Sunday, June 2, 2024
The Second Sunday after Pentecost

What Jesus teaches about the law

The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX

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Today we enter the season after Pentecost. This means that we pick up with the readings that we had after epiphany through Ash Wednesday. For those who lector we have about one more week of flipping back and forth in the lectionary book. We also begin one of two reading cycles for our Hebrew Scripture readings. By the way I say Hebrew Scriptures not Old Testament most of the time, because Hebrew scriptures are what these readings are. Some people hear Old Testament and think they don’t matter because they are old. However, they do matter for all of the stories of Jesus’ life are set in a Jewish world and we cannot understand the setting for passages like today’s gospel unless we understand Jewish theology

I also have a choice of how to read the Hebrew Scriptures. There are two tracks that we can follow on Sunday morning. Track 2 pairs the Hebrew Scripture with the Gospel which means we jump around in the Jewish scriptures. Track 1 which I am going to use is the continuous reading track. This means we begin the story of the prophet Samuel today and will hear his story and that of Saul, David and Solomon over the course of the summer. As a storyteller you know that I prefer to keep the story intact rather than scattered about in bits and pieces losing the flow of the events. This also means I can take several weeks stories and put them together into a story to preach on so we get the sweep of the whole story.

Starting this morning we are back to the beginning of Mark, which is the Gospel for Year B. We pick up where we left off at the end of Epiphany. Let’s go back to the early ministry of Jesus in Mark, which is where we will be for the next several months. Mark is a gospel that packs a lot of action and information in a very short series of verses.

To get you up to speed here is something like the beginning of a TV series episode. Previously in Mark Jesus is baptized, calls Peter and Andrew along with James and John. He goes to the synagogue in Capernaum where he casts out a demon on the Sabbath. Then he goes to Peter’s house and heals Peter’s mother (also probably on the Sabbath). That evening a large crowd of people arrive, and he heals many and casts out lots of demons after sundown. The next day he heads back to Galilee and heals a leper on the road and continues to teach. Back to Capernaum where he is teaching and several men bring a paralyzed friend on a mat and dig a hole in the roof and drop him in front of Jesus. Jesus forgives his sins and tells the man to get up and walk, which he does. Next he calls Levi the tax collector and has dinner at his house with a bunch of other “sinners” and gets in an argument with the Pharisees about fasting. Then we get to today’s story where Jesus and the disciples pick grain on the Sabbath and then he does a healing in the synagogue on the Sabbath.

Have you followed all that? Yes I went through this in a hurry to make the point that a great deal has happened. Today’s passage contains the 4th and 5th controversies in Galilee where Jesus is going against the norms of Jewish society. He’s has eaten with tax collectors and sinners, he has declared the forgiveness of sins to heal a person and the Pharisees along with the Herodians, followers of Herod, are most upset. Yet we are only starting chapter three.

At this point I would guess he was very popular with many people, but the authorities are already upset. These chapters set the stage for most of Mark’s description of Jesus’ life and teaching. Lots of healing and lots of controversy.

Today we have another controversy around the sabbath. Somebody said, why all the controversies about sabbath. Well what is permitted on a sabbath is probably the bit of rabbinical law that has more written about it than anything else. Every invention or modern convenience that effects “work” has to have a ruling. For example some of us are old enough to remember elevator operators and then the invention of the self-service elevator, but this created a problem in the Orthodox world in particular. Is pushing the button to make the elevator work considered work? To this day in some areas with a large Jewish population high rise apartments will have an elevator operator in the modern elevator to push the buttons for the Orthodox whose rabbis consider that as “work.” Living in Cleveland Heights Ohio I remember the Gentile who would stand at the corner of Cedar and Lee to press the walk don’t walk button on Friday evening and Saturday so the Jewish population could cross the street as they walked to synagogue on the sabbath. So, this question is still debated today in the Jewish world.

In Jesus’ day there had been a long running debate what parts of caring for animals was considered work. Drawing water for your livestock, tying or untying them to go out to pasture was debated. If an animal got trapped in a watering hole, could you rescue them.  This is the source of Jesus’ question is it lawful on the sabbath to good or evil, to save life or kill arises.

Remember Jesus has not yet said what the greatest commandment is at this point in Mark. Love God, love neighbor and this is what all the laws are judged upon. This really is where Jesus redefines what sin really is. Sin is not as much the keeping or breaking of the law, but what is the effect of breaking or keeping the law. Is this about love and building community or is it just rule keeping to “appease” God? This is why in the Episcopal Church we do not have a list of specific sins but instead define sin as anything that breaks the relationship with God, with others or with creation.

Being a person who is always truthful is admired by many and for the most part is a good attribute. However I’ve heard people say, “Well to be brutally honest.” And then they drop some bombshell on the person. Sometimes destroying that person. Is that really the loving thing to do. Well maybe and maybe not. If it helps then yes it is, if it only hurts them well maybe it is best to not be brutally honest.

When Jesus is answering the challenge about the disciples picking grain on the sabbath, notice he answers in true rabbinic style with a question. This is typical debate style. So you raised this issue, what about this related one. King David did this so does that make it ok? He then states that the sabbath is made for people not people for the sabbath.

Then he enters the synagogue (remember he’s in Capernaum not Jerusalem) and the Pharisees know there is a man with a withered hand there. That’s when he asks the question about what’s allowed to be done on the sabbath. Note they do not answer his question and Jesus is angered and grieved at their hardness of heart. Then Jesus does something really interesting. He doesn’t actually heal the man; he just tells him to stretch out his hand. The man does this and as he reaches out his withered hand is restored. He technically hasn’t healed the man, but the pharisees then plot with the Herodians (followers of Herod Antipas who has already arrested John the Baptist) on how to destroy Jesus.

Now in our world I would hope that we would all agree that healing someone, saving someone’s life or restoring them to full health is a wonderful thing no matter when it was done. The message I want us all to focus on is that rules are made for the benefit of people and sometimes exceptions need to be made. Sometimes enforcing a rule blindly can itself be a “sin.”

I think the key is that Jesus is angered and grieved at their hardness of heart. We can follow the rules perfectly and be guilty of a hardness of heart. Hardness of heart for Jesus is the sin of the Pharisees. For Jesus once again it is about love in our heart. So when faced with a difficult decision I try, and don’t always succeed, but I always try to act with a heart filled with love, not one hardened by rules.