Sermon: What Is Right?

June 3, 2018
Second Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 2:23-3:6

“What Is Right?” That’s a pretty blunt title for a sermon, isn’t it?

If the title of my sermon ends with a question mark, you would do well to suspect that I didn’t know the answer when I wrote down the question.

Further, if the title of my sermon ends with a question mark, you would do well to suspect that I might not know the answer at the time I finished trying to answer it.

And further, if the title of my sermon ends with a question mark, you would do well to suspect that I’m hoping you, that we, probably need to answer it together.

And further, if the title of my sermon ends with a question mark, you would do well to suspect that I think God is very interested in the answer we come up with.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, we find Jesus engaged in arguments with the Pharisees about: what is right. The first thing I need to point out here is that our Gospel writers tend to portray the Pharisees in a monolithic fashion, as if what one believed they all believed. That’s almost certainly an error. In fact, when the word “Pharisees” appears in the Gospels, you should probably mentally correct it to something like, “Some of the Pharisees who were present at the time.”

So Jesus got into an argument with some of the Pharisees who were present at the time about what you could do, or what you shouldn’t do, on the Sabbath. That was not and is not a trivial question. First century Jews lived side-by-side with people practicing other religions, and most of those people were wealthier and had greater power than they did. For hundreds of years, Jews had to wrestle with how to be faithful in a society that they no longer controlled.  Five hundred years before, a songwriter by the rivers of Babylon asked, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137)

By Jesus’ day, they lived on the ancestral lands where the bones of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob rested, but foreigners ruled them. How could they live the Lord’s life when others told them what to do?

One answer: keep the Sabbath. That’s complicated. No household can absolutely abstain from work one day a week. There’s food to be prepared, and dishes to be cleaned when the meals are done. In a farming society, you can’t leave animals untended. The Pharisees’ work was to see that people understood how they could meet as many of their obligations as possible: the obligations of daily needs, and the obligations of Sabbath rest.

If you want to know how those first century rabbis thought about these questions, just read Jesus – who was a rabbi in the tradition of the Pharisees. His response to their question about plucking grain on the Sabbath was a classic rabbinic type of argument. He went to Scripture to find a parallel case to the one before them: a case in which something that appeared to be in violation of the law was actually justified. If David could eat the bread which should only be eaten by the priests, then hungry travelers can pluck grain from the edges of the fields on the Sabbath.

As for the other question, about healing on the Sabbath, I turn to Mark Skinner: “It must be noted that Jesus’ argument was hardly novel and therefore not scandalous on its surface. In fact, when he notes that the purpose of the sabbath has always been to serve humankind (as opposed to making humankind serve some stern religious principle), he is essentially restating Deuteronomy 5:12-15, in which God institutes the sabbath so a people who once toiled in slavery can forever enjoy at least a modicum of rest…” Professor Skinner concludes: “The proper function of the sabbath is to promote life and extol God as a liberator. Everyone knew that.”

Everyone knew that. That’s why Jesus looked about with anger. That’s why Jesus was grieved at their hardness of heart. Because these opponents, some of the Pharisees present at that moment, planned to use this man’s suffering to discredit Jesus in defiance of what everybody knew. Mark Skinner writes, “Again, Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries would not have found his basic perspective especially troublesome. ‘Saving life overrules the Sabbath,’ according [to] ancient rabbinic tradition.”

These opponents were willing to throw out that foundational principle to gain the upper hand over Jesus.

No wonder he was angry. No wonder he was grieved.

It also means that there’s not a lot of point in agonizing over “what is right?”, is there?

Everybody in the synagogue knew. Everybody who saw Jesus’ disciples plucking grain knew. The Sabbath was made so that tired people can find rest. Sabbath rest includes satisfying human hunger. Sabbath rest includes release from pain. Sabbath rest is supposed to make you ready for the work of the week; Sunday is coming soon!

(For a first century Jew, the sabbath was Saturday. The first work day was Sunday – can you imagine talking about Sunday the way we talk about Monday?)

(On second thought, please don’t answer that.)

Sabbath rest means fortifying ourselves for our work, whether that be on Sunday or Monday. During the pastors’ workshop I attended in May, the instructors stressed that fundamental truth to a group of people who preach it and are… not so good at practicing it. I’m pretty sure that if I’d been in the synagogue that day, Jesus would have waved me over, looked me up and down, and said, “Have a seat. I’ve got this today.”

Think about it. Could he have said that to you?

What is right? Saving life. Preserving life. Enhancing life. Enriching life. Resting for life. Singing for life. Dancing for life. Healing for life. Yes, even working for life – as long as there’s some resting for life coming.

Life for ourselves. Life for our families. Life for our neighbors. Life for our friends. Life for the strangers. Life for the immigrants. Life for the enemies. Life for the things that move, or grow, or flow upon this earth.

Life is calling out to us for aid and support. Down in Puna. At the Mexican border. In the detention centers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. With the voices of students. With the languages of Syria, the Marshall Islands, and Hawai’i.

Life is calling out for a time of rest. Let us rise from our rest, and do what is right.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

If you’re following the prepared text while listening to the recording, be advised that Pastor Eric… improvises… from time to time. Yes, we’ll call it improvisation. That’s better than, “goes off topic,” right?

The photo is by Mary Shattock, made available under a Creative Commons sharealike license.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on June 3, 2018

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