Set free by the law

Mark 2:23-3:6

The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.”

Throughout our Gospel for this weekend, the Pharisees accuse Jesus and the disciples of unlawful activity, of failing to follow the law, in regards to the ascribed religious practices around Sabbath observance as it is written in the book of Deuteronomy, “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.”

For the Jewish faithful, both those of Jesus’ time and of ours today, keeping the Sabbath holy, means no work.  It is a time designated for worship and for prayer.  With this, as we see through the accusations of the Pharisees in today’s gospel, it is a time when there is to be no reaping, threshing, winnowing, or preparing of food, and it is a time when work would certainly not take place within the synagogue, the center of worship and prayer.

For their picking of heads of grain as they walked through the fields, and then, for Jesus’ healing of a man left crippled with a shriveled hand as he entered the synagogue, Jesus and the disciples are left to answer to the Pharisees “Why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”. So Jesus speaks, “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.”
In a sermon on today’s pericope, reflecting on these words from Jesus, Presbyterian minister William Sloan Coffin, posses the rhetorical question, “…if any Biblical saying is more eternally relevant to almost any institution, any system, any law?”
“The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.”
It’s safe to say, that we, in the United States, thus those of us here in Gettysburg, live in a world of law. If you Google how many laws there are in the U.S., you find the answer pretty quick… Anyone know??? No one… That’s good, neither does Google… apparently, there are too many to count.
On various levels, on behalf of our government, we are told, via the law, how we are to live out our daily lives.  From within our very own homes, to our places of work, and everywhere in between… from how we do business, to child welfare, what substances we consume, to education, health, housing, historic preservation (something, which of course we know nothing about here in Gettysburg), to immigration and citizenship, employment, animal protection, environmental protection, to how we drive our cars, to where we can cross the street and when… to how we interact with each other… to the manner in which our income comes to us and goes from us (what portion is ours to use as we would like (so long as we do so under the auspices of the law), and what is the governments to be used as they see fit)… a world of law…

If we bring our faith into it, for those of us who care about such things, law enters into our lives in a whole different way.

For the Jewish faithful, the law comes in the form of 613 commandments, or Mitzvot, with 248 being positive commandments (the do’s) ascribed to the number of bones in the human body, and 365 being negative commandments (the do not’s) ascribed to the number of days in a solar year.

In regards to these Mitzvot, virtually all fall under the principle in Jewish law, Pikuach nefesh, translated as “saving a life”.  That while law is to be followed, one is mandated to break the law when necessary to save the life of another.

As we enter into today’s Gospel, for the Pharisees, the religious elite of the time, the law as outlined in scripture, was sacred.  Something placed over and against everything else… everything except of course, for human life.

In response to the accusation that Jesus and his disciples were failing to follow the laws of Sabbath through their picking grain, Jesus redirects their attention, and ours as well, to what is more important… to Pikuach nefesh…

“The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.”

For Jesus, it isn’t that law is sacred, but rather that life is sacred… that human beings are scared… that we are sacred… that the law isn’t meant to bind us, but rather to set us free… Or as Rev. Coffin continues in his sermon on today’s text, “no thing is sacred… no system is sacred… no institution is sacred… no law is sacred, not even the Sabbath law. The Sabbath belongs to human beings. Only human beings are sacred. And because they are sacred, they don’t work for institutions; institutions work for them.”

As we continue to make our way through today’s gospel, after finding a man left crippled in the synagogue, the Pharisees, looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, watching intently to see if Jesus would heal the man on the Sabbath, Jesus looks to the Pharisees with the question, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or kill?”

Knowing all too well of the life saving principle of the law, the Pharisees remain silent. In response to their silence, Mark writes that Jesus looked at them in anger… The Greek word οργης (orgay) translated in our text as “anger”, is the only time we find it in all of the New Testament in relation to Jesus’ emotion, thus it should have our attention… not simple frustration… but, intense anger… wrath, indignation… vengeance… Jesus is angry, seriously angry, that members of the faithful would choose to follow “the law” rather than care for a person in need…

“The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.”

That the law (God’s law, at the very least) was made for human beings, not human beings for the law… that the law is a guide given to us from God to live in relationship with each other, not to live in relationship with it…

Later on in Mark Gospel, as it is found in each of our Gospel texts, Jesus offers us his greatest commandment… the commandment that takes the 613 laws of old and gives us the do’s and the do not’s all in one… Directing the Pharisees back to the words of Deuteronomy from where their accusations against him came, Jesus commands, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength”, and, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Today, we are left to answer the question posed by Jesus to the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

What laws, biblical or secular, keep you from living in relationship with others? That harden your hearts and prohibit you from loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? That prohibit you from loving your neighbor as yourself? That would cause Jesus to look upon you in anger?

My guess is, we all have our “laws” that result in such (myself included)… when the burden of the law, whether it be secular or religious, draw our focus over and against our neighbor… Here, Jesus calls us to follow through Pikuach nefesh… to save the lives of others… to invite others to stretch out their hand, like the man left crippled, and be restored by the healing presence of Christ, regardless and in spite of the laws that seek to divide us or keep us from it…

To observe the Sabbath is to make life whole… both our own life, and the lives of those around us… it is to reflect upon the gift given to us through Jesus himself, whereby through his death on the cross and his rising from the tomb the law was made for us, not the other way around… the gift that sets us free to follow the law for the sake of those in need… that others are set free to do unto you when you find yourself in the same… May you experience the Sabbath in your own lives, receiving rest and peace from whatever it is that binds you, may it strengthen you and keep you in His grace through the Good News of the One who gave His life for such… Amen

~Pr Andrew Geib

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