This summer, Bob has been preaching about the parables. The parables, these short, intriguing stories, are a key part of Jesus’ teaching for the disciples and all who follow him. This morning, we hear another teaching moment from Jesus in the passage from the Gospel of Mark.
Jesus is walking through cornfields with his disciples on the Sabbath day. All of them are devout Jews, familiar with Jewish Sabbath laws, which prohibit any form of work on the Sabbath. But these folks are travelling. They’ve had no chance to set aside food ahead of time. They have no hosts to give them a meal. They are hungry, and food is right at their fingertips. So the disciples reach out, and take fresh corn off the stalk, and eat it. But not unobserved. Right away, others make an objection, and challenge Jesus, saying “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
It may seem ridiculous that a crowd of people of faith could get upset by a few kernels of corn, but it’s important to remember that already, in this second chapter of Mark, Jesus has drawn a lot of attention. The Gospel of Mark moves swiftly. The first chapter covers John the Baptist; Jesus’ baptism; his temptation; the beginning of his ministry; the calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John; public healings in Capernum; and a preaching journey throughout Galilee. That’s just chapter one. The last verse of the chapter reads: “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. “
Jesus has already gotten a lot of attention by the end of Chapter one. And in Chapter 2, once he has everyone’s attention, he starts breaking all the rules. He forgives sins, something only God is supposed to do. He eats with tax collectors and sinners, disregarding both religious teaching and social etiquette. He does not require his disciples to fast when all the other good Jewish people are fasting. And finally, in the scripture this morning, he allows his followers to disobey the Sabbath laws, too.
Why are religious authorities upset over a few kernels of corn? I think we would be too. Imagine, if some upstart leader in our congregations started drawing more attention than our preachers — and then changing all the rules of our communities? I don’t think it would go over well.
But since it’s not happening here and now; since it happened long ago, and far away, we may be tempted to write off Jesus’ rule-breaking. We might be tempted to conclude that Jesus is just a modern guy. He was ahead of his times; too smart to follow ancient rules. He was uniquely wise; our savior, the rebel.
I would argue, however, that Jesus was incredibly serious about tradition; and not so different from other Jewish leaders of his era.
Sabbath laws were hotly debated at this time. Rabbis of good repute disagreed about the correct way to carry out the commandment of Sabbath keeping. And listen to what Jesus says to explain his decision: “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, and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”
Instead of dismissing tradition, Jesus invokes David – perhaps the greatest king in Israelite history. And he tells an amazing story about him. When he was hungry, David entered the temple of Jerusalem – the holiest place in their faith — and ate the bread of the presence. If you read Exodus and Leviticus, you will learn that the bread of the presence was made of choice flour, and put out weekly on a table of pure gold as a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people. This is important stuff, it’s part of the history behind our tradition of communion. And yet David ate this bread reserved only for the priests; and gave it to others as well.
Jesus is incredibly serious about tradition; but like all wise faith leaders, he’s always trying to figure out the best way to apply tradition to his own time; to make it a living tradition. Jesus is also serious about Sabbath; but like other rabbis of his time, he is rebelling against a certain way of practicing it. Jesus says: the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.
Sabbath is a gift from God, for God’s people. It is a day consecrated by God for our rest. Cherishing that gift means receiving it with the intention it was given, rather than hardening its observance into stone.
We know that holy rest was important to Jesus. But as far as we know, he didn’t keep a strict seven-day schedule. It just wasn’t possible. He was a wildly popular itinerant preacher. Instead, he got his rest by getting into a boat and sailing away; by climbing mountains and going into deserted places; by getting up when it was still dark to pray. In most of these passages, crowds are in hot pursuit. Jesus got his sabbath how he could.
As Christians, we see this practice of Shabbat, of Sabbath, through the lens of Jesus. And Jesus teaches us this: the Sabbath was made for us. We should get it however we can – just as long as we get it. The important part isn’t the details, but the substance of this tradition; and the substance is essential.
Sabbath, holy rest, is a gift we can’t afford to forgo. Accepting this gift not only grants us joy; it also offers us precious wisdom.
Maybe you’ve had this experience, when you’re off on vacation; or whenever you, like Jesus, have managed to get away from the crowds or the crowding of many tasks. When you finally reach that seashore; that mountaintop; that deserted place; that moment of quiet; suddenly, the whole world shifts. Everything looks and feels different. Anxieties and preoccupations fall away. New priorities and a new peace emerge.
Do not be fooled; nothing else we could have achieved in those moments would be more important than that reality check which helps us re-enter our lives headed a new direction. This gift of Sabbath is part of what allows Jesus to be such a creative, clear-eyed, strong-hearted leader.
What wisdom does God have to offer you? What wisdom does God have for each of us, if only we will take a day; an hour; a moment of Sabbath to listen? I love these words from the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.
Holy God, we do not know where we are going, or where we ought to go. We do know that we can never find our way without your help. You see who we are beyond our fear and smallness; you understand what the world can become beyond all injustice and grief. Help us to stop striving after wind and instead, discover in blessed quietness the paths that you have laid out for us and all creation. Amen.
Practice: For thirty minutes, walk slowly and silently (in nature if possible) without trying to get anywhere. Linger to notice what draws you in; do not hurry. Follow your own rhythm and curiosity. Notice what happens to your body, your mind, your sense of time.
Prayer: Spirit, your movement is a wonderful mystery. Help me to be open to its stirring.