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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Sabbath Crimes.


Luke 6:1-16.

I.
            Some of you may have heard me tell the story of the first time I was ever arrested.  I was about eight years old, and my crime had two counts: I was riding my bicycle on the sidewalk, and on a Sunday, in Ocean Grove.  They didn’t book me; they just called my father to come down to the station and get me.  When he arrived he was far more angry with the police than he was with me.  Finally, he looked at the sergeant who sat behind this high desk and asked, “What exactly are we allowed to do on Sunday?”  The sergeant leaned over and said one word: “Nothing.”
            I wonder if Jesus’ activities on the Sabbath would have passed muster on a Sunday in Ocean Grove in like 1966.  This first crime, that of allowing his disciples to pluck heads of grain from other people’s fields and eat them, might have offended someone.  The law allowed people to do that, as long as one didn’t use a tool.  But the question had to do with what was permitted on the Sabbath.
            The Torah is very clear about freeing the people from having to work on the Sabbath.  But it doesn’t say what actually constitutes “work.”  Which of course has led to at least 2500 years of debate on the matter.  On the one hand were those, like the elderly sour-puss Methodist person whom I fantasize saw me and called the cops that day, who would say that nothing is permitted on the Sabbath.  This appears to have been the view of some Pharisees.  Sit in a rocking chair on your porch.  And make sure you don’t rock too loudly.
            Jesus, of course, already earning a reputation as a notorious breaker of standards and rules, doesn’t appear to emphasize what should not be done on the Sabbath, but talks about what may be done.  We all agree that healing people on the Sabbath is justified.  But in this case it’s different.  It’s not like his disciples were ready to keel over from malnutrition if they didn’t munch on a few grains of wheat.  No one’s life was saved; no one was healed.  It almost seems like a deliberate provocation.
            The Pharisees tailing their group predictably complain, which gives Jesus an opportunity to launch into a story about David and his soldiers from 1 Samuel 21.  In that incident, David is running away from King Saul.  His men are hungry, and the priest gives them the bread that had been offered to God, which only priests were technically allowed to eat.  In this the letter of the law was broken.
            Then Jesus says, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”  As I mentioned last week, “Son of Man” is a somewhat multivalent term interestingly meaning both “a human being” and “the Messiah.”  Whichever meaning one takes, Jesus always means it to refer to himself.  “Son of Man” is simply another way for him to say “I.” 

II.
            At the same time, he could also intend it to mean “you” or “anybody.”  His point is that, on the one hand, human beings are the ones who determine what kind of “work” should be done or not on the Sabbath.  The Sabbath itself is ordained and given by God, who mandates it as a day of “rest.”  That can’t be revoked or altered except by God.  But the character of that rest, within the limits set by God in Scripture, is up to people to decide.
            On the other hand, the basic character of Sabbath is as a time of liberation and release, mainly from the demands of work, which is to say, from the requirements of the economy and those in charge of it.  It is freedom-time.  A time to be free of any demands except God’s intention for us that we be joyful, liberated, whole, and equal together.  There is a tradition that says that Jesus himself, on the Sabbath day after he was crucified, didn’t strictly “rest” but spent the time liberating people from hell.  Which is a lot like what he did every day during his earthly life as well.
            Christians moved the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday specifically to reinforce this connection with resurrection, life, freedom, forgiveness, and release, and to weaken the association with merely doing nothing. 
            So, when Jesus says “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,” he means people can do as they please on that day, so long as what they please reflects and expresses God’s will for the liberation of creation and people from bondage.  What they please can’t involve oppressing, coercing, or even employing someone else; it can’t involve taking away someone else’s freedom (even if they’re okay with that).  Either the Sabbath is about freedom and justice and peace for everyone, or it degenerates into merely the “weekend” when we recharge our batteries for another week of making bricks for Pharaoh.
            However, leave it to human beings to take an institution given by God and intended for joy, freedom, justice, and peace, and twist it into something oppressive, sour, restrictive, regulatory, and unjust.  If Ocean Grove, for instance, had remembered Jesus’ understanding of Sabbath, they would not have had people working in restaurants or selling newspapers on Sunday either.  (If I remember correctly wasn’t it a newspaper deliverer who brought the suit that ended Ocean Grove’s blue laws, after having to wheel newspapers by hand on a Sunday morning, half a mile down Main Ave. in an ice-storm?)  If those laws had applied to everyone maybe they wouldn’t have been revoked….
            And the Pharisees in the gospels appear to have turned the Sabbath into their own domain of control, contrary even to their own theology.  Jewish commentators point out that there is no written historical evidence for Pharisees opposing the practice of healing on the Sabbath.  But I know that what people actually do does not always comport with what they say about themselves in writing.  Jesus’ disciples remembered this as a major problem, even the thing that caused the authorities to seek his death.

III. 
            On another Sabbath Jesus is teaching in a synagogue and he meets a man with a withered right hand.  That is, a man who probably couldn’t work, even if he wanted to, on the Sabbath or any other day.  By this time the scribes and Pharisees are onto him, and they follow him around, taking notes, waiting for him to step outside of the rules or do or say something doctrinally incorrect.
            Jesus does not let them change his approach, except that now he makes a point of sticking it in their faces.  He sees the man with the withered hand and calls him over.  Note that the man does not take the initiative here; if he thinks Jesus can heal him at all, he appears to be satisfied to wait until sundown.  But when Jesus calls him, he comes and stands in front of him.
            Jesus is probably still sitting on the bench the teacher used, and when the man comes to him, he asks the whole assembly the rhetorical question: “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?”
            Nobody answers.  Jesus just looks around at everyone in silence.  He knows they know the answer to his question.  The way Jesus frames the question implies that if we have the opportunity to do good and don’t do it, we are doing harm.  If we can save a life and don’t, we have destroyed a life.  To decline to do something good, something clearly and unambiguously good, just because it is a Sabbath day, is, in effect, to have decided that the Sabbath is a day for doing evil and destroying life.  And that would be a ridiculous reading of the Torah Sabbath laws. 
            I suspect that the scribes and Pharisees in question do not really care all that much about the Sabbath.  Jesus is challenging their power and control.  Do they get to continue to be the self-proclaimed lords of the Sabbath?  Do they get to be the ones who are charged with maintaining the people national, religious, and cultural identity?  Do they get to add regulations to the law, which they say are to help people keep the law, but which only add to the burdens of already stressed people?
            No, says Jesus.  God does not institute the Sabbath as an oppressive, draining, paranoid time when everybody has to watch their back and walk on eggshells just in case someone is peeking through their curtains and sees you doing something the Pharisees and scribes don’t like… even if it is something that is not prohibited by Scripture.

IV.
            Notice that Jesus himself does nothing here, except talk.  He can’t be accused of “working” when he barely moves.  He doesn’t touch the man or even do so much as wave his hand over him.  He simply says to the man with the withered hand, “Stretch out your hand.”  I doubt if even the most rabid, hyper-vigilant Pharisee would categorize stretching out one’s hand as prohibited “work.”  But they see fit to get angry anyway. 
            And as soon as the man does this minor action, his hand is instantly healed.  It unfolds, opens up, fills out; I imagine it kind of blooming.  It is restored to normal.  Restoration to an original wholeness and integrity thus becomes part of what Jesus indicates that the Sabbath is about.  The man does not become something new so much as he becomes what he originally and truly is.
            In the Scriptures, the “right hand” is the hand of blessing and power, skill and strength.  A withered right hand is a way of talking about losing our ability to approach the world with confidence, expertise, dexterity, and coordination.  Without a right hand we cannot accomplish or do much of anything.  We become inert, inept, and unfruitful.  Imagine a world in which we had to do everything with the wrong hand.
            Jesus comes to turn over and restore us to our original form; to give us back the use of our “good, stout arm, to shield the right” as one hymn put it.  (It’s #344, but you won’t find that verse in our hymnal.) 
            This is true about the whole creation as well.  Christ comes to restore us to an original liberty, before it was corrupted by our decision to bargain it away to other powers, which effectively crippled us, rendering us unable to produce fruit for God.  The Sabbath is not supposed to be a time of inertia and inaction, as if the arms and hands of our agency had withered into ineffectiveness.  It is for saving life and doing good, in the Lord’s name.
            Christ empowers us to resist the forces that would keep us crippled and docile.  That this terrifies those forces should be no surprise, and they immediately skulk off to conspire against him.

V.
            While his enemies are plotting against him, Jesus goes back to “the mountain” to pray.  He prays all night, as is his habit and discipline.
            When he comes down he gathers together those whom he has called and chooses 12 men to be “apostles.”  Apostle means one who is sent.  Jesus doesn’t actually send them anywhere yet.  But the fact that he calls them apostles prepares them for this role.  This mission of Jesus is going to be handed on.  The community he is forming is a missionary community. 
            They are not spectators.  They are not scholars.  They are to receive Jesus’ blessing, training, power, and authority.  And he will shortly give them his teaching.  They are to be extensions of his work.
            And of course, so are we.  God sends Christ into the world; Christ sends all who would be his disciples.  Jesus recognizes no difference between a disciple and an apostle.  To follow him, is to be sent by him into the human community with the same message of healing, wholeness, blessing, peace, release, forgiveness, and restoration.
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