The Higher Law

So, this is an interesting passage for a couple of reasons. One, it seems to feature roving bands of Pharisees who are treading through the grainfields of upper Galilee looking for people to break the law—a fact that seems somewhat unlikely. Thus, this seems perhaps a literary fiction that Mark has given us. The image of Pharisees popping out of the wheat and shouting at the disciples as they walk by is at least entertaining.

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
May 26, 2024—Pentecost II
Mark 2:23–3:6
Text transcribed by YouTube, Reconstructed by ChatGPT. Please forgive any typos.

We also have the idea that Jesus is being presented as one who is violating the law at will, who has no regard for the law, and that this is the complaint that the Pharisees are making against him: that he is undermining their teachings. Perhaps to dig into this story, we need to understand a little bit about the players here.

The Pharisees were one of the many sects of first-century Judaism who had different understandings of how the law was to be understood, how Jewish faith was to be lived out. Despite the fact that they are consistently portrayed as the foil or even sometimes the villains in the Gospel narratives, they were actually probably the more progressive sect in Judaism at the time. They were the ones trying to make Judaism more livable. They were trying to make it so that people didn’t have to choose between being a good Jew on one hand and being a participant in the broader Greco-Roman Hellenistic world. They were trying to find ways to make it easier to practice Judaism, and the way they did this was with a lot of rabbinic legal interpretations that helped to define what it really meant to carry something from place to place on the Sabbath. What did it really mean to be able to do X and Y, and how could the people embrace following the law in a way that was authoritative?

The Disciples plucking corn on the Sabbath. Mark 2:23-25. Illustration by Gustave Doré

Now, they would eventually go on to become the dominant sect of Judaism in the wake of the destruction of the Temple and would go on to become the proto-rabbis who gave birth to what we recognize as rabbinic Judaism today. So every Jew that you might know is a Pharisee, whether they realize that or not, because they have all descended from that school of Jewish thinking. There were other sects: the Sadducees, who were the priestly class; the Essenes, who were an ascetic group; and there was a whole bunch of just ordinary Jews who didn’t really fit into one school or the other. They were just trying to sort of get on with their lives.

There are conflicts with the Pharisees in Mark’s Gospel. We tend to see more of those conflicts in Matthew’s, which is written later, when the early Christian community was really butting heads with the Pharisees over a number of theological issues. But it’s fair to say that their critique here is that Jesus is not following the rigors of the law the way they understand the law to be. So whether they’re leaping out of grainfields or whether they are simply confronting him with this question at another time, this seems to be the basis of their objection: of all things, he is not observing the Sabbath.

So when we look more deeply at this passage, we see a couple of interesting things. First, nowhere does Jesus say the Sabbath doesn’t matter. Nowhere does Jesus say, “Who cares that it’s the Sabbath?” Nowhere does Jesus say, “None of the law matters. That’s old. Get rid of it.” Instead, Jesus does two very Jewish things. The first thing he does when he’s defending his disciples for picking grain on the Sabbath to feed themselves is that he is using legal precedent. He says, in effect, yes, it is forbidden to pick grain on the Sabbath, but when there is an instance of hunger, certain rules can be put to the side, just as David ignored the rules about who is allowed to eat that bread that sits in the Temple and gave it to his companions after they returned and were famished. So Jesus never says the Sabbath is not important. He says the Sabbath is important, but in this instance, because my disciples were hungry, and hunger and life are those kinds of things that overrule these rules, then it doesn’t really count as a violation of the law.

In the second instance, where they are wondering whether he’s going to heal on the Sabbath, what is interesting is there’s actually nothing wrong with the way Jesus heals this man. Now, if Jesus had put together a poultice or made some kind of potion or gone and carried some wood to build a splint, that might violate the Sabbath. But it has never been a violation of the Sabbath to use power or faith to heal. That was never a problem. So supernatural healings were never forbidden on the Sabbath, and even if Jesus had done the healing with physical means the way he sometimes did—he sometimes mixed his own spittle with dust to make mud to put on a blind person’s eyes, sometimes he put his thumbs in a person’s ears and healed their deafness—there are other things that Jesus does that are very physical. Even if he had done that, he has already asked the question that mitigates the circumstance: “Is it lawful to save a life or to kill? Is it lawful on the Sabbath? Is it lawful to do good or to do evil on the Sabbath?” Clearly implying that what he is doing is the net good that is always permissible on the Sabbath.

In another instance in the Gospels, he asks, “If one of you had an ox or a goat who fell into a ditch on the Sabbath, would you wait until the next day to go get it out? No, you would get it out and spare its life and save it on the Sabbath. This is all I’m doing in this instance.” So what we come to understand then is that it is less about Jesus actually breaking the law or disregarding the law or pretending the law doesn’t matter than it is about Jesus not doing the law the way his critics think he ought to be doing it. And that is a whole different issue, and one with which we are very familiar in current religiosity because there are a lot of people who have made up their minds that being Christian, or being Methodist, or Baptist, or Lutheran, or Catholic, or whatever, means doing it this way—with no questions, no flexibility, and certainly no discernment. And that seems to be what is happening here because Jesus has given very cogent, thoughtful, religious, even rabbinic answers to the challenges. He has argued from precedent. He’s argued from higher principles. He will continue to do this throughout the Gospels. He never says none of this matters. In fact, he argues the higher principle here by saying the whole point of the Sabbath is to be a benefit to humanity. So if the Sabbath then becomes a reason humanity suffers, then that’s backward. The Sabbath was made for humanity, not the other way around.

But I want to look now at why it is this keeps happening. Why is it that every time we get a bunch of rules or a bunch of principles that are meant to improve the lives of others, they quickly become used as a way to control other people? Why is it that every time we have a system of laws or principles or guidelines, we always get stuck with rigid adherence to these rules and a prophet has to come along and say, “Guys, it’s not about the rules, and it never has been.” Whether it’s the Old Testament prophets who are saying things like, “The sacrifices don’t matter if you’re not taking care of the poor”—you know, those are things, by the way, that you are commanded to do. I’m telling you, they don’t matter if you’re not doing this other thing, if you’re not taking care of your neighbor. And Jesus follows in that. The prophets in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all follow that same thing: if you are not doing the higher principle, then these little rules don’t matter anymore, right? You have missed the point.

So why do we, in spite of this frequent reminder by the founder of our faith, continue to do this? And I think the answer is because it’s easier that way. It’s easier to look at a list of rules and to check them off: did that, didn’t do that, did that, didn’t do that. You know, the to-dos and the shalt-nots and the shalts, and to just say, “I’ve done my duty. I followed the rules.” Then it is to say, “What does love require me to do in this instance? What does grace require? What does justice require?” Because the answer to those questions is not as clear and requires a lot more discernment, a lot more reflection, and a lot more community wrestling and reflection. And it requires admitting that maybe not every question has been answered by the holy scriptures and the law, that maybe there are some things in there that it didn’t contemplate. I’ll submit: gene splicing is not in there. The use of stem cells, not in the Bible. The ethics of nuclear weapons, not in the Bible. Cloning, not in the Bible. The internet, not in the Bible. The ethics of representative democracy, not in the Bible. There’s a lot of stuff that we have to figure out for ourselves, that we can’t just simply look to some law, some rule, or some principle and say, “Well, just do that.” It’s easier to think that the world has to conform to this list and to these rules than it is to realize that sometimes we need to figure out a new set of rules or a different way of looking at the issue because the world that we live in is different from the world that our Bronze Age ancestors were in when, say, the Ten Commandments were written down, or our Iron Age ancestors were in when, say, the Gospels were written down. We are a part of this process. That’s harder, but that’s discipleship.

And I think what Jesus is doing for us is not showing us what the answer is in this case—do this, then do this. He’s

showing us how to think, how to weigh these competing demands: the demands of the law and the demands of our humanity. How to weigh when sometimes the plain text of the law cannot be followed and ought not be followed. How sometimes the spirit has led us to a place of deeper understanding, of deeper growth, of deeper compassion than rigid adherence to the law. That’s what this task is all about. That’s what the Gospel is meant to be. It’s meant to free us from our anxiety about whether we are being good enough, to free us to be reckless and to take the chance on love and faith and hope and all those things that are greatly uncertain and don’t yield to us concrete answers but impel us forward anyway.

It’s harder, for sure. It’s a lot easier to walk around with a checklist and just check it off. It’s a lot easier to have bullet points than it is essays. It’s a lot easier to just follow directions than it is to think for ourselves. But Christian faith has never really been about it being easy. Jesus kind of showed us that too. So if we are going to embody the Christ who calls us into discipleship, we do so by following him into the difficult but ultimately wonderful world of discernment, of reflection, and opening our hearts to see where the higher law calls.

The Text

Mark 2:23–3:6

“This happened one sabbath: he was going through the grain fields and as they were making their way, his disciples started to pick some of the heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what isn’t allowed on the sabbath?” He said to them, “Haven’t you ever read what David did when he was in need and hungry? How they went into God’s House when Abiathar was High Priest and ate the Bread of the Presence—which only the priests are allowed to eat—and he gave some to his companions?” Then he said, “The sabbath came about for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath. So, then, Humanity’s Son is master even of the sabbath.”

He went to the synagogue again and there was a man there with a withered hand. People were watching Jeshua closely to see if he would heal the man on the sabbath, so that they could speak out against him. Jeshua said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and stand here in the middle.” Then he said to the rest, “Is it legal to do good or to do evil on the sabbath? To save a life or to kill?” They didn’t say anything. He looked around at them with anger—and with grief at how hardheaded they were—then said to the man, “Stretch out your arm.” The man stretched it out and it was restored. The Pharisees left right away with the Herodians, consulting with each other about how they could destroy him.

(Translation by Mark Schaefer)