The Sabbath was made for humanity (Mark 2:23-3:6)


“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28)

Anarchy is something we all fear – those of us who know what it is, anyway.

I say that as someone who was a devotee of the Sex Pistols when they brought out “Anarchy for the UK” in 1977, though I think my enthusiasm at the time was a consequence of the self-destructive rage I was then experiencing, combined with my youthful ignorance.

“Anarchy for the UK. It’s coming some time, maybe”. It was wise of Johnny Rotten to add the qualifying ‘maybe’. It hasn’t happened in the UK yet, and we can be thankful for that, as where it has happened in recent years, anarchy hasn’t been something worth celebrating

My mind goes immediately to what happened in Libya after the ‘humanitarian’ intervention of NATO that led to the brutal murder of Muammar Gadhafi and the more-or-less total breakdown of Libyan society that followed immediately in its wake.

I wasn’t there, such that I can verify what happened, but the reports of murder and rape and all-round mayhem suggested that life in Tripoli became terrifying for the civilian population once Gadhafi was gone and law and order broke down.

I think of similar reports that came out of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein – the breakdown of law and order that cost so many lives and that, amongst other things, gave birth to ISIS and so many of the terrorist threats that we are dealing with today.

Again, I wasn’t there to personally verify the extent of the mayhem, but I did have lunch a couple of weeks go with Peter Van Buren, who was there as an American diplomat. He’d gone into Iraq, he said, believing the rhetoric – that his people were there to help the Iraqis find democracy and freedom, but then, he said, he discovered the truth. He wrote a book, entitled “We Meant Well”, which resulted in him losing his job and narrowly avoiding a goal term, though, on the positive side, it meant he got to speak alongside me at the conference in Iran two weeks ago!

The bottom line is that anarchy is not a good thing, and yet it seems to be the result of all our recent military interventions, however well-intentioned they may be.

Certainly, that’s the fear for the people of Syria, dreading the possibility of another humanitarian intervention from the West. We all know what the result of such a well-meaning intervention would be – anarchy, lawlessness, death and mayhem.

I give you this backdrop as we approach our Gospel passage today, where Jesus seems to flout the law, as I know we Christians are often tempted to snub our noses at the law and at legalism, and yet the truth is that when it comes to a choice between law and lawlessness, we choose law, and rightly so!

It’s easy to say ‘get rid of the horrible dictator’ but what do you put in his place? It’s easy to say, ‘don’t worry about law’, but what are the alternatives? Lawlessness is not an option that any of us are likely to feel comfortable with.

“One sabbath he was going through the grain fields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (Mark 2:23-24)

“Pedants!” That’s my knee-jerk response, and, yes, it’s probably yours too. These Pharisees are so preoccupied with their petty little rules and regulations! What is the problem with plucking a few heads of grain as you wander through a field – on the Sabbath or on any other day? What’s the difference?

The real issue, of course, for the Pharisees, isn’t this particular law so much as it is the law as a whole, which is a complex and interconnected body of regulations, and when you start treating some of those laws with contempt it’s a slippery slope!

Dare I confess that I regularly break the traffic laws covering pedestrians by crossing roads even when the ‘don’t walk’ sign is clearly illuminated. Just because there’s no traffic coming doesn’t make it right to flout the law, does it? What if everybody flouted the law when they felt like it? Do I really want to live in a society where traffic rules are totally open to the interpretation of the individual pedestrian or driver (as they are in Tehran and Beirut and any number of other places where I never want to drive)?

Jesus’ initial response to the Pharisees on this point seems, at best, dismissive

“Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” (Mark 2:25-26)

It’s not normally considered to be a serious legal defense – to say ‘he behaved badly, so why shouldn’t I?’, though, notably, it was accepted at Nuremburg.

When Nazi war criminals were put on trial and charged with things like the deliberate targeting of civilians and civil infrastructure, the response that “we were only doing what the Americans and British were doing” was accepted as an adequate defense. Even so, we don’t normally consider the bad behavior of other people to be an excuse for lawless behavior on our part. Is that really what Jesus was suggesting?

It may be that Jesus was making a far more serious point, and that is suggested by the statement He makes that follows his retelling of the story about King David, and it’s a statement that I consider to be central to Jesus’ understanding of divine law:

“Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”” (Mark 2:27)

It’s not immediately obvious, I think, how this statement about the Sabbath relates to Jesus’ citing of the story of David and his eating of the sacred bread, which didn’t take place on a Sabbath (so far as we know), unless we assume that Jesus is making a very general and broadly applicable statement – that the Sabbath and, by extension, all divine laws, are there to benefit humanity, and need to be understood and interpreted in that context, lest they be misinterpreted and misapplied.

Applying this principal to the case of the sacred bread then means that, however special that bread was in the eyes of God, human need (hunger, in this case) trumps sacredness every time! If that’s right, Jesus’ thinking was truly radical!

As you know, I’ve just come back from a week in Iran, where I had the privilege of mixing with some high-profile Islamic thinkers, and also spent some considerable time with someone who is often referred to as an ‘ultra-Orthodox’ Jewish Rabbi.

Rabbi Weiss did say to me, “I don’t know why they refer to us as ‘ultra-Orthodox’. All we are trying to do is to be obedient to the law of God. How does that make us ‘ultra’ anything?” I take his point, and, however you refer to the man, he was much-loved by our hosts in Iran, many of whom, I think, would describe their religious piety in exactly the same way – “We are just trying to be obedient to the law of God”.

It was me – the Christian guy – who stood out in this respect. I would not agree that ‘trying to be obedient to the law of God’ was an adequate description of my religious piety. I’m not sure how I would describe it, but I’m pretty sure that the word ‘law’ would not even appear in the description!

When a Christian becomes a Muslim, the Muslim community don’t refer to her as a ‘convert’ but instead as a ‘revert’, suggesting that these people have reverted to the true law of God that Christianity quite possibly lured them away from. Personally, I think this is quite a helpful description, as I agree that the church did indeed move away from any literal adherence to the written law very early in its history.

Most Muslim scholars I speak to blame St Paul for this movement away from the written law. I think ‘no’ – the departure from rigid adherence to the written code starts very much with Jesus Himself, and no where is that better illustrated than here.

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27) – that’s a radical statement, and one that we should take time to fully absorb.

Without wanting to put words into the mouth of the Rabbi I was talking to or any of my scholarly Muslim colleagues, I do believe that if I were to ask any of them why we should be obedient to the written law of God, the answer would be “because it is written”, or something very similar to that.

Ours is not to reason why God gives us particular laws but simply to be obedient. Should the toddler question her parents when they tell her not to touch the stove or not to run out on the road? The proper response is not to argue the case but rather to trust the wisdom and beneficence of your care-giver.

Jesus though suggests that we can question why rules are given – indeed, that we should question why rules are given – indeed, that we already know why these rules are given and that we therefore must interpret and apply these divine laws in accordance with their deeper purposes, which always involve the enhancement of human life, rather than simply obeying laws unquestioningly.

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”

If we take this seriously, it changes everything, religiously speaking. It means that we can no longer make pronouncements about marriage and the family and human sexuality, or anything else for that matter, simply on the basis of what is written. Instead, it means that every religious law and precept needs to be evaluated in terms of its divine purpose. To what extent does this law or principal enhance human life, justice, beauty and peace, or does it threaten to inhibit any or all of the above?

“Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” (Mark 3:1-2)

This last part of today’s story again fleshes out the type of confrontation that can arise between these two different forms of religious piety. A man with a withered hand appears in the synagogue and the religious authorities are all focused on whether Jesus is going to break the law. Jesus’ focus though seems to be somewhere altogether different. He is focused on the man!

I’m not suggesting that everyone who focuses on the word will always necessarily neglect people. On the contrary, I’ve known literalist fundamentalists and even ‘ultra-Orthodox’ characters who, guided by the Spirit of God, always seem to interpret the written word in ways that affirm life. Even so, if we imitate Jesus, we don’t need to follow any difficult or convoluted route in order to end up affirming life. We start with freedom and dignity, and we interpret the law accordingly.

There is a danger in this, of course. When you dispose of the dictator (the law in this case) what do we put in its place? If all we have to substitute for the law are our own very-fallible intuitions, we are not in a good place. If the choice is between legalism and anarchy, give me law! I think though that Jesus here shows us very clearly that there is a third alternative to legalism and anarchy – namely, compassion.

What was it that distinguished Jesus from his religious opponents (in this and every confrontation that we see them in)? It’s compassion. Yes, they interpreted some of the ancient texts differently, and they differed in the way they approached those texts but the key issue was never an academic one. The key difference was compassion.

At the end of this month Holy Trinity is going to host a famous Lebanese Islamic Sufi, and the plan is that we and he, along with other invited representatives of the greater Dulwich Hill and Marrickville community will publicly sign the ‘Charter of Compassion’

“The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

Those are the opening lines of the charter – a document devised and launched by Karen Armstrong back in 2009, and subsequently signed on to by religious leaders and cities and parliaments around the world, and hopefully soon by us too!

Armstrong, for those who don’t know her, was once a nun, and I don’t think there can be any doubt as to where she found inspiration for her charter. Compassion may indeed ‘lie at the heart’ of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions. For Jesus, I believe, it was His heart. It’s what distinguished him from His peers. It’s what shaped His theology and thinking. It’s the essential legacy He left to His followers.

I began with a song by Johnny Rotten. Let me end with one from John Wesley:

Jesus, thou are all compassion.
Pure, unbounded love thou art.
Visit us with thy salvation.
Enter every trembling heart.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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