Beacon Heights COB, June 14th, 2015
Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5
“Beware the yeast of the Pharisees.” This is a saying internalized from a very early age for those raised in church. “I don’t wanna be a Pharisee…’cause they’re not fair you see.” The Pharisees are held as examples of how not to live one’s faith.
Anytime those Pharisees show up they are opposed to Jesus and his disciples. They become easy targets for slurs of hypocrisy, legalism, self-righteousness, and even bigotry. The Pharisees are straw men to be knocked down in theological arrogance. They represent what is disliked in those “other” people over there who do not share the same understanding of truth and God’s will for creation.
Half of my sermons this summer include Pharisees in some shape or form, so naming these associations early seems important. I do not think that I can counteract all of the baggage that comes with the label “Pharisee,” but we do need to be aware of them.
We might see “Pharisees” all around us in our world today and we don’t even have to look very hard at all. We just need to turn on the TV or log in to our favorite social media site.
As a member of the “Millennial” generation, social media is a big part of my life. This does have some benefits, but I know that if I am not careful I can become emotionally and even spiritually invested in what happens in the world of facebook.
Social media can be a chaotic marketplace full of noise and conflicting information and people in general are not afraid to share their opinions in places on the internet. Facebook can be a tinder-box that can explode with even the smallest of controversial issues. Unloving things are posted from all sides. The mud slinging takes no prisoners. The Pharisees come out in full force, leaving no good feelings on the social media sphere. Somewhere Jesus is facepalming for sheer embarrassment and people post this picture too.
I try my best not to throw my hat into the ring in these facebook explosions. More often than not, it is not worth the emotional and spiritual investment.
But it is hard not to feel it, when brothers and sisters in Christ share hurtful things out of theological arrogance and ignorance of another’s humanity. This is the yeast of the Pharisees and it is an ugly thing indeed.
While cyberspace is relatively new, public forums for the exchange of ideas, goods, and services are older than civilization. In Greco-Roman antiquity, the time period of the early church, marketplaces were full of many different ideas. Early Christians came into contact with followers of different faiths and other groups within Judaism. The Pharisees were one such group who represented competition for space in the public square.
These groups all had their own social media, ways of spreading ideas to other people both inside and outside the group. We have some of these recorded in the Christian scriptures known as the New Testament.
The four biblical Gospels in particular are constructed very much like social media sites. Pieces from other documents and from oral tradition are put together in different ways to form biographical narratives of Jesus’ life. This is especially true in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). John does the same thing, but includes some longer narrative sections. There will be more about John in another sermon.
Today we heard one story that appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. Jesus and his disciples wander through a grainfield, it happens to be the sabbath. The disciples are hungry and eat some of the grain.
Pharisees confront them for breaking the Sabbath and Jesus responds. He reminds them of a story from the life of David and makes a declaration that the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.
This same basic story is told in three very subtly different ways. Our multi-voiced reading shows where the three are the same and where they are a little different. You probably noticed that there was not much unison material. Even though all three tell the same basic story, they don’t quite harmonize. In music theory, we might call it variations on a theme. Yet, the theme is lost to us. All we have are the variations. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t quite get them to fit together without changing them or being sort of creative.
Cutting these stories apart and splicing them together sort of leaves me feeling like a mad scientist like Dr. Frankenstein or something. Yet, it does help us to see some of the similarities and some of the differences of the biblical witnesses.
Their variations contain echoes of the original theme. It is not entirely lost to us, but it is colored in different ways by different people under different circumstances. And it is a recurring theme in the Gospel narratives. The Pharisees confront and Jesus responds. They are his chief adversaries and they seem to be around every corner.
In this particular iteration, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Pharisees appear to fancy themselves as the Sabbath police. In their eyes at least, Jesus and his disciples are breaking the Sabbath.
The disciples are hungry and eat as they pass through grainfields, as the poor in their culture are allowed to do. Following Jesus for them literally means solidarity with the vulnerable and powerless. The Pharisees, on the other hand, do not act in solidarity, but set themselves up in a position above the poor. They show theological arrogance and ignorance of the disciple’s humanity. It is as if they would rather see these poor people starve than see their personal sense of holiness violated.
Perhaps, though, it is unfair to treat the Pharisees as if they are heartless legalists in this case. They may just be curious and want to know what Jesus thinks about proper Sabbath observance.
We usually think of the Pharisees as observing Jesus and his followers from a distance, like spies or assassins, stealthily looking for opportunities to attack Jesus and his followers; bad people lurking in the shadows with a clearly malicious agenda. And there are passages in the Gospels that lend credence to such an image. Yet, we also find Pharisees who show sympathy for Jesus and his followers; among them Nicodemus, Gamaliel, and Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul, the Apostle.
In looking at this story of the disciples in the grainfield in isolation from other texts, it is unclear how the Pharisees came upon Jesus and his disciples. It is possible that the Pharisees who raise the question about the Sabbath are among Jesus’ disciples. They are hardly aggressive or malicious though they might be a little accusatory in Matthew’s version and in Luke they appear to implicate Jesus in the breaking of the Sabbath. At least we can say that their intent is ambiguous.
The question of proper Sabbath observance is a topic of discussion for any group in and around the sphere of Judaism. There must be some disagreement among these Pharisees who approach Jesus. They just might be seeking his wisdom.
By using the story of David and his companions entering the house of God and eating the bread of the Presence, Jesus reminds these Pharisees of what they already know or at least should already know. Justice is more important than Sabbath observance.
The priests in the house of God had every right to deny David and his companions, but instead they harbored these refugees that were running from king Saul. Of course, at that point, David’s gang were basically armed rebels and really stepped all over the priest’s rights. They may have simply not been able to refuse. To add to this, these priests are later killed by Saul and his men for harboring those refugees. David did claim responsibility for the consequences, but the priests were the ones who ultimately paid the price.
We might wonder why Jesus would cite this somewhat troubling story to make his point about the Sabbath, but I think that by using it Jesus basically says, “Look, it is not your responsibility for how others observe Sabbath, ‘the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,’ and like David claims responsibility for all involved.”
There is an even deeper theme underneath all the variations of all who witness to Jesus and that theme is Jesus himself, who lays down his own life for the sake of all people in every place. Jesus just might post on Facebook, “It is not your responsibility for what others believe and how others behave. Do your best to love God and love your neighbor and leave the rest to me. It is my responsibility.” And on his Twitter account, he might just follow this post with a hashtag #thesonofmanislordofthesabbath. And Matthew, Mark, Luke, and even John, just might share this post and add some of their own flair.
But the basic message would still be the same and the underlying theme would still ring through. Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, Anointed for all nations, takes responsibility for his people in every way,
Sabbath is a time to re-orient ourselves and our responsibilities. Our world demands a lot from us, many responsibilities (working, paying bills, cleaning house, taking care of family) these should not be abdicated. Yet, God gives us Sabbath so that we might enjoy what we have been given and take some time to realize what responsibilities belong to God and not to us.
We all need to be reminded sometimes that God is God and we are not God. True, we have responsibilities that we must attend to, but we cannot do it all all at once, let alone the responsibilities that are not ours to begin with.
Sabbath is not just another responsibility. As Mark’s Jesus puts it, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” It should be done with joy and it should bring joy and other spiritual fruits; if not right away, in God’s time.
Sabbath should bring about awareness of what has already begun, “something greater than the temple” that is already here that Matthew witnesses to; the kin-dom of God inaugurated in the ministry (the life, death, and resurrection) of Jesus. This is a reality that Jesus shares even with his opponents, even with the staunchest Pharisee whose adherence to the law and the strictures of tradition causes a loss of wonder and awe for the glory of God’s good creation.
May this same Jesus challenge us today to discern our own responsibility in loving God and loving neighbor to the best of our ability and leave the rest up to God. May we be inspired in wonder and awe by the glory of God’s good creation and may we have faith and trust that Jesus works in places where we cannot and unites all hearts toward the purpose of God; the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all Creation. AMEN