A sermon on Exodus 20:8-17 and Mark 2:23-3:6, the 3rd in a series on Choosing Sabbath, preached July 27th, 2014.
Throughout the gospels, the Pharisees don’t come off looking so good.
It seems like they’re always spying on Jesus—staking him out wherever he goes—ready to pounce whenever Jesus does anything that they think violates Old Testament law. They come off as sticklers and tattle tails, and it’s easy for us to make them into villains. They spent way too much effort and time antagonizing Jesus. Don’t they have anything better to do?
But here’s the thing, in their day, the Pharisees were regarded well as keepers of the Jewish faith. They cared how others observed ancient religious rituals, and they tried their best to uphold their own traditional understanding of being faithful in a world they felt was moving away from tradition.
It was important for the Pharisee that the Jewish people kept the Law of Moses as it had always been practiced in the decades and centuries and millennia before, and they saw it as their duty to remind others how important it was to keep at it—to uphold the faith and practice it just as their ancestors had. But as time went on, throughout the years and the centuries, the Pharisees turned what was meant to be guidelines into a strict set of rules. They lost sight of the spirit of the Law of Moses and they became sticklers about keeping to its letter instead.
So in Jesus’ day, the faith of the Pharisees had devolved into an effort to keep rules, to stay away from violating religious law. It had hardened into a set of things to do and things to stay away from doing—a rigid way of life where staying inside the lines mattered more than anything else.
Think about that, though. Doesn’t that sound like us—at least sometimes? Haven’t some of us Christians, like the Pharisees, taken the heart of our Christian faith—the heart of Jesus’ teachings and whittled it down to rule-keeping? Don’t we sometimes forget the spirit of our faith and distill the Gospel’s message down to lifeless rule-following? And haven’t some of us been taught that if we don’t walk the straight and narrow pathway, we’re in danger of falling out of relationship with God? Like the Pharisees, sometimes we Christians make the mistake of thinking that faith is all about following a stringent set of guidelines. And there’s at least two ways we do that:
There’s something I’ll call “a faith of negatives.” A faith of negatives is a fairly predominant understanding of how to be and act Christian, and it says this:
As long as I avoid certain behaviors—dancing, drinking, smoking, saying bad words, then I’m good with God and God is good with me.
It says that we are good Christians because we adhere to purity codes and we stay away from doing what we consider impure.
The 2nd I’ll call “effort Christianity” that says:
As long as I read my bible 20 minutes a day, and pray for at least 10 minutes a day, and follow all the guidelines in the bible, then God will be impressed with me and reward me for my efforts!
Here’s the problem with both of those understandings: they assume we gain our own salvation—that we are the ones in charge of earning a spot on God’s good side. That our own effort sways God’s opinion of us.
These were the mistakes the Pharisees made.
They were well intentioned people of faith, but they thought their ability to stay away from doing certain things as well as their own effort to adhere to the letter of the Law of Moses were the ultimate expressions of being faithful.
So when the Pharisees see Jesus’ disciples picking heads of wheat as they walked through a field, they jumped on him. Jesus was breaking the rules, coloring outside the lines. Doesn’t he or his disciples have any regard at all for the Sabbath? Clearly the Sabbath doesn’t mean anything to Jesus if this is what he does on it!
Technically speaking, the Pharisees were right. If you follow the letter of the law, Jesus had violated the Sabbath. Calling the disciples out for picking heads of wheat was a little knit-picky, but healing that man’s withered hand was out of line—a clear violation of the Sabbath as it was laid out in the Old Testament.
The man’s withered hand was not life threatening—there was no need for Jesus to heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus knew his bible well enough to know that healing a person was considered work, and he should have waited til the next day to do it. But Jesus knew what was more important here: If he had waited ’til tomorrow wouldn’t that mean he loved the Law of Moses more than he loved the man with the withered hand?
People are always more important than the Sabbath. Sabbath is for people—it’s for our rest, for our liberation and freedom. And isn’t healing a man’s withered hand the very definition of liberation and freedom?
See, the Pharisees had the em-PHAS-is on the wrong sy-LAB-le. In an effort to practice Sabbath faithfully, they completely missed its point. God intended the Sabbath to give us more life, not to keep life from happening. God gave us Sabbath not as a burden but as a gift. Not a prohibition, but an invitation. Sabbath was never designed to be about “No”, it’s about “Yes”—a day to affirm God’s goodness and say “Yes” to life lived in full relationship with God and one another.
Sabbath is about more life.
I have a hard time with “No.”
If you tell me I can’t do something, I at least want to know why. I follow rules just fine, but you’ve got to give me a great explanation of why a rule exists. If you take the time to explain to me the upside of a rule—the kind of behavior it invites me to practice and participate in rather than telling me what it prevents me from doing—you have a better chance of convincing me to share your vision and follow along. A rule stated positively goes much farther with most of us than one stated negatively.
The last 5 of the 10 Commandments are stated negatively. They are prohibitions. But I wonder what would happen if we flipped them around and turned them into positive statements. Let’s look at this: The 6th commandment, verse 13 in your inserts:
Do not kill.
Fair enough. Killing is bad. I’m on board. But what if we made it an affirmation instead of a prohibition?
Respect life as sacred in all its forms. All life has dignity and beauty.
See, that’s compelling! That invites us in to a much bigger vision of what God wants for us! It doesn’t simply ask us to avoid killing, it invites us to uphold life.
The 7th commandment:
Do not commit adultery.
Fine by me. Adultery destroys relationships.
But how about this:
Respect your family and your part in family life. Respect your relationships. Respect your own bodies and those of others.
See that’s so much better! Stated that way, this commandment is not merely about the temptation to cheat. Positively stated, it reminds us of the great gifts that come when we invest ourselves completely in our partners and our families.
Do not steal.
Respect the property of others.
Yes, see this isn’t only about what we shouldn’t do. This not about following rules. This is about how we treat people!
Do not falsely testify against your neighbor.
Respect others by being honest and truthful. Stay away from gossip and uphold each others’ dignity.
And the last one:
Do not desire or covet your neighbors’ house, wife, property.
Be satisfied with and be grateful for all the gifts you have been given.
Do you see how these open us up instead of shut us down—how these commandments, positively stated, draw us into relationship with one another and offer us more life?!
The 10 Commandments were never were intended to tell us how not to live our lives, they were always intended to invite us into a new kind of life—a more abundant and compassionate version of life lived in harmony with family, neighbors, and God.
And this kind of life comes about only when we choose Sabbath.
Sabbath isn’t about what we can’t do, it’s about what God invites us into. It’s not about avoiding anything; it’s about celebrating life more fully. Sabbath is about richer relationship with God and neighbor.
So when Jesus confronts the Pharisees with their negative understanding of Sabbath—a Sabbath of No’s—Jesus turns the conversation on its head and teaches them a lesson we all are still learning: Being faithful is not about strict adherence to some set of written guidelines. Faithfulness is about something much bigger and a whole lot more important.
It’s about saying Yes to God and Yes to our neighbors.
Yes, I will heal you. Yes, I will feed you. Yes, I will care for you. Yes, I will offer you rest, because God has first healed me, God has first fed me, God has first cared for me, and God has first offered me rest.
Let’s practice that kind of Sabbath—even if it gets us into trouble with the rule-keepers.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!