have a way of sapping joy and making people and their needs disappear from sight. That’s why Jesus wants us to begin with God, with creation, and with each other. Jesus wants us to begin with love, as he made clear that day in the synagogue.
Eugene Peterson once observed that when you think about it based on the Genesis account of creation, in God’s plan, Adam and Eve’s very FIRST day of existence was a Sabbath. Humanity began with the proverbial “day off!” The human race started its existence on a Sabbath as a reminder of the very reason for which God created us in the first place: he made us in love, for love. When love for God and for one another sets the Sabbath tone, most of what most nettled the Pharisees—and all of what led them to plot Jesus’ murder in the end of this story—would properly disappear.
In the end, on that Sabbath day long ago, the Pharisees went out and planned to kill Jesus. They hatched a murder plot. On the Sabbath, no less. I wonder why they didn’t ask themselves if that was lawful to do on the Sabbath? Asking that never occurred to them, though, and I suspect we know why. As the apostle Paul so well put it, “If I have a faith that can move mountains but have not love, I am nothing.” So true, and never more so than on the Sabbath day.
But was the whole thing kind of a set up? Mark gives us two back-to-back Sabbath vignettes in this lection such that when you get to the second incident in chapter 3, you can tell that the religious leaders are just itching to have Jesus break the Sabbath yet again. The last incident had happened out in the middle of nowhere in fields of grain. What if they can get Jesus to do it again but this time in a much more public venue: in the synagogue itself. We’re told that a man with a shriveled hand was in the synagogue that particular day but reading Mark 3, you have to wonder if maybe one of the Pharisees had picked this man up from his home to ensure that he would be there. “I’ll give you a ride to church,” a Pharisee may have said to this man. “We really want you to be there this Sabbath day.”
How ironic that the Pharisees knew enough about Jesus that he could not resist healing and yet they did not really understand the fundamental nature of Jesus, of the God he called “Father,” or of the kingdom he proclaimed to be at hand (no pun intended!). They knew that Jesus was fundamentally compassionate, good, and gentle enough that he would not pass by a sorry figure like this man. So they exploited that goodness so as to trip Jesus up according to their religious system of rules and regulations. Since they could not be moved by Jesus’ compassion, they used it against him.
So maybe this was a set up. Maybe that is why Mark reports how angry Jesus was and deeply troubled in his spirit. Jesus was no fool. He knew he had been set up, that his compassion was being used against him. Isn’t it interesting that the few flashes of indignation that the gospels show Jesus as having now and again are never elicited by sinful people or those shunned as outsiders to the religious community of the day. Rather, it was hypocrisy, the ways by which the already-religious (or allegedly religious) manipulated God and God’s Word for their own purposes—those are the times Jesus’ eyes flashed and his temper rose. It was when those who claimed to speak for God used their position to draw boundary lines of rigid inclusion and exclusion that Jesus felt the blood rising in his face.
There is most certainly a message in that for today. Those who have ears to hear . . .
Notice the cleverness of Mark in how he put in the word “kill” twice in chapter 3: once in verse 4 and then again as about the last word in verse 6. In verse 3 Jesus asks what by all rights should have been the proverbial “rhetorical question”—that is, a question whose answer is so obvious the person who posed the question did not really expect an answer. Sadly, however, by the time this story is finished, we discover it is not a rhetorical matter at all. ON THE SABBATH DAY the Pharisees go out of the synagogue to begin hatching their murder plot against Jesus. Few details in this short story better highlight the silliness of the Pharisees—and their woeful blindness—better than this detail. Initially Mark helps us to say to ourselves, “Well, of COURSE no one should kill on the Sabbath—that’s too radical and ridiculous even to consider!” But then the Pharisees . . . well, if the irony were not so grim, it would be almost funny.
Albert Einstein’s greatest insight was likely the one that involved time. Before Einstein people assumed that whatever time is, it is constant. “Time marches on,” the old saying goes, and before Einstein we assumed that time marches ever and always at the same pace. It does not matter who you are or where you are or what you are doing, you cannot affect time. If your battery is running out, then your watch may run slow but the actual time that passes around you can never slow down or speed up.
But Einstein realized that time is a truly existing dimension. Time is as real as the wood of a tree trunk. And it is not constant. Time is affected by motion and position. It is relative. Einstein’s classic illustration has to do with a train. Picture yourself riding on a train. Picture another person sitting on a bench alongside the train tracks watching the train go by. Now imagine that two bolts of lighting strike the train tracks, one just behind the moving train and one just ahead of the train. To the person sitting on the bench it is clear that these two bolts of lightning struck the tracks at the exact same instant. They were simultaneous. But the person riding 60 MPH on the train would not perceive it that way.
If you were riding on the train, you would see the bolt of lighting ahead of the train before the one behind the train. At one time it was thought that this could be explained the same way you can deal with sound waves. If you are in your car waiting for a train to pass, you hear the crossing bell go ding-ding-ding-ding, always the same tone. But people on the train don’t hear it that way. As you move toward the bell and then away from it, the pitch changes, first higher as you approach the bell (and the sound waves scrunch up as you move toward them) and then lower as you pass by (as the sound waves elongate behind you). So perhaps the same thing happens with the lightning–you just get to the light waves of the one bolt quicker since you’re moving toward it (and away from the other one).
But it doesn’t work that way. The phenomenal insight of Einstein was that you cannot explain this difference in perception by fiddling with the speed of the light because the speed of light is constant. Light always goes the same speed–you cannot get light to come at you faster. So Einstein realized that what accounts for the person on the train seeing the lightning bolts differently than the person on the bench is that time is different for the person on the train. Time is relative. It can be affected by motion. Scientists have even discovered that if you take two very sensitive nuclear clocks, synchronize the time on both, and then place one at the top of a skyscraper and one at the bottom and let them tick away for a few days, it turns out the clock on the bottom runs slower because it is closer to the earth’s center of gravity than the one at the top which moves faster as the earth rotates!
Well, it took an Einstein to figure that all out but there is a sense in which the importance and impact of time is something Jews and Christians have known all along. The Bible itself lets us know that time can affect us but also that we can affect the time around us. That’s why there is such a thing as Sabbath. God took care to weave Sabbath rest right into the richly embroidered tapestry of his creation. As such, Sabbath is not just a human technique for stress reduction, it is a way to take hold of time and make it serve the cosmic purpose of glorifying God by paying attention to the rhythms God himself instituted.
That’s why in the Jewish tradition the Bible takes care to mention that Sabbath is not just for the well-off who can afford to take a break–for that matter it’s not just for people. The commandment says that your donkey and your ox need a Sabbath, too, and so do your servants, your staff, your employees, and even the out-of-town guest who happens to be with you at any given time–Sabbath is for you and your children, for your friends and animals, for the stranger who is within your gates. Every seventh year the Israelites were even supposed to give the soil a sabbatical year off!
Of course, the very fact that God had to make this into a law shows how foolish we are. In the Garden of Eden God did not command Adam and Eve to take a Sabbath rest. Adam and Eve were smart enough to recognize a divine gift when they saw one. But we’re not so wise anymore. Now God needs to command us to take a Sabbath! But if you think about it, that’s about as ridiculous as giving a child a chocolate ice cream cone and then needing to make it a rule that the kid start licking it! But God does need to put Sabbath in commandment form. Worse, even with this commandment most of us do a pretty sorry job at taking the concept of Sabbath very seriously, as did the Pharisees long ago.
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