Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 2, 2024

Mark 2:23-3:6 Commentary

Comments, Questions, and Observations

These two Sabbath stories are far from unique in the gospels; time and time again, Jesus upends the rules established for right observance. Each time he does so, he is embodying what he said in Matthew 5.17-20: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them… For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

These two stories are also in Matthew and Luke, but neither of these accounts include the point Jesus makes in verse 27: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath…”

And what better way to understand the purpose of the Sabbath than literal restoration and fulfillment? As hunger being satiated and wounds and defects being made well… As rest and a break from having our needs run the show and so that we might remember and know the goodness, generosity, and bounty of God.

We’re in ordinary time now in the church year, but this fundamental truth about the purpose of the sabbath is why Sundays are feast days during Lent. We break from our labours and strivings, physical and otherwise, in order to rest in the goodness and provision of God, to be restored and blessed and reminded about the truth of existence: that we exist not because we have earned it or done all the things right, but because God wants us to exist. Sabbath was made for and gifted to us!

The two ways Jesus and his disciples break the sabbath bring the point into focus. Along their way (we don’t really know where or why), the disciples pluck some grain in the fields as they walk. The gospels of Matthew and Luke say it was because they were hungry, and the story about David that Jesus cites would also imply hunger. Mark doesn’t seem to think that detail matters—for all he cares, they could have been doing it mindlessly as they walked, hands brushing and grabbing the tall grain without intention or thought.

To the Pharisees, however, the disciples have reaped the field, something they believe falls under the category of working on the sabbath and is a definite no-no. Whether the disciples were just passing the time or trying to get some food in them to stop the hunger pangs, it does not matter. Because, above all, rules are meant to be kept.

But with Jesus, rules are meant to be fulfilled, enlivened, and embodied so that their purposes are experienced. The sabbath rule we find in the ten commandments is about resting from work, yes, but it’s about much more than the work we do to pay our bills and keep a roof over our heads. It’s about teaching us to rest from the things that keep us from God, the places that tempt us to selfishly live and work in ways that cause harm to our neighbours, and to be reminded that we continuously need to be reoriented towards God.

Jesus makes this point, not by explaining how what the disciples are doing is okay, but by exposing how the Pharisees have gotten in wrong. Jesus calls himself the lord of the sabbath and he tells them that they have made a prison out of a gift.

The next story really brings it home. The stakes are raised considerably. Now, we’re not just walking along with the disciples in the field with the Pharisees off in the distance, watching. We’re in the synagogue on the sabbath and the Pharisees are close now, keen to see if Jesus breaks the law even further by healing a man with a hand deformity.

It’s a trap for Jesus, but it reveals the prison of the Pharisee’s own making—for themselves and others. Jesus calls the man in need of restoration forward and then lays it out for them as the Lord of the sabbath. You want to talk about the law? What is the point of the law? Is it to do good or to do evil? To help or to harm?

Fulfilling the sabbath unleashes goodness—it does not restrain goodness.

The purpose of the sabbath is to help us become the kind of people who resist doing harm and evil because it reorients us towards the God who is good and always working for redemption. That they willingly choose to ignore the true nature of God makes Jesus both angry and deeply grieved for them. They are the ones who are trapped and it’s hurting others.

In the Pharisee’s world of rules, the only option Jesus would have been to ignore this man in need and deny his own ability to help. No hope for flourishing, well-being, shalom. Though the Pharisees made caveats for life-saving interventions, only the most extreme need could elicit “law-breaking” and according to those rules, this man wasn’t suffering enough.

It’s worth noting that Jesus likens their inaction with causing harm and doing evil. The Lord of the sabbath is telling us that our self-preservation or law-keeping, cannot come at the cost of our neighbour—even at a sliding scale.

After all, when we gather on our sabbath days for worship, we are meant to be reoriented to the law’s purpose of experiencing the redemptive and transforming work of the Spirit that makes us more Christlike. More like the one who fulfilled the spirit of the law and showed us its purpose, which is to be like God the Creator, who made everything good and blessed others with it.

Erring on the side of doing good may ruffle some feathers and make you some enemies, but it is in obedience to the Lord of the sabbath. It is the Jesus way.

Textual Point

As exegetes have pointed out, the story of David and his soldiers in 1 Samuel 21.1-6 doesn’t quite happen the way Jesus tells it. Some of these exegetes, like William Placher in his Belief Series commentary, argue that it’s a purposeful mis-telling on Jesus’s part, exposing the Pharisees’ lack of real knowledge about the law, fundamentally putting more emphasis on letter of the law than the why behind it.

Illustration Idea

Are we keeping God’s laws the way God wants us to keep them, or the way other people want us to keep them? Such sabbath-keeping stories abound and you’ll likely have plenty from your own life to choose from, but here’s one just in case. In college I had a New Testament professor who was taken to task by his neighbour for mowing his lawn on the sabbath. The professor explained how doing manual labour on the sabbath, something so different from how he worked the rest of the week, was a discipline and experience in remembering that God gave him a physical body and a calling to be connected to the earth. In other words, working by mowing the lawn was part of his reorientation to the ways and will of God.


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