One Sabbath he was going through the cornfields; 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.”
This one of those passages that makes it easy for us to view the Pharisees poorly. We’ve already reminded ourselves that the Scribes and Pharisees were the folk that cared, that gave their time and energy and talents to their faith, that were entrusted with responsibility. So when we read Mark – or any other Evangelist – and come upon a scene involving the Pharisees, we’d do well to imagine ourselves in their role. After all, we’re also the people who care about our faith and give our time and energy to our congregations and even to reading daily devotions. ☺
With that in mind, let’s focus on the central issue of this passage. It’s not, actually, the Sabbath. Rather, it’s about rules or, more generally, law. What is the purpose of the law?
Across the Old Testament, the purpose of law is to help us get more out of life by directing us to help our neighbor. It’s important to pay attention to both halves of that sentence. Each one of us gets more out of life by looking out for each other. How does that work? Two ways.
First, law establishes order, and order makes it easier to flourish in life. Think of the Ten Commandments – it’s really hard to flourish if it’s okay to lie, steal, and murder. But, second, law works best – it achieves its intended purpose – only when it’s directed to the need of our neighbor.
There’s something a little counter-intuitive about that for those of us who live in a highly individualistic culture. Law, we think, is something that protects my rights. But the Israelites saw it differently. If I am looking out for my neighbors, then my neighbors are also all looking out for me. So instead of having one person look after my interests – namely, me – I’ve got a whole community looking out for my welfare, just as I am looking out for theirs.
But we tend to privilege “order” over “neighbor.” That is, order makes us feel comfortable, safe, and secure, and before long we forget that the law was intended to direct us to help our neighbor and we fall into thinking it’s all about us. And that’s what’s happening here. The appeal of “law-as-order” trumps concern for neighbor. That’s what Jesus gets at with his example of King David and in his summary statement, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”
That sounds good, of course, but it’s is easy to forget. Yesterday I was in a security line at an airport and it was moving incredibly slowly. A young man was asking folks in front of him whether he could slip by them because his plane was boarding. Most accommodated but one person kept insisting that what he was asking wasn’t fair. He should wait just like we all had to. And there’s the clash. Yes, lines are to establish order, but order isn’t the goal; the goal is the welfare of the neighbor. So why not let the guy go ahead?
That will always be the temptation – whether it’s about Sabbath or security lines or taxation or any number of other things – to insist on order instead of caring for our neighbor. Yes, order is good, but if it’s not helping the neighbor, it’s neither lawful nor holy, at least not according to Jesus.
Prayer: Dear God, remind us of the need of our neighbor so that in caring for them we may also find ourselves cared for. In Jesus’ name, Amen.