Read this: Luke 6:1-16
It used to be that the Sabbath was a big deal. It meant something. When the sun started plunging into the horizon, the streets would begin to empty. As the last vestiges of light seemed to meander from the west down to the east, only an isolated few figures could be seen, hustling home or to the synagogue. Anyplace, really, where God was invited in. Yup, used to be that Sabbath was done right. But not anymore.
Some things don’t change, and romanticizing the past is one of them. It’s almost hardwired into us. We’ve created our own “age.” Like the “bronze age” or the “iron age,” we wax philosophic about the “golden age.” The problem is, most of the time when we’re living through what will later become “the golden age,” we are distinctly unhappy; we think the times have gone crazy, and we reminisce about an even earlier period being the “golden age,” which itself was most likely, when it was no longer the future and not yet the past, deemed a terrible, horrible, no good, awful, bad age.
The opening illustration can just as easily describe the time of Jesus as it can be used to describe our own present day.
It cannot be said enough times that Roman occupation was brutal. Fear was the default emotion for most with their necks held down by the sandal of Rome. The late, great scholar Marcus Borg suggests that during difficult times strict adherence to Law becomes the vehicle through which people transform their fear into strength. Ideally, this points one toward compassion and a desire for loving community; but in the time of Jesus what emerged is called by Borg a “politics of holiness.” The theology held that strict adherence to Levitical codes would render first the individual and then the whole community clean; God would look favorably upon the people and smite Rome. This viewpoint was held in Jesus’ day by the Pharisees.
The Sabbath was perhaps the most important focus of the Pharisees. The Jewish people had literally fought—often through nonviolent resistance—for the right to practice their faith throughout Roman territory. It cost them in blood and taxes, but Sabbath observance was recognized and allowed. Therefore, it is understandable that they would want the people to recognize the depth and breadth of the sacrifices made by some so that all could continue to follow God. Because for the Pharisees it was in the communal, strict adherence to the Law that would bring about divine redemption.
Which brings us to today’s pericope. Cast your mind back, if you will, to last week in which we talked about how the Gospel of Luke is dependent upon the Gospel of Mark for its narrative structure. In other words, Luke—and Matthew as well, actually—used a copy of Mark in writing their own gospels. The material shared by these three, later called the Synoptic Gospels because they all see Jesus “with the same eye,” is termed the triple tradition. Last week, Luke deviated a good deal from Mark; the same is true for us today.
Sabbath controversy stories, like most stories about Jesus, have meaning much more often in the subtext. The so-called plain meaning of the text cannot necessarily be discovered through a literal reading. For example, think about the context of this first confrontation. Look at the setting: Jesus and his disciples are walking in grainfields, which is a violation in and of itself. In plucking the grain, they are harvesting; in rubbing the grain, they are threshing; in eating, they have prepared food: all violations of the Sabbath. Seems pretty straightforward, right?
But let’s ask a question: if it is a sin to be walking through the grainfields on the Sabbath, what are the Pharisees doing in there themselves? I mean, this is like the Robert Burns poem come to life: “If a body meet a body, comin’ thro’ the rye.” Some people will say that it is evidence that the Pharisees were corrupted and filled with demons, and to that I say hogwash. Utter hogwash. Both Jesus and the Pharisees were Jewish. They were beholden to the same codes and expectations, but interpreted them very differently. When we read of Jesus criticizing the Pharisees, it most often has to do with the ways in which following the letter of the Law squeezes out the Spirit of the Law and leaves people on the outside looking in. The Pharisees in return regard people like Jesus as having prolonged the duration of Roman occupation because they do not show strict adherence to halakha, Law.
The Pharisees most likely are present in the grainfield as a storytelling device; their presence could be about innate and rank hypocrisy, but once again we should seriously question the historicity of this claim. If we dig deeper, we find better answers. In both Sabbath controversy stories featured in today’s pericope, the conflicts present the same question: what do you think is most important to God? Jesus asks: Does God want people to go hungry amidst an abundance of food? Of course not, he says, citing the example of David with the consecrated bread. Before healing the withered hand, Jesus asks: On the Sabbath, is it lawful to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to destroy it?
What do you think is most important to God?
The Pharisees followed a theology of fear, at least as they are represented in the story. We must cross every t and dot every i if we want to be safe and protected. We must separate ourselves from those we have deemed unclean. We must draw lines, demarcate what is ours and what is forbidden. If we do all of that, God will see that we are serious. It is a theology that regards other people as a threat; a theology that says one can simply look at another’s life circumstances and know where they stand with God. Sick, poor, lame, sinner. But it is a theology that makes sense, especially if you feel a nearly total loss of control in most areas of your life. This sort of theology provides purpose and comfort for those able to follow it.
But it is hell for most everybody else.
On the most sanctified day of the week, Jesus walks through grainfields. He waltzes all up and into a synagogue and heals a hand. Why? Because there is a need from people. Jesus believes that the restrictions of the Sabbath have become so onerous, so antithetical to their original purpose, the only way he can rattle people out of their stupor is to engage in some religious civil disobedience. He works on the Sabbath to show that God made the day for us, not us for the Sabbath day. The day of rest is meant to bring us together: to unite us with God, our families, our friends, our communities. To connect us to ourselves.
We hear a lot about making America great again. We hear people wax nostalgic about the “good old days.” The golden age. But the whole of American history is filled with horrors for a great many communities that are not within dominant culture. Slavery, broken treaties, governmental limitations levied because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or creed (and if you seriously need links to prove any of what I just said, I suggest stepping away from Breitbart and turning off the Fox News). Yesterday, at airports around the world a politics of fear kept families from reuniting; it kept refugees who have been through ordeals most of us cannot fathom from taking one more step toward reclaiming their lives; doctors, scientists, translators, university professors, grandmothers, breadwinners, all human beings who have followed the rules and procedures, who have done what our Pharisees say to do, are living in chaos right now. This is not greatness. This is a politics of fear and death.
A mosque in Texas burned to the ground on Saturday morning. Muslims living in our country, in our neighborhoods, are frightened and uncertain. I think it is time to walk through some grainfields and to start healing some hands. What this looks like for each one of us may differ; I have reached out to a local imam; he and I are meeting during the week to talk, to pray, to go to God for strength and solidarity. For you, it may be attending one of the actions that will occur in the coming days. For others, it might be giving money to aid agencies that can help people who will literally be killed if they return to their country of origin. It might be simply smiling and saying hello, as my colleague Rev. Bryan Fleet said at a recent Beloved Community Project event.
Right now, no intentional act of kindness is too small.
Today, Christian celebrate the Lord’s Day. It is both the first and the eighth day of the week, another of the many contradictions in our faith tradition. So, let us ask: what are God’s intentions for this day? What will our connections with and to both God and each other mean when we get up tomorrow? What will we do to keep walking through grainfields and healing hands? As Christians, we have a divinely-mandated responsibility to not turn away from injustices and oppression. We are commanded to not be afraid and are to step forward when stones are being thrown. We have a divinely-mandated obligation to not turn away from injustices and oppression; for our God makes it pretty clear what we are to do: build longer tables instead of higher walls. Amen.