All Fall Down [Proper 4B]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Mark 2:23 – 3:6

All Fall Down

If Jesus asked me the same question, I could have unequivocally answered Yes.  I have read.  I have read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food.  I have read that.  Actually a number of people in the congregation have read that - recently in fact.  Because that story is found in the book of I Samuel and we just finished studying I Samuel in our Wednesday evening Bible study. 

If you are new to the story, what you should know is that David was on the run from Saul - that is the occasion that drove him to the house of God. King Saul was trying to kill him; the king was jealous and paranoid and in his madness decided that pinning David to the wall with a spear was the best cure for his anxiety.  Given the urgency of the situation, David and his band of ruffians needed to get out of town quickly – so quickly in fact that they did not even bother to gather the needed supplies – things like food.

Actually David didn't just ask for the special bread of the Presence, he lied to get the bread.  And that, more than the bread thing is actually a 10 Commandment breaker, also not lawful.  Despite all of that blatant lawlessness, the story still does have a positive outcome for David; it does lead to his salvation, David who became both the finest king in the history of Israel and an ancestor of Jesus. 
It is interesting that Jesus uses that story as his example.  And I have read that story.  And even though Jesus does pose the question to the Pharisees, he was well aware that they too had read the story.  He knew that they knew.  And even if they had not, clergy types always pretend like they know Bible stuff; I think it is a pre-requisite of the job.

Undoubtedly, one of the reasons Jesus used this story as his example is because saying, “Well, David did it” was a good way to win an argument in ancient Israel.  But also there was a strong gluten connection between what David and his men did and what Jesus’ men, the disciples, did: they ate against the Law.

Christians have a history of downplaying the Law and passages like this one from Mark’s Gospel can easily be used to reinforce that position.  But the truth is: everyone involved in this conversation was an observant Jew – Jesus, his disciples, and the Pharisees.  All of them valued the Law.  In fact, Jesus’ says in the Gospels, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.”  This is not an argument about the necessity or relevance of the Law – on that they would have all agreed.  This is a question of interpretation and application.

And the issue at the heart of the conflict was Sabbath.  While Sabbath observance was important because of its inclusion in the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, it was more emotionally charged than most of the commandments.  While it was important that one observe the commandments restricting theft and murder, those commandments were not particularly unique; other nations also prohibited murder.  Sabbath was different.  It was not just a commandment; it was an identity.  It defined a community that was historically often under the rule of occupying foreign powers.  In the first century, Sabbath helped set the Jews in the Roman Empire apart from their oppressors.

And so it is a big deal.  A conversation about Sabbath was a conversation that tangled up religion, politics, identity, history, tradition, and even money.  It was a minefield.  The feelings were strong. It was a topic fraught with potential missteps – like sharing a political view on facebook. 

I think it is helpful to note what the disciples did not do on the Sabbath.  They did not engage in hard, manual labor.  They did not cheat or steal.  They did not buy, sell, or trade.  They did not slaughter a bovine beast or cook a feast.  They did walk through a field and pluck some heads of grain – not something that one would generally consider particularly laborious.

Was such a small thing a big deal?  Well, obviously, in this story, to the Pharisees it was, and to Jesus it was not.  It was a question of hermeneutics.  It depended on each individual’s interpretative lens.  How one read the Bible, how one understood the Law, determined how one reacted to this circumstance – and for that matter also to the following event in which Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath.

Members of the same religious community arguing biblical interpretation and matters of the law: can you even imagine something like that happening today, and in this nation?  Obviously you can.  This episode, this Gospel passage, feels surprisingly current, I think.  At its heart it is not an ancient Jewish issue; it is a human issue.

The conflict is not faithful versus unfaithful, saint versus sinner – although at times it is framed that way.  It is a question of interpretation.  How does one look at the Bible and at the world?  What is the lens that is used?  What is the starting point? 

At the risk of over-simplifying or misrepresenting, it seems that the Pharisees considered themselves the protectors of the Law within a larger culture that did not value their values.  They wanted something clear and static, black and white, in a world in which they were the minority, in a world that was ever-changing.  Jesus’ divergent interpretation challenged their authority but also the stability of their religious and ethical foundation.  It felt threatening that another rabbi might so directly challenge their understanding of something that, to them, was not open to the kind of interpretation Jesus was presenting. 

Because Jesus is the hero of our story, we, I think, look at this text and consider the Pharisees’ objections silly.  I mean a few head of wheat, healing someone on the Sabbath: no big deal and of course Jesus should do good on a holy day.  But it was as if Jesus was pulling out the wrong Jenga block.  It wasn’t just about the heads or the hand, it was about the entire tower – a tower that always feels precarious to those who feel charged with its survival.  They had that fear that if one block was removed the entire system would collapse. 

It reminds me of a conversation I had during college with one of my childhood friends from the Pentecostal church in which I grew up.  We were talking about the book of Jonah and I rather innocently suggested that the story was a parable – a pretty familiar genre in the Christian tradition, one with which Jesus was quite comfortable.  And he looked at me with a shocked expression on his face and said, “If you don’t think that the story of Jonah literally happened, you are calling the entire Bible a lie.”  And I really wasn’t; I was not calling the entire Bible a lie.  But for him, the fate of his entire belief system seemed as if it could not survive the removal of any one block. 

The truth is: all of us are wired this way to a certain extent; we have this built in need to conserve and protect certain ideas, certain traditions, certain documents.  And that makes sense because people can be more difficult to love – all unpredictable and moody – than static black-and-white words on a page.  We see this in our nation with the Constitution and its amendments; we see this in the Church with various forms of biblical literalism and fundamentalism; we see this in the Episcopal Church, usually not as much with Biblical literalism as with Prayer Book and Hymnal fundamentalism.

What is easy to forget is that these documents, great and foundational documents, were not written to be worshiped but to guide and protect people and communities.  They were written as living documents, open to interpretation, rich enough to speak new meaning into new contexts, for living people in living communities.  Jesus read the Law and found not a static document, but a living truth written for the benefit of living people in search of a living and dynamic God.  And I’m pretty sure saying, “Well, Jesus did it” is a good way to win an argument in contemporary Christianity.

Jesus loved the Law.  He observed the Sabbath; that is well-documented in the Gospels.  But in a world that often seems furiously intent on protecting and defending laws and ideas, that is afraid of exceptions and the slippery slopes those exceptions might create, that too often chooses to ignore the human toll of such stubborn attitudes, Jesus chose people.  He did not come to save the Scriptures or the Law; he came to save the world.  It is not an accident that he summarized the entire Law as Love God and Love People.  For Jesus keeping the Law was not in the letter; it was in the heart.

And that is harder.  Because following the letter of the Law, quoting the black and white Biblical text, is easier.  Compassion and love is messy.  It is much grayer, not nearly as clear as reading a passage from the Church canons.

It seems obvious when Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”  But also that is a radical idea – made even more radical when Jesus puts flesh and blood on that idea. 

The Gospel challenge here is for each and every one of us.  Our Lord, Jesus, loved against the Law – not always, but when necessary.  When the letter and love clashed, Jesus chose love – every time.  And this is hard stuff.  It is much easier to avoid shellfish than it is to love your neighbor.  It is easier to sit at home on the Sabbath than to discern to what extent that commandment can be bent to accommodate a good deed that might look a little like work. 

We are people of causes and opinions; we defend our principles and perspectives. We build these precious belief systems so carefully.  And then Jesus comes into our lives and dances around like a wild man – loving all over the place – with very little regard for the perfect paradigms to which we have dedicated our lives.  That Jesus is not terribly convenient – with his confrontational compassion and the easy way he challenges our priorities.  He confronts today with a rather difficult question: if love demands it, are we willing to watch the precious towers we have so carefully constructed and so fervently protected fall?