THIS SERIES FOCUSES ON THE ACTUAL WORDS AND ACTIONS OF JESUS AS PORTRAYED IN ALL 4 GOSPELS. AS I LOOK BACK OVER THE LAST 18 YEARS OF BEING A CHRISTIAN, I HAVE REALIZED SOMETHING. THIS IS WEIRD TO ADMIT – I’VE NEVER DONE AN EXTENDED, DELIBERATE STUDY ON THE LIFE AND WORDS OF JESUS. NEVER. HE IS MY SAVIOR, MY LORD, MY LIGHT, AND MY HEART’S GREAT HOPE. AND YET SO LITTLE OF MY TIME, THOUGHT AND STUDY HAS GONE INTO THE LIFE, DEATH AND WORDS OF JESUS. THIS BLOG SERIES IS FOCUSED ON STUDYING THE WORDS AND ACTIONS OF JESUS THROUGHOUT THE FOUR GOSPEL STORIES AND FINDING OUT HOW THEY APPLY TO US TODAY. IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO START AT THE BEGINNING, GO HERE.“One Sabbath he was going through the grain fields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” – Mark 2:23-26 “Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priest in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the guiltless.” – Matthew 12:5-7 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” – Mark 2:27-28
One fine Saturday, Jesus and His followers were walking through a grain field, followed by the Pharisees. The disciples start breaking off pieces of grain to snack on, and the Pharisees see an opportunity to discredit Jesus. They don’t like Jesus. He is not what they expected in a Messiah (meaning, He is not like them). He is a different kind of teacher, One who teaches the heart of God’s law, and not just route obedience to rules. The Pharisees seem dedicated to accusing Jesus of wrongdoing because they think that if they can discredit Him, then their traditions, rules and lifestyle will be validated. They are looking to find some flaw or vice in this Messiah. Their livelihoods, power and prestige depend upon it.
Was it actually unlawful for the disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath? Well . . . no, it wasn’t. The Bible tell us that it is unlawful to WORK on the Sabbath, meaning that you cannot do the things that bring you profit. If I’m a farmer, I should rest from farming on the Sabbath. Resting from doing the things you do the other 6 days of the week is a symbol of us trusting that God will continue to provide for us, even when we aren’t working (Exodus 20:8-11; Leviticus 23:3, Deuteronomy 5:12-15). It is a day when we dwell on God, His goodness, His mercy, His provision. But the disciples weren’t farmers, and even if they were, they weren’t tilling the land here. They were, in fact, following Deuteronomy 23:24-25 which says, “If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.“
You might think it weird for them to walk into a neighbor’s garden and start picking food, but it was common in this culture and time. There weren’t that many roads, and cutting through someone’s field to get where you were going was widely practiced. You might get a little hungry on the way, so when you are surrounded by food, why not pick a little to satisfy your hunger?
So what is wrong with these Pharisees? Why are they constantly like this? The Pharisees are a beat-down, aren’t they? “Why are you doing that?” “That’s wrong.” “You can’t do that.” They are like malevolent little children waiting to beat you up after Gym class. How small is your world and your faith when it boils down to a list of “Do’s and Don’ts”?
The problem with the Pharisee’s is that they had, over centuries and centuries of following God’s Law, added their own laws on top of God’s Law. Breaking God’s Law was so abhorrent to them that they added more laws to keep them from the things that would keep them from the things that would tempt them to break God’s laws. In many ways, it is not a bad idea. If I have an alcohol problem, I should not drink, but having alcohol in the house is a bad idea, and even going to a bar with friends should be out of the question. Constantly surrounding myself with temptation is a bad idea. If A leads to B which leads to C (and C = sin), then don’t do A or B. Take away the temptation that leads to the sin, right? So, by that logic, if working on the Sabbath is sin, maybe I should cease from doing any labor, any “work”, anything physical, right?
Nope. Taking your traditions and beliefs and elevating them to be equivalent to God’s Law is wrong, but holding others accountable to your traditions is wrong too, according to Jesus. Even more than that, withholding good on the Sabbath is a sin, as Jesus has shown.
So, let’s get personal. And let’s be honest. When you read the Gospels, are you more like the blind, poor, leper, adulterer and “sinner?” Or are you more like these Pharisees? The scariest thing about this passage is that I identify more with the Pharisees than anyone else. What do I mean? Well . . . let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
What traditions and beliefs do you hold to that you consider “Law”? Maybe it is your view of homosexuality (that somehow their sin is “worse” than others). Maybe it is thinly-veiled racism (dislike of inter-racial couples, you propound stereotypes, you are afraid of people from other races). Maybe it is what you think of the beggar on the street panhandling for money (maybe he deserves to be poor, “Probably never worked a day in his life”). Whatever it may be for you, you need to get to a point where you can be self-aware and critical of your beliefs. Do your traditions and beliefs line up with God and His Word, or are they simply things you do and believe because that’s what you were taught? Because as Jesus shows us here, the Gospel is not a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” but about my unimaginable sin and depravity and Jesus’ astounding perfection and sacrifice for me. You cannot add to the Gospel without adding heresy. We are all sinful. We all need Jesus. Not one of us is better than anyone else. The Gospel levels the playing field. No one comes out looking good except Jesus. Making the Bible say what you want it to say, rather than letting the Bible shape and mold our lives, is what Jesus is addressing in the lives of the Pharisees here. And we would do well to listen.
The sad yet true irony of this is that the Bible (even the New Testament and words of Jesus!) have been used to add laws on top of laws, to create horrific traditions and beliefs that are antithetical to the very Bible they claim to hail from.
Take slavery. Ephesians 6:5, Titus 2:9, Leviticus 18:22 have been used to justify the kidnap, torture, murder, rape, imprisonment and subjugation of an entire people simply based on their color . . . for HUNDREDS of years. Yet America’s history of slavery could not be further from the heart of God, the teachings of the Bible or God’s intentions for human flourishing. The Bible has been used to justify oppression of women, racism, war, the malevolent and sometimes deadly targeting of homosexuals and even the Holocaust.
How does this happen? By adding your own laws on top of God’s laws and by having no love for others. Jesus turns to these Pharisees and tries to show them the sin in their hearts and their lack of self-awareness. He refers to a story in 1 Samuel 21 when David was hiding from Saul, and he and his men were hungry. The priest had no food except for the bread of the Presence, which only the priests could eat. Jesus uses this to get to the very heart of the purpose of God’s law. Essentially He asks, “Is it better to deny your neighbor, let them go hungry, withhold good from those who need it . . . or to follow the letter of the law?” He says, “if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the guiltless.”
There it is. The Pharisees were this way because they did not understand the HEART of the law. They loved the actual words, not the God who created it. They exalted the physical book, not the Creator who wrote it. “The whole law is summed up in this one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.‘” Jesus says in Matthew 22:36-40 that the greatest law in the Bible – the very heart of God’s law – is to love God and love others. The Pharisees were constantly critical, judgmental, angry and “holier than thou” because they did not understand God’s heart, His love, His mercy, His compassion. And because they didn’t understand this, they didn’t understand God, the Sabbath, His Laws . . . nothing. Imagine spending your whole life studying God’s laws only to hear at the end that you understood none of it. “You missed it!” The Pharisees couldn’t see the true meaning of the Sabbath because they didn’t have hearts of love.
The Pharisees didn’t treat those around them as their neighbors. They didn’t actually love people, but only loved themselves, their righteousness, their status. You can’t help those you don’t love. In fact, it’s very difficult to live around people you don’t love.
I don’t know about you, but I live in a small neighborhood where everybody knows everybody. I know Judy and her husband Dan who raise chickens, I know sweet Maryanne across the street who is in her 80’s, I just met the new guy Mark and his son, I know Alicia who is a single mom and a teacher, raising 3 kids on her own, there’s the elderly couple who come in from Chicago to escape their winters, there’s Gilbert who is a plummer and his wife, Rick who builds houses, Brian and Allison and young Vivian . . . .They are my neighbors. We have had a few disagreements and unfortunate events (Judy’s chicken got into my back yard once. We have two huge dogs. You do the math). But we always make up, apologize, make it right and forgive. Why? BECAUSE WE HAVE TO LIVE WITH THESE PEOPLE! We need them and they need us.
When we are sick, they bring us food. When they are moving furniture, we help them. When we need help fixing our house, they come over or let us borrow tools. When Gilbert’s wife had a heart attack last year, we stood with him as the paramedics got her in the ambulance, prayed with him, and brought them food when she got back home. When our dogs got out of our fence, our sweet neighbor grabbed them and kept them in her back yard until we got home. Judy brings us eggs from their chickens. We bake her pies, and take her kale and spinach from our garden. Our neighbors are in our vicinity, our area of influence . . . they are right up in our lives. It is work and we don’t always get it right, but living at peace with our neighbors, loving our neighbors, serving our neighbors . . . is what we are called to do.
If we started treating everyone as if they were our next door neighbor, our words and actions would be different. We would know that we can’t just blurt things out of hate, discord or impatience – I have to see these people again! I couldn’t neglect the poor and needy – what happens when I need help? What if my actions and words had consequences? Well, they do. We need to love our neighbors. ALL of our neighbors.
Now, love means speaking the truth to them as well as serving them, just as Jesus did. Homosexuality doesn’t magically become “not sinful.” But we do not treat those in this lifestyle as if they are any different than we are – sinners struggling to figure this world out, trying to know God, desperate for truth and help. Jesus didn’t mince words or cut corners, but He also spread His arms wide and died for those who killed Him.
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” Jesus says in Mark 2:27. So if your heart isn’t a heart for man—if it is not a heart of love—you cannot see the meaning of the Sabbath. For the Sabbath is a gift of love to meet man’s need, not an oppressive burden to make him miserable or proud.
Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Sabbath or do away with God’s laws but to dig it out from under the mountain of legalistic dust. He came to give the Sabbath to us again as a blessing rather than a burden. I say “again” because the Sabbath was given to us by God originally as a gift! It is a day for showing mercy and a day for doing good. It is not a day that is run by rules and “Thou Shalt Nots”. And in this verse, Jesus tells us that He is the Lord of the Sabbath, so it is a day to focus on Jesus. It is impossible that a day focused on Jesus should be a burden to the believing heart—”Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest!”
The reason why the Sabbath moved from Saturday to Sunday is that Jesus rose on a Sunday (John 20:1). Every Sabbath should be a celebration of Jesus rising again over sin and death! Just like the work of the first creation was finished on the seventh day of the week, the work of the new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15;Ephesians 2:10) was finished on the first day of the week by the resurrection of Jesus.
As you are going to bed tonight, ponder these words of God: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And Psalm 51:17: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
God is after my heart, and He is after your heart. He doesn’t admire your laws, standards, rules, righteousness or holiness. Your righteousness is like filthy rags to Him. No. He wants to save you from yourself. He want to see Christ in you, your only hope of glory. He wants us to behold the glory of the Lord, and therefore be transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. Jesus is your only hope, He is my only hope. Only Christ pleases God. Only Jesus lived a perfect life that I could never live and died the death I should have died because of my sin. Only He is worthy. Only His righteousness will cover me.