St. Giles’ Episcopal Church
June 3, 2018 – Second Sunday after Pentecost
Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
Jesus had an interesting and complex understanding of and relationship to the religious Law of the Judaism of his time. In many ways he honored and observed the Law. In fact, he told his disciples that he had come to fulfill – not abolish – the Law. At the same time, he often broke the Law, as we just heard in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel. When he broke the letter of the Law, he did so in order to uphold the higher and greater spirit of the Law.
In observing this we mustn’t fall into an easy but incorrect distinction between the letter of the Law found observed in Judaism versus the spirit of the Law found in Christianity. Many of us were taught that distinction, but it is incorrect, as we can see in today’s Gospel. The spirit of the Law is present in the writings of the Hebrew Bible; for example, in the behavior of David which Jesus refers to. It is also very much present in the writings of the prophets, with their insistence that God calls for mercy above all and God’s condemnation of people with hearts of stone, not flesh. A few moments thought about Christianity past and present provides more examples than we would care to remember of Christians who use a literal interpretation of the Bible or strict adherence to Christian tradition and doctrine in order to condemn and exclude people, both fellow Christians and others.
Back to our lesson for today. This passage is found early in Mark’s Gospel, in chapter 3. Let’s quickly review what Mark tells us before this passage. Mark begins with John the Baptist, who baptizes Jesus. He makes a point of saying that John ate locusts and wild honey in the wilderness. We can all readily see from this description that John was living an austere life. But what most of us wouldn’t know is that only insects with jointed legs – like locusts – are kosher, that is, are foods which satisfy the requirements of Jewish dietary law. After his baptism the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan for forty days.
The story resumes when John the Baptist is arrested. Jesus then begins his ministry. He calls the first four disciples – Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. They all travel to Capernaum, a fishing village on the Sea of Galilee. On the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue there, where he taught “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” While he was in the synagogue he exorcised “a man with an unclean spirit.” This is the first healing done by Jesus which Mark reports. After they all left the synagogue they went to Simon Peter’s home, where his mother-in-law was sick with a fever. Jesus healed her. Remember this is all on the Sabbath, when it is unlawful to work, as we heard in this morning’s passage from Deuteronomy. In the evening crowds of sick people came to be healed by Jesus. It is unclear if this is before or after sundown. If before, it is still the Sabbath.
Jesus and his disciples travel for a few days and then return to Capernaum. Crowds of the sick were again brought to Jesus. Mark records the account of the paralyzed man lowered through the roof by his friends, the only way they could get him near Jesus. This time Jesus infuriates the scribes who were there by telling the paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven – something the scribes regard as blasphemy because only God can forgive sins. Jesus tells them that he has the authority to do this. The next thing Mark reports is that Jesus was eating with Levi, the tax collector, and other sinners. According to the Law, Jesus should have kept away from these people, not socialized with them. Tax collectors were officials who worked for the Roman government, which occupied Israel. The tax collectors kept whatever taxes they could collect in excess of the amount they had to give to the Romans. So they were regarded by the Jews as traitorous, unfaithful, and greedy.
The way Mark reports Jesus’ ministry so far, it looks like he is purposely infuriating the scribes and Pharisees. As we consider this, let’s recall who these people were. Scribes were people who could write, draw up legal documents, and interpret documents. In the New Testament they are described as functioning as lawyers, and they are often shown arguing with Jesus about legal matters. The Pharisees were members of a movement within Judaism. They held certain beliefs that differed from the beliefs of other groups within Judaism, such as the Sadducees, who are also often referred to in the Gospels. What is relevant to our reading today is that the Pharisees were noted for being extremely scrupulous in observing religious Law and were experts in the interpretation of the Law.
Now we come to the account we heard this morning, of Jesus and his disciples working on the Sabbath, plucking heads of grain to eat. The Pharisees challenge Jesus, and Jesus counters with an example from Jewish sacred history, when King David himself also broke the Law because he and his companions were hungry. We can imagine that the Pharisees were not pleased by this rejoinder! Jesus then entered the synagogue and saw a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees were watching to see if Jesus would again break the Law by healing the man. They were watching, silently gathering evidence. Jesus challenged them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” As the Pharisees well knew, in rabbinic law Sabbath restrictions could be set aside if a life was in danger, the life of an animal or a human being. Jesus had “won” the second argument. He restored the man’s hand to wholeness. Jesus was angry with the Pharisees and “grieved at their hardness of heart.” They had hearts of stone, not hearts of flesh – hearts of flesh that would have been moved by compassion seeing a man with a disability which would have made it difficult to work and to live in a society in which most men were manual laborers.
We may summarize the lessons of this morning’s Gospel by referring to a verse in Matthew’s Gospel (23:24): “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” This verse is in the middle of Jesus’ vehement denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, as deceitful hypocrites. Again, some background is helpful in understanding what Jesus is saying. Many of the details of religious Law are specified in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Jesus is referring to dietary laws found in the 11th chapter of Leviticus. Only insects with jointed legs are kosher, so gnats are not kosher. Animals must have split hooves and chew the cud to be kosher. Camels chew the cud but do not have split hooves, so they are not kosher. Neither gnats nor camels are lawful to eat according to Jewish religious Law.
Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites because they scrupulously follow the details of the Law, when they strain their wine before drinking it to make sure they aren’t consuming gnats. But at the same time, they swallow camels! In other words, they break the Law in much, much larger, more important religious matters. They lack compassion for human need and human frailty. They lack the lovingkindness and mercy of God. They forget the weightier matters of the Law of God.
We need to take these lessons seriously in the church and in our lives as followers of Jesus. We have heard the message. It is up to us to take God’s Word into our hearts and let it shape our lives, so that love and mercy and kindness and compassion govern our words and actions. I mustn’t end without referring to the last chilling verse of this morning’s Gospel, when the Pharisees go out to conspire to destroy Jesus. Jesus did nothing but good in his ministry – teaching, healing, feeding people – yet others plotted against him, to destroy him. The Gospel challenges us to choose sides, to “do good or to do harm” on the Sabbath and on all the days God gives us. May we choose well. In Jesus’ name. Amen.