Proper 4, Year B: Mark 2:23-3:6
One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 2:23 – 3:6)
Happy second Sunday after Pentecost, everyone! Which wouldn’t be terribly exciting except that this is also the 51st Sunday of Grace Church’s 149th year. Which makes this the Sunday before we celebrate our Sesquicentennial. The Sunday before we begin celebrating our Sesquicentennial – and there will be more on that later. But I thought I’d squeeze it in here too just to make sure you are all very aware of celebrations to come.
That being said, it’s the gospel that I want to spend time with this morning. We just heard from the end of the second chapter of Mark and the beginning of the third. And in this passage we heard that Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees who challenged him about his having healed on the Sabbath.
Now it’s only chapter two, right? In the other gospels, Jesus is still getting born (Luke) or the wise men are arriving (Matthew). In the gospel of John Jesus is getting ready for his first miracle (the wedding at Cana.) Now granted, we’ve noted before that Mark moves quickly, but by the end of this passage the religious leaders were already “conspiring against” Jesus, the gospel says, to direct quote, “destroy him.” Which makes what’s happening here something that Mark was trying to bring to the forefront of this gospel right from its early chapters.
And so, I looked back over the entirety of chapter one and the first part of chapter two and I found that by this very early point in the gospel of Mark, Jesus had already broken with religious law about 75 times (approximately. The story we heard today wasn’t even Jesus’ first healing on the Sabbath. It was just the first one that went public.
The first person Jesus healed, and for whom Jesus broke with religious law was Peter’s Mother-in-Law way back in Chapter 1. Jesus and the disciples had visited her on the Sabbath and she was in bed with a fever. At that time, Jesus took her hand and he touched her (law break 1) and he healed her right then (which made for two strikes against him, because it was still the Sabbath.) Now there were other healings too in this first section of this gospel – after sundown on the day Peter’s Mother-in-Law was healed, therefore waiting for the Sabbath to break, “the whole city was gathered at their door” the gospel says, “and Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases and he also cast out many demons.” Which was all within the law.
But then a few verses after that, Jesus touched a leper and healed him. And that touch in itself rendered Jesus unclean. He then forgave and healed a paralytic man, not on the Sabbath but the forgiveness of sins was labeled “blasphemy” by the scribes who were watching that day. And then just a few verses after that, still chapter one, Jesus was caught eating with sinners and tax collectors. Which made for strikes 5 – 75. Approximately.
And so enter the Pharisees before Mark even got through chapter two. By this point in the gospel, Jesus had broken religious law several times. He was on a very regular basis apparently healing on the Sabbath. Forgiving sins. Touching the unclean. And eating with sinners.
And in this particular passage, the one we heard this morning, we hear of the first conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees asked him, “Look, why are they doing this on the Sabbath?” “This” referring to plucking grain and feeding those among them who were hungry, but also referring undoubtedly to all that happened thus far. And it’s not a terrible question actually, depending on how you hear it.
And I sort of love Jesus’ initial response: “David did it, first!” he said. “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Which makes me smile. It’s like siblings who get caught in the act of something and are quick to point a finger in the other direction to show that someone else did it before they did. This is Jesus saying that even David broke with religious tradition and law to feed his companions.
It’s not a bad strategy, and it’s one that’s potentially eye opening, but then Jesus took it a step further and he began his very public ministry of challenging and rearranging the priorities of the faithful: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” he told them. And then (still Sabbath,) he healed the man with the withered hand right in front of their eyes. He invited the man forward, asked the Pharisees a question, and during their silence, healed the man.
Which meant, “Game on!” in a gospel sort of way. “Gospel on,” one might say. Mark’s Jesus was off and rolling from this point forward. What happened in this passage was huge because it was the beginning of the open controversy that would lead to Jesus’ death. It was Jesus responding to the Pharisee’s questions about what faithfulness looked like. And Jesus responded to those questions with very public healings, meals, and mercies all of which were pouring into this world through him and those who followed.
There is a reminder in here to we who are the faithful now, or some of the really-trying-hard-to-be-faithful, that this faith thing is in some ways a very living thing. We need to know and maintain our own religious laws and traditions. We have them. They guide us. They form us. In fact, it is religious laws and traditions that re-flock us every Sunday. They remind us who we are and can shape us up when we need shaping up.
But every now and then a person, or a moment, or a people, or a need will come our way and they will call us to heal, or feed, or offer mercy, or love in ways and directions we never have before. It, or he, or she, or they will challenge our law or our tradition. And in those moments we like Jesus and David before him just might be called to rearrange or to re-think in order to allow Christ’s healing, feeding, and mercy to flow through us. And for us to receive those things too. For this world to receive those things anew.
It always amazes me when I hear negative reactions to mercy being offered. As if mercy to one is a threat to another. Mercy doesn’t work that way. But sometimes I hear that kind of thinking come out of myself too. And I guess I’m surprised that I can still be surprised by that. But I hear this resistance to mercy all the time. And I hear it from those who identify as “faithful,” more than I hear it from others.
Now I appreciate when what we share with each other in such moments are questions like we heard in today’s gospel, “Why are you doing that?” or “Just how does that fit into the framework we call faith?” Those questions can lead us into mutual growth and understanding. But too often in our world today acts of mercy lead to plottings against in order as the gospel put it “to destroy.”
And I see that unfortunately human pattern as core to the message of this gospel or it wouldn’t have taken such a prominent place so early and so often for Mark. The gospel tells us that when there is a hard choice to be made, and there are always hard choices to be made, we need to lean hard in the direction of mercy. Always in the direction of mercy.
In this gospel, Jesus was challenging the faithful’s inability or reluctance to show mercy. They were using “the day,” or “the time,” or “the cleanliness/purity” of the other as an excuse, essentially a reason to not offer healing touch, or presence, or food, or community, or forgiveness, or even love. But in this passage and throughout this entire gospel, Jesus gave permission to offer those gifts broadly. His message was that mercy must ultimately be that which shapes and guides us. It is possibly the only thing which will ultimately re-flock us and shape us up in ways we need to be reshaped.
And so as we bring 150 years of Grace to a close and we begin another phase of life in this church, perhaps the most important work we can do is to look for where mercy is needed and respond. We need to look to those places in ourselves, our community, this world. And sometimes that work will be easy, no challenges offered; the meals shared, the forgivenesses granted, the healing revealed will all fall into categories or ways in which we and others expect it to. It will be done in ways in which we have seen it happen before. But sometimes, God will be doing something new in and through us.
And offering mercy will take some guts.
But Grace has guts.
Which is not what we’re putting on the Sesquicentennial t-shirts, I promise. But it could be. Episcopalians wouldn’t be here in Holland, Michigan if a feisty bit of faithful courage weren’t in the DNA of this place. We are also those to whom a tremendous amount of mercy has been shown and among whom and through whom a great deal of mercy has been shared. And maybe thanksgiving for that charism will find its way into various of our celebrations.
Today and every day, moving forward always as Grace, may we be healed, forgiven and fed in ways that open us up to share those gifts with our neighbor, to share those gifts with God’s world. And may we be receptive to the ways in which God is stretching us into new ways of being faithful today, trusting that even when those ways come as challenge to some, the Lord of the Sabbath is working to make all things new.