Sunday, March 17, 2013

Hope for "Saints" - Luke 6: 1-11

Last week we learned that Jesus loves to surround himself with “sinners” –The fact that Jesus ate and drank with tax gatherers and other morally questionable folks irked the religiously serious of his day who felt that the proper response to such people was “separation” not “compassion.”  That’s when Jesus explained that he came to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.  

It would be a mistake, though, to think that Jesus despised the religious professionals or had no time for them.  Jesus often taught in the synagogues.  He had many encounters with the Pharisees and scribes, the pastors and bible teachers of his day, and some like Nicodemus and Saul of Tarsus became his followers.  Jesus loved the “sinners” but he loved “saints” too…even though many of them would reject him and his messiahship.  They rejected him because he seemed to disregard their traditions, played fast and loose with Sabbath regulations, and claimed to understand the “spirit” of the Law as if He himself had written it. What rebuke, and what hope from Luke 6: 1-11, does Jesus give to the “religiously serious” in each of us?

1 One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, "Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?" 3 Jesus answered, "Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?" 5 Then he said to them, "The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath." 6 On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. 8 Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come and stand here." He got up and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, "I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?" 10 After looking around at all of them, he said to him, "Stretch out your hand." He did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
i. Understand the purpose of the rules: God’s law was meant to free us from sin, not enslave us to legalism.   One Sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them.  But some of the Pharisees said, "Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" (1-2)

Now it’s important to understand that on any ordinary day what the disciples were doing was freely permitted according to the Law of Moses. Deut. 23:25 reads, “If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand….” As long as you did not use a harvesting tool, like a sickle, you could pick corn without breaking any rule. There was another law that actually required farmers to leave a part of their harvest for “gleaning” by the poor (Lev. 23:22; Deut. 24:19-22).

But Jesus’ disciples were not picking grain on just any day; they were picking grain on the Sabbath day, and by the time of Jesus there were 39 specific activities that were classified as “work”…among these were reaping, winnowing, threshing, and preparing a meal.  The disciples were technically breaking all four! The religious professionals of Jesus’ day had good intentions… they wanted to encourage holiness and hasten the kingdom by building a “fence” around the Torah, a fence of oral tradition and regulations that were added in order to keep the commandments from being broken.  So, for example, if the Sabbath Command prohibited “work”, the Mishnah attempted to define “work” more specifically. 

Was there an awareness that this could descend into legalism?  Yes.  In the Mishnah Hagigah we read, “the rules about the Sabbath…are as mountains hanging by a hair, for the Scripture is scanty [while] the rules many.”  Even so, this group of Pharisees, who held a strict position on Sabbath keeping, expected Jesus to stop his disciples immediately.  Instead, Jesus cites some Scripture of his own. Jesus answered, "Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?"  (3-4).

Jesus tells a story from 1 Samuel 21: 1-6 where we read about a time when young David was fleeing with his men from King Saul who was trying to kill him. They come to the town of Nob, where the priests were watching over the tabernacle and the daily sacrifices. Exhausted and hungry from a long journey, David asks the priest Ahimelech if he has anything to eat. The priest responds that there is no ordinary bread, only the holy bread.  The 12 loaves that were placed on a special table before the altar where it remained for one week as a sign of God’s presence.  Now this is the key point: we know from the Law that it was changed on the Sabbath, which is why the story is relevant. And so when we read in 1 Samuel that “the priest gave [David] the holy bread…which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away” (1 Sam. 21:6) we have good reason to believe that David had come to the priest on the Sabbath; and that it was on the Sabbath that he ate what was forbidden by anyone but the priests to eat. The priest does this for David because he is the King's son-in-law, and he is on a holy mission and is hungry.

Did David’s extreme situation have anything to do with Jesus and his disciples strolling through the grain fields? Yes, in the sense that the priest made an exception to the rule in order to meet a legitimate human need.  No doubt the priest would have agreed with Jesus that “The Sabbath is made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2: 27)  That is, God’s Law was meant to free us from sin not enslave us to rules that substitute for a bold and creative love of God and people. Indeed the whole foundation of the Law is the unmerited, steadfast love of God for his people (Exodus 20:1).  This is why Jesus remind the Pharisees of the words of Hosea: I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6) 

Let’s face it…we Christians have been just as good at creating silly rules as the Pharisees.  There is a message there for all of us.  Here are a few Sunday rules I found, that are still actually on the books….*In Blackwater, KY, tickling a woman under her chin with a feather duster while she's in church service carries a penalty of $10.00 and one day in jail.  *No one can eat unshelled, roasted peanuts while attending church in Idanha, Oregon. *In Honey Creek, Iowa, no one is permitted to carry a slingshot to church except a policeman.  *No citizen in Leecreek, Arkansas, is allowed to attend church in any red-colored garment. *Swinging a yo-yo in church or anywhere in public on the Sabbath is prohibited in Studley, Virginia; *and turtle races are not permitted within 100 yards of a local church at any time in Slaughter, Louisiana.  Robert W. Pelton in The Door. Christian Reader, Vol. 33, no. 5. The Puritans felt that “play” could degenerate into wickedness and so anything that resembled “play” was banned.  Church was no time for silliness or fun.  I can’t help but think of David who, while  “wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might” as the ark was being brought up to Jerusalem! Jesus changed the image of Sabbath rest from a straight jacket of joy-crushing rules, to a stroll through the grainfields with friends, conversing and celebrating the bounty of God’s harvest in His presence.   Therefore, we must…

ii. Beware the abuse of the rules: The rules must never be an excuse for disregarding people or human need.  Luke tells us about another time when Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath and saw a man whose hand was “withered.” (6-11) He tells us that the scribes and Pharisees were there watching to see if he would try to heal this man on the Sabbath. Jesus knew what was on their minds, so he asked them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?"  No one said a word in response. Then he had the man stretch out his hand, and he healed it.  Luke tells us that “they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” Already the seeds of Jesus’ passion are being sown in this defiance of the religious professionals and their traditions…and not only of their traditions, but of our own tendency to promote legalism over love, and religiosity over relationships.  He would never allow the rules to be used as an excuse to disregard people.

I was reading the other day about Mati Goldstein, the commander of the Jewish ZAKA rescue mission to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.  She was asked why she came to Haiti, working tirelessly, even on the Sabbath.  “"We did everything to save lives, despite Shabbat. People asked, 'Why are you here? There are no Jews here', but we are here because the Torah orders us to save lives… We are desecrating Shabbat with pride…"”  What would it mean for you and I to desecrate the Sabbath with pride?  What outrageous work of compassion or love could we do to earn that badge of honor?   I wonder if sometimes it isn’t simply the willingness to set aside our need to always be right, to be good rule keepers, and focus instead on forgiving, loving, listening, and even admitting how much we need each other, despite our differences and even because of them? I wonder also if it wouldn’t mean a commitment not just to know the rules, but to know the Ruler, because we cannot understand or obey the rules…

iii. Know the heart of the Ruler: We cannot understand or obey the rules that are set forth in Scripture until we know the heart of the Ruler.  Jesus made a shocking claim to the religiously serious when he said, The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:5)          

At the heart of every rule is the Ruler who established it.  Now there are good rules and there are unjust rules; there are rules that bless and protect us from harm and there are rules that destroy or are just plain silly.  The new pope has decided he isn’t really interested in all the traditional pomp and circumstance.  He favors simplicity: no fancy vestments and no red shoes.  I’m sure he thinks the “rule” about the red shoes is sort of silly, and not in keeping with the Ruler.That’s because it’s not enough to know the rules.  It’s not enough to memorize the rules. It’s not enough to sing about the rules.  It’s not enough to obey the rules.  We’ve got to know the Ruler! 

Madeline L’Engle in her book Walking on Water writes about a Hassidic rabbi, renowned for his piety. He was unexpectedly confronted one day by one of his devoted youthful disciples. In a burst of feeling, the young disciple exclaimed, "My master, I love you!" The ancient teacher looked up from his books and asked his fervent disciple, "Do you know what hurts me, my son?"  The young man was puzzled: "I don't understand your question, Rabbi. I am trying to tell you how much you mean to me, and you confuse me with irrelevant questions." "My question is neither confusing nor irrelevant," answered the rabbi. "For if you do not know what hurts me, how can you truly love me?"  Jesus wants us to know his heart, the heart of the Ruler.  He wants us to know what hurts him (yes) our pride, our selfishness, when we use the rules as an excuse to disregard people; but also what blesses him…understanding that at the heart of the Rules are the two greatest commands…to love God and love people.
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In one of Jesus’ most well known parables, The Parable of the Father & His Two Sons, Jesus tells the story of two sons…a younger son who takes his inheritance and squanders it in wild living; and an older son who remains home doing his chores.  When the younger son finally comes to his senses, he decides to return home and plead for his father’s mercy, intending to offer himself as a hired servant.  This he does…but before he can speak his Father welcomes him, forgives him, and decides to throw a huge party.  At this point the older son is outside, pouting.  "Why are you throwing this huge party for that loser of a son?  I’ve been slaving for you for years, and I’ve never gotten a party like this?"  The Father had to remind him, “My Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours, but we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has become alive, he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15: 31-32).

If you haven’t guessed, the older brother represents the religiously serious, the Pharisees and scribes, the church-going, pew-filling, bible-reading, hymn-singing, religious folks like you and me who are a little annoyed by Jesus’ focus on all those strange and difficult people out there.  Yes, Jesus loves me too despite my pride and self-righteous attitude.  There is hope for sinners but, by the grace of God, there is hope for saints too… 

King Jesus, the Word made flesh, I confess that I am a mixture of sinner and saint. I confess that it is possible for me to keep the rules and cherish the rituals, while remaining distant from You and uncaring toward others. I admit that I can be in church every Sunday, know all the songs, and recite all your commands, yet still have a heart that is stubborn, impatient, arrogant, and uncaring. Forgive me, Lord, when this has described me! Let Your Law convict me of sin and guide my daily walk, but never be used as an excuse to be cruel or uncaring. Let Your Word always lead me to Your heart, and to those whom You came to save and want to bless through me, to the glory of God. Amen!

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