July 16, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
Anyone who has been around the Bible for very long has an idea of who the Pharisees were. They were an especially well-trained, well-read, well-studied group of men who took God’s word very, very seriously. And there is nothing at all wrong with that. God wants us to take God’s word very seriously. They had studied the scriptures, thought about it, pulled it apart to examine each little bit separately, then tried their best to explain it all and what it means to God’s people in everyday life.
Among the parts of the scripture which the Pharisees had studied, thought about, pulled apart, examined, and explained were, of course, the Ten Commandments in Exodus chapter 20 and Deuteronomy chapter 5. And among that list of 10 Commandments was number 4. In Exodus, the Fourth Commandment reads: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God: you shall not do any work.” And it goes on from there, describing how now one, not even the servants, and not even the stock animals, should do any work at all on the Sabbath, just like God rested on the seventh day of creation. With all that detail, the Pharisees took the Fourth Commandment very, very seriously.
That was the issue Jesus took with the Pharisees. The problem was not that they took the scripture seriously; Jesus also took the scripture seriously. The problem was that they took the scripture so seriously that they lost sight of the real meaning of the scripture. The problem was that they made things much more difficult for themselves than God ever intended.
The way that the Pharisees interpreted the fourth commandment was very literal. If they were not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath, then that meant doing nothing which involved any productive effort. In some of the Pharisees’ other writings, someone listed 39 activities which would be considered “work” and therefore were forbidden on the Sabbath. Naturally, as with all of God’s people throughout time, even that did not mean that everyone agreed on what exactly was prohibited. People argued and debated about these issues; they struggled to come up with a precise interpretation which would reflect the true will of God.
And then along came Jesus. His disciples were out in some fields one Saturday afternoon. Because Friday night and Saturday before sundown are the Sabbath “day” in the scriptures, they were not allowed to do any work. But still, they were hungry, and for whatever reason, no one had been able to make the preparations that were necessary to guarantee that everyone could eat on the Sabbath without anyone having to do any work. Fortunately, there were some stalks of grain in the field, so they plucked some of those grains and satisfied their hunger. Somehow, the Pharisees saw this happening, and they objected. There was some room for argument; “plucking” was not one of the 39 activities prohibited on the Sabbath in the Pharisees’ writings, but surely “harvesting” or “reaping” or similar agricultural work was.
But to make that argument would have missed the point for Jesus. The point was not those minute details of the law. The point was that the Pharisees had lost sight of the real meaning of the scripture. So Jesus engaged them on a different level. He cited two examples which were condoned by scripture which violate the commandment not to work on the Sabbath. One was a story of King David and his soldiers who were hungry. They violated a different set of rules having to do with the way things worked in the Temple. They were hungry, there were no other real options, and so they ate bread which the rules said only the priests could eat. And they were not punished or otherwise condemned by God for doing so. The other was a more general exception to the rule forbidding work on the Sabbath. The priests violated that rule each and every week; they had to, or else they would fail to fulfil the other provisions of the law.
The point is, Jesus said, that God never intended that the laws would get in the way of God’s larger purposes. The Pharisees were missing the proverbial forest for the trees. They were so focused on the individual, specific acts which would violate individual, specific rules that they failed to see the bigger picture. And in the process, they were making life a lot more difficult for God’s people than God ever intended it to be.
The bigger picture showed simply that God cares about God’s people, and God most wants God’s people to care about each other. Jesus quoted a line from the prophet Hosea, a line that Hosea delivered, speaking for God, at a time when God was very angry with God’s people. “What shall I do with you,” God asked, like an exasperated parent at the height of summer break, dealing with day after day of bickering and fighting among brothers and sisters. And then God got to the point: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” Sacrifice here stands in for the details of the laws in scripture, which, among other things, had lengthy details about who was supposed to offer what sacrifices when and for what purposes. Yes, God commanded that the people make those sacrifices. But those sacrifices were not meant to be ends in themselves. Those sacrifices were meant to be the means to a larger end: to discipline the people to live lives worthy of the beloved people of the God of all creation.
What is important is not following the letter of the law, Jesus said, quoting the prophet Hosea. What is important is that you are kind and merciful to each other. The point is that you make your life worthy of the beloved people of God by taking care of each other: by being kind, by showing generosity, by forgiving others when they do something wrong, by being merciful. Everyone takes a rest on the Sabbath, not because it matters whether or not plucking grain can be said to be the same thing as reaping grain. Everyone takes a rest on the Sabbath because resting on the Sabbath reminds you that even God rested when God made the world and everything in it.
But the Sabbath wasn’t over yet, so Jesus and his disciples went to the place where people gathered to teach and to learn. There was a man there that day who could not use one of his hands. The Pharisees, feeling a bit burned by the previous discussion, and not wanting to just let this man get away with questioning their authority, provoked him again. “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?” Was “healing” one of those 39 things on the list of activities which were prohibited in order to comply with the command that no work is to be done on the Sabbath. Technically, it was a good question; Jesus could have just as easily scheduled an appointment with the man for the next day to have his hand healed. But again, the Pharisees were missing the point. The important question was not, “is it lawful?” The important question was, “what is the best way to do good?” After a quick parable illustrating the point, Jesus went ahead and healed the man.
Clearly, the Pharisees were in the wrong here. But can’t we related to the Pharisees at some level? We want the rules to be clear. We want to know exactly what we must never do if we want to please God. And so we get into the minute details of what God said to God’s people, debating and arguing about the definitions of words, the best way to translate those words, and the specifics of the behaviors which are forbidden by those words. We want to take scripture seriously, and there is nothing wrong with that. But in the process, we risk losing sight of the bigger picture; we risk missing the proverbial forest for the trees.
Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we set up these rules which go far beyond what is helpful, what is obedient, and what will best reflect God’s gracious will for God’s people? Is it because we are so afraid of God that we think we have to be extra-special good just to stay on God’s good side? Is it because we so desperately want to hear those words from God, “well done, good and faithful servant,” and we don’t know any other way to get them than by earning them through the virtues of self-restraint? Is it because we really believe that perfection is the only way into a guaranteed afterlife, and we are afraid we aren’t going to make it?
It doesn’t seem that Jesus really thinks we need to put ourselves through all of that. Is the law important? Sure. Is it helpful for God’s people to have some rules to live by? Yes. Is it God’s will that we learn what the Ten Commandments and all the other laws God gave to God’s people in the wilderness? Absolutely. But is it really necessary to follow every letter of the law all the time without ever seeking an understanding the larger end which the rules are meant to move us? Not really. In fact, the most important thing for us to understand is the bigger picture: that the law is designed so that we may live well in the presence of God and in relationship with our neighbors. What is important is that we are kind and merciful to each other.
After Jesus healed the man with the withered hand, Matthew tells us, “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.” They perceived Jesus’ assertion that God desires mercy, not just a strict following of all of the rules, as a threat. Never mind that Jesus simply quoted scripture. They could not receive his argument that they were missing the forest for the trees as good news. I wonder if we could do better than those Pharisees. I wonder if we can see how kindness and mercy lead us closer to God than the 39 actions which the fourth commandment prohibits on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. I wonder if we can seek mercy, and not sacrifice.
I pray that we may have the wisdom to understand the bigger picture: that God cares about God’s people, that we make our lives worthy of the beloved people of God by taking care of each other, that we do not need to put ourselves through the anxiety and the fear which drives us to set up rules far beyond what God intends. I pray that we may do simply as God desires: not sacrifices, but mercy.