Does God Care About Me?
Turn with me to Mark 2:23-3:6
Our passage today is about the Sabbath but also not about the Sabbath. Last week we learned that the Gospel is for Everyone as Jesus invited the most unlikely disciple to follow him, the tax collector named Levi. As we have been walking together through the Gospel of Mark we’ve seen that Jesus is the Good News we are longing for, and over and over again he challenges the religious mindset of his day by healing and forgiving and inviting to follow him those who he supposedly should have avoided as a Rabbi, a teacher of the law of God. Today’s stories about the Sabbath are no different, but they do reveal how far the religious leaders at that time had missed the mark. They thought God cared about rules and holiness more than anything else, but they were wrong. What God actually cares about is people more than practice. Listen as I read from Mark 2:23-3:6.
25 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” 25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” 3:1 Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. 5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
To understand why the Pharisees were so disturbed by Jesus actions that they would want to kill him, we must understand the importance of Sabbath. To understand the importance of Sabbath, we have to go all the way back to the beginning. In the very beginning of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, in the first couple chapters we read how God created the heavens and the earth. This poem in Hebrew recounts day by day what God did. It ends with the first three verses of Genesis chapter 2: “2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” God finished his work by resting. GOD RESTED. The Creator of the Heavens and the Earth took a day off and declared that it was HOLY to REST. God set a precedent for all humans at that moment: if the God of the Universe takes one day in seven to rest, then we mere humans should do no less.
Over time, as God gave the ten commandments and the law to the people of Israel, the Sabbath (or shabbat) became both a weekly time of feasting and celebration and a day fullof rules. Those rules expanded to become more and more restricting as the centuries went on. The day was held in such holy regard that it became unthinkable to dishonor it by breaking those rules. So a day that God had intended to be a day of rest and restoration became a measuring tool for the religious leaders of Jesus day. If you didn’t keep the sabbath the way they thought you should, then were you really a Jew at all?
This is what was going on in the minds of the Pharisees as they followed Jesus around to see what crazy thing he was going to do next. So far we have seen in the Gospel of Mark that he has cast a demon out from someone in the synagogue, touched and healed a woman, touched and healed a leper, forgiven and healed a paralytic, called a traitorous tax collector to be a disciple, and ate with tax collectors and sinners (which is basically saying that they are now your family)… and these were all things a good Jew and definitely a Rabbi should never do. This Kingdom of God was NOT what the Pharisees expected or wanted. They wanted a military leader who could overthrow the Roman Empire and establish a Jewish nation. Jesus wasn’t doing anything close to that. All his energy seemed to be focused on the people who were least important, and the least likely to ever be important.
That is one of the remarkable things about Jesus, one of the things that I absolutely love about Jesus. He isn’t focused on the greatest or most important people. He began a whole new movement, a whole new way of doing things (remember the new wine and new wineskins we talked about last week?) a new Kingdom with the most unlikely and unimportant people. The weak, the sick, the poor, the outcast. The Kingdom of God is established in the outsider and marginalized. Jesus from the very beginning, as we read in the first chapter of Mark, preached that the Kingdom of God is here. This is the good news. It is here among us, even among those who we don’t think of as being worthy. It is for the lowly, the down-to-earth and the downtrodden, because God cares more about people than practice.
So here we have Jesus and his disciples walking through grain fields on the Sabbath. One of the rules around sabbath that we read in the Old Testament was that you cannot harvest grain on the Sabbath. Was plucking heads of grain to munch on as you walk by the same as harvesting? The Pharisees would argue that it was…and that’s why they were complaining to Jesus. Jesus was responsible for the behavior of his disciples, so why was he letting them do something that dishonored such a holy day?
Jesus replies with a story about one of the heroes of their faith from the Old Testament: David. Besides Moses, David was one of the most important people in the history of the Jews. Out of his line was supposed to come the Messiah, so it was a common practice to refer to the Messiah as the “Son of David.” This is one of the reasons why the Pharisees thought the Messiah would be a conquering king who overthrew the tyranny of Rome. In this story that Jesus alludes to, which you can read in 1 Samuel 21, David did something surprisingly unlawful. The priests had special bread that was placed before the alter every day as a way of recognizing God’s provision for his people. Only the priests were allowed to eat it when it was a day old and fresh bread had been baked. David, who is on a military campaign, is hungry and asks for bread to take and give to his troops. Ahimalek, the son of Abiathar, gives the day-old bread that was the priest’s bread to David with one stipulation: the men must be ritually pure. David’s reply is beautiful: his men are holy, and especially today as they do the work that God has called them to do.
Jesus does several things with this short reply to the Pharisees. By drawing on scripture that the Pharisees knew by heart he was basing his argument on an authority they put their trust in: God’s Word. By utilizing a story of David, Jesus was making a connection between himself as the Messiah and David. He also does this subtly by saying it was Abiathar the high priest. It was a common custom to mention the father of a family instead of the son. It would be similar to our custom today to use a surname instead of a given name. It would be like saying Fick is the name of the pastor at this church. Ahimalek was the priest that David got the bread from, but Jesus says it was Abiathar. Jesus doesn’t get the story wrong. Abiathar was the father, so Jesus is subtly recognizing that family lines are important. Ahimalek was the son of Abiathar, and Jesus is the son of David.
Jesus ends this story with a line that would have been familiar to the Pharisees: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. This was a common saying from their oral tradition, words of wisdom that had been passed down from Rabbi to Rabbi over the centuries called the Mishnah. It was not a new saying from Jesus. But by saying it Jesus is again using an authority that the Pharisees trusted – the Mishnah – to get his point across. God cares more about people than practice. David and his men were hungry. It was ok for them to take care of their bodies. Sabbath is not about following certain practices as much as it is about taking care of ourselves and finishing our week’s work by resting just like God did. Jesus used the things that the Pharisees knew and cared about to point them back to God’s heart and intention behind the law. God cares more about people than practices.
What happens next is enough to throw the Pharisees over the edge. Jesus is again in the Synagogue, and he knows they are looking for a reason to accuse him. Let’s stop right there. Why do they want to accuse him? Accuse him of what? Well by now it’s pretty obvious that Jesus is a big deal, doing miraculous things, but not the one thing that the Pharisees want him to do: raise an army to overthrow Rome. Instead, Jesus is winning the hearts of the people toward a God who loves them as they are, and this ruins Pharisees’ power over those same people. If the people follow Jesus and his teachings, then the Pharisees and their many rituals will become obsolete. Right now they have been enjoying power and control over people’s lives. Their power is at stake, so they look for a reason to make Jesus look bad. Maybe if he heals someone in the synagogue on the sabbath….
But Jesus knows their thoughts, and he won’t back down. He came to preach the good news that the kingdom of God is here. That includes putting people before religious practice and healing on the Sabbath. Besides, what better day is there to heal than the day God set aside from the beginning of creation as a day of restoration? Jesus asks the Pharisees if it’s lawful to heal on Sabbath and they respond with silence because they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge how far they have fallen away from God’s intention for this holy day. They care so much about keeping it holy that they would be willing to say to this man with a shriveled hand “come back tomorrow for your healing. What’s one more day of pain and suffering? Don’t risk dishonoring the sabbath by being healed today.” Can you understand why Jesus is angry and their hardness of heart? They have totally missed the point of what sabbath is all about. God cares more about people than practice.
This healing has tipped the scale, and the Pharisees started to look for a way to destroy Jesus. He had made their hypocrisy so obvious. It was not hidden behind a mask of holiness any more, and they couldn’t let that go. These conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees over Sabbath were not really about Sabbath at all. They were about power. And most of us know how the story ends. The Pharisees did indeed find a way to have Jesus destroyed, but their power over him lasted only a few short days before Jesus revealed his ultimate power and authority over sin and death by rising from the dead.
God cares more about people than he does about practice because the Gospel is for everyone. We learn from Jesus in this story that Sabbath is a gift from God for us to restore our minds and bodies, and that people must be our priority. This is part of the mission statement of the Free Methodist Church: Love God. Love People. Make Disciples. God cares more about people than practice. So what does that mean for you and me today? We must remember that the Pharisees are a mirror for us. Our natural tendencies will be to act more like them than like Jesus. What are the practices that you and I are holding onto that are more important than the people around us?