Sermon for the Second Sunday After Pentecost
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
June 3, 2018 Proper 4B 10:30 AM
καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· ἔξεστιν τοῖς σάββασιν ἀγαθὸν ποιῆσαι ἢ κακοποιῆσαι, ψυχὴν σῶσαι ἢ ἀποκτεῖναι; οἱ δὲ ἐσιώπων.
And he said to [the Pharisees], “Is it permitted on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” And they got quiet. (Mark 3:4)
Jesus is having so much fun with the Pharisees in this morning’s Gospel I can hardly stand it. This is the passage in which the Pharisees, puffed up in their self-righteous knowledge show just how little they know. Sometimes we find it hard to remember that the Pharisees were the very best Judaism in Jesus’s day had to offer. The Pharisees comprised the progressive party in the Greek-style Jewish senate, the Sanhedrin, that ruled in Jerusalem. They were the compassionate party, the party that cared about poor people, the party that believed God had given the law to Israel for human benefit and who opposed the know-nothing, wealthy Sadducees on the side of the angels against the Sadducees’ attempts to enrich themselves even at the expense of conniving with the Roman occupiers of the holy land. The Pharisees were the good guys, the white hats, and yet in Mark they are also the inveterate opponents of Jesus; and in their fear of him, they too often prove themselves dull in mind and heart as they do in this passage.
For if the Pharisees had been on their game when they saw the disciples strolling through somebody else’s grain field, plucking grain and eating it on Sabbath, they would have challenged those disciples with the law that actually applied to that situation, the law of Moses in Leviticus where God commanded landowners not to reap their fields all the way up to the edges but to leave some of their produce for poor people and non-citizens. Now that would have been a discussion worth having. Were the disciples claiming to be poor? Were they claiming to be resident aliens? Where did they get off eating the food reserved for the needy? And we don’t know what Jesus might have said about that. We know the early Christians, like the sectarians who lived by the Dead Sea, sometimes called themselves “the poor,” whom Jews of Jesus’s day believed would have a place of special honor and privilege in the judgment. But they didn’t. Such a high-level discussion of the holy law was not on the agenda for that day. Rather, petulance and nit-picking comprised the program. We find the Pharisees carping about a handful of hungry adolescents munching a few grains of emmer wheat on the Sabbath. What a terrible sin! Watch out for the lightning bolt from heaven!
How shall I describe Jesus’s answer? I’m trying not to say that he snookered the Pharisees, but there I said it, didn’t I? Let’s look at scripture, guys! Don’t you remember that story about the renegade David, fleeing for his life from demented King Saul. Don’t you remember how the priest of Nob, Abiathar, gave David and his men the holy bread to speed them on their way even though that bread of the Presence was reserved for temple use?” You can see the heads of Jesus’s erstwhile interrogators bobbing up and down in agreement. “Well, then,” he continued, “God gave the law about the holy bread, and the law about the holy Sabbath for human beings and did not make human beings for the sake of the law.” What could they say? Jesus here was siding with the greatest of the Pharisees Hillel. Their silence showed their agreement. How serious they were! I wonder how long it took them to figure out how they had been had in this exchange. These great scholars of the Torah, these denizens of all things scriptural didn’t catch the mistake Jesus had left for them to find. Abiathar was not the priest who gave David the holy bread at Nob, it was his father Ahimelech. Check it out in 1 Samuel 21:1. And if the Pharisees had remembered this holy text, they could have laughed Jesus out of the region for his egregious error. But maybe like other students of the Bible I’ve met, all those confusing A-words in scripture just sounded alike to the Pharisees that day. They fell for it, and the joke was on them.
The Pharisees were the best, and Mark’s Gospel would not have Jesus’s opponents be anything other than the best. The debate about grain-plucking shows the Pharisees trying to show the danger Jesus represents to the Jewish law at a time when few people in Palestine could agree about what true faithfulness to the law meant. Jesus would interpret away the law, the Pharisees were sure, in favor of an end-of-the world messianic dream that ultimately would either just fail or, even worse, might bright the wrath of Rome down on the Jewish people. They had to discredit him before he built up an irrepressible following. Surely, they could make people see that Jesus’s knowledge of scripture and the law was only skin-deep and he would ultimately have to retire back to the fishing boats and small shops of Pleasantville (Capernaum) on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. But in standing up for what they were sure was a noble aim the Pharisees in Mark always lose their focus, lose the very thing that made them great, their love for the law and for the people of Israel. Instead, they find themselves obsessed with Jesus, with tripping him up, with making him look weak or foolish or less-than-patriotic before his followers and in so doing they immerse themselves in a fog of sorts, an opposition for the sake of opposition.
The same thing happens to them in the synagogue when they strain forward in their seats to see whether Jesus will heal a man with a palsied hand on the Sabbath. Surely, if he does this, all will see that he is a Sabbath-breaker. Certainly, the crowd will see him for what he is and desert him. Perhaps even his students will abandon him. And here again the Pharisees are leading with their chin, forgetting in the heat of the moment the very Pharisaic principle Jesus cites to justify his healing on the Sabbath. The Hebrew abbreviation for this rule is פיקוח נפש –saving of life—and means that when human life is in danger, the Sabbath regulations, indeed most of the law’s regulations are suspended in favor of rescue. Would Jesus follow their own understanding of the law? Yes, indeed. But he does so by pinning them with a question of his own. Since God is the one who does both good and evil, that is, the one who does all things, as the prophet Zephaniah says, then would it be lawful on the Sabbath for God to save life? Would the Pharisees allow God to save the man? The Pharisees have no answer.
What the Pharisees forgot was their own deeply held and deeply practiced humanism, their belief that God’s word was to benefit the children of humanity. Jesus’s answers might have convinced them, if they had been in possession of their senses, that he and they were doing the same thing.
More than fifty years ago, a professor of mine, James Sanders, in his class on the prophet Isaiah, warned the young seminarians before him about the biggest mistake we can make in trying to read the Bible. When you find yourself on the side of the prophet, he warned, you’re in trouble. When you find yourself saying, “That’s right! Give it to those sinners!” You’re missing the point. And I imagine Professor Sanders might say the same thing here and warn us about taking to much pleasure in Jesus’s nimble defeat of the Pharisees. I think he would want us to put ourselves in the story as the Pharisees, not Jesus, hearing Jesus’s words of gentle, even humorous rebuke as the kind and patient correction of our own extremes they are.
For we live in a time of enemies, a time of fear, a time of backbiting and anger; and we are those same good people the Pharisees were, good people with noble aims and clear motives, good people who care for their neighbors and for each other. Just like the Pharisees, we find it hard to imagine that our own motives are not the best or that we’ve lost focus on what in our heart of hearts we believe is true and good. So, we might need to hear the words of the Son of Man whose young students got hungry on the Sabbath and whose pity was aroused by a man with a palsied hand. We might need to hear again what we already believed but forgot somewhere in the melee of life in a bitter age. It’s easy to forget that human lives really do matter to us deeply in a country that allows children to be slaughtered in their schools in service of a political principle or that separates infants from their mothers at our borders in order to be “tough” on crime. Perhaps our minds can be fooled into believing that there is not enough money and not enough food in this rich land of ours to feed every hungry mouth in it, but our gentle Savior would not leave us helpless in our amnesia. Nor would he leave us to delusions of safety in the wake of mass incarceration and reemergent racism. Like the Pharisees, we are those good souls that know the loving God and know God’s will for us does not consist of hatred and ignorance. Jesus’s set-to with the Pharisees is also his set-to with us, calling us to be the people we want to be and need to be as in the words of the 19th-century Irish hymn writer, Cecil Francis Alexander,
Jesus calls us! By thy mercies,
Savior, may we hear thy call,
give our hearts to thine obedience,
serve and love thee best of all.
 “And when you reap the harvest of your land, do not completely cut right up to the edge of your field; rather, do not reap a remnant of your harvest. Leave it for the poor person and the non-citizen (ger). I am the LORD, your God” (Leviticus 23:22)
 See the references in Marcus Jastrow, a Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (Brooklyn, NY: Shalom, n. d.), 2:1169b.
 Zephaniah 1:12.
 Cecil Francis Alexander, “Jesus Calls Us!” The Hymnal 1982, Nos. 549, 550.