Picture a warm, lazy Saturday afternoon in the countryside. The sun is shining, and we are with Jesus and the disciples wandering through a wheat field. We’re not walking far or very fast… it’s the Sabbath… so this is more like hanging out. Just taking it easy. Like a scene from Field of Dreams, you can almost see Peter and Andrew playing catch while we walk. Jesus isn’t teaching today, it is a day off, a day to enjoy each other’s company. And as we make our way across the field, some of the guys pick a few heads of grain, and rub them, and enjoy a snack.
At this point, the Pharisees object saying, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” (Luke 6:2)
I don’t know about you, but whenever I read this passage the first question that pops into my mind is: Where did these Pharisees come from? What are they doing here? Earlier in Luke we read they “had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem” (Luke 5:17) Some of these Pharisees had walked for DAYS just to watch Jesus.
Back to the story. Jesus answers the Pharisees, and it’s interesting what he does NOT say. He does not say to the Pharisees, “mind your own business”. He does not accuse the Pharisees of being nitpicky or legalistic, even though they are being nitpicky and legalistic.
Instead, Jesus takes the conversation to a whole other level. He says: “Have you not read what David did…?” Back in the book of I Samuel, what David did was to eat the Bread of the Presence and give some to his men, bread which was only lawful for priests to eat. David didn’t eat the Bread of the Presence on the Sabbath, in fact the Sabbath doesn’t even figure into that story. Two different laws are being considered here. The common thread is the reason for the laws being set aside. In both cases, people were hungry. And the law was never meant to keep hungry people hungry.
In Mark’s gospel Jesus amplifies this by saying: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”. (Mark 2:27)
On another day Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and he sees a man whose right hand is withered. And the Pharisees are there, and they are looking for reasons to make accusations. And Jesus knows what they are thinking. So after asking the man with the withered hand to come forward, Jesus asks the religious leaders, “is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” And then Luke says Jesus looked around at the Pharisees… looking each one in the eye. The watchers are being watched.
Then Jesus says to the man with the withered arm, “stretch out your arm.” And as the man attempts to obey, the impossible… becomes possibile… and then becomes reality. (The old English preacher Charles Simeon gives us a side note at this point: he says Jesus asks the man to reach out, not because reaching out will heal him, but because while “God does not need our efforts, He requires them.”) How often is Christian living like this? Faced with the impossible… we pray, and we follow Jesus, and then the impossible… becomes possible… and then becomes reality.
What a moment! I wish the story could stop right there. Jesus rules, the man is healed, and it’s time to celebrate. But the Pharisees won’t have it. They go out, and according to Mark’s gospel, they conspire with the enemies of God’s people to destroy Jesus.
It’s at times like this that I just don’t get the Pharisees. Most of the time I get them. In fact I get them a little too easily for comfort. I mean…
- They have studied God’s word.
- They have studied religious tradition, the teachings of the masters
- They know better than most people what the Bible says and the consequences of disobeying God
- They know God’s harshest words throughout scripture are aimed at religious leaders who compromise with the world
- They have suffered on account of the sins of rival religious groups (like the Sadduccees and Zealots)
- They have suffered on account of false messiahs
Up to that point I’m right there with them.
But these miracles Jesus does – go beyond anything anybody has ever seen. And his teaching has a ring of truth and power and compassion about it. He gives a clear, bold, true interpretation of Mosaic law and challenges the Pharisees to step beyond themselves. Jesus is not trying to evade the law – he is teaching a deeper and greater devotion to the law.
Some of the Pharisees will eventually come to follow Jesus. But most won’t. What is it that keeps them away? Love of power? Fear of losing face? Devotion to theology rather than God? Whatever the reasons, the bottom line is this: in passing judgement on Jesus, the accusations of the Pharisees are the very things they themselves are guilty of: doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath. In fact in conspiring to kill Jesus they are doing what is unlawful, period.
And I think that’s the central point of this passage. For all who seek to follow Jesus, we need to beware of leaven of the Pharisees
But I think there’s a strong secondary point to consider too, and that is what Jesus is saying about the Sabbath. Jesus sees the Sabbath not as a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” to obey (which is how the Pharisees see it). He also doesn’t consider it unimportant or irrelevant, as many people do today. Jesus sees the Sabbath as a gift from God to humanity – something to be of service to us.
The Sabbath is meant to be a time of rest; one day out of seven that is free from labor no matter who you are, no matter what you do. It is a day when all people, rich or poor, male or female, employer or employee, stand on equal ground. It is time to lay burdens down… to enjoy God’s presence… to enjoy the company of family and friends… away from the stresses and strains of everyday life. The Sabbath is about living life to its fullest, taking time for what really matters, not just in this life but also in the life to come. And that is why God takes the Sabbath so seriously… why Mosaic law makes Sabbath-breaking a capital crime. Because to take away the Sabbath is to take away the things that make us fully human.
In today’s society the Sabbath is hard to keep, because there are so many demands on our time, so many expectations on the part of others that we be available for them 24/7. And the consequences of breaking the Sabbath appear to be small. But they’re not. As CS Lewis once said, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” Sabbath-keeping is how we prepare for that.
So in Luke’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples – taking a day off from the ministry and from the crowds – spending time with each other, enjoying each others’ company – set us a perfect example of how to keep the Sabbath.
May we follow their lead in our own lives. AMEN.
Sermon preached at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, 4/22/13 on the following text:
“On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.”
– Luke 6:1-11