Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday after Pentecost + June 3, 2018
Readings: Deut. 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6
There are some things that Christians say a lot that are true and important to really remind ourselves of from time to time: God’s ways are not our ways. God knows better than we do. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Being a disciple of Christ requires us to sacrifice.
Sometimes, however, people apply these principles in mistaken ways — ways that lead to harm that is not actually part of God’s will.
The hot topic in America’s Evangelical world right now is the story of Paige Patterson, a pastor and major leader in the Southern Baptist Convention. Recently stories have surfaced in which Patterson gave sermons or counseling advice addressing women in abusive marriages. He advised them to stay in these marriages — to stay in these homes, forgive their husbands even while the abuse continued, and even to face more abuse — in the hope of saving their husband’s souls.
I can muster up some generosity and say I think Patterson really was motivated by his understanding of scripture and God’s will in matters like divorce, forgiveness, and eternal salvation. But when his attempts to teach faithfully were causing his parishioners to come to him with black eyes — in a society where 50% of female victims of murder are killed by their husbands or boyfriends — he should have stopped to re-evaluate, to pray, and to study scripture. Would our God who, throughout the Old Testament, sends prophecy calling out kings and leaders for their treatment of orphans and widows and those without power — want women to stay in dangerous relationships? Would our God, revealed in the compassion and justice of Jesus Christ, really ask victims to bear responsibility for those abusing them? Or was there another, more faithful way to care for both the abuser and the abused?
History is full of examples like this, examples of people who were, perhaps, honestly trying to be faithful to God, but whose judgment was clouded by the sins of society or their own personal desires. Americans argued — with biblical arguments — that slavery was the will of God. Politicians argue with pastors who advocate on behalf of people who suffer from poverty, saying, “Well, y’know Jesus said ‘the poor you will always have with you,’ so this is just the way things are.” (By the way, when Jesus said that, he was referencing Deuteronomy, and that whole commandment says: Since the poor you will always have with you, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land”[Deut. 15:11].) One of the things that breaks my heart the most is when people are diagnosed with something horrible or injure themselves badly and spend a lot of time wondering, “What did I do wrong, that God would do this to me?” That’s not the God we see in Jesus.
So yes, we need to remember that God is beyond us, that God’s ways are not our ways, and sometimes that’s going to be annoying or hard or require sacrifice — but we also have to balance out that teaching with teachings about who God is, what God desires, what God thinks is important.
I think that’s one of the things Jesus was trying to point out when he challenged the Pharisees on the right ways to observe the sabbath.
But first, a side note: I think it’s worth saying the Pharisees might not have found Jesus’s teachings about sabbath observance all that heretical. Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath,” and he asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” before answering his own question by healing a man on the sabbath.
The Jewish Rabbinic tradition — which grew out of the Pharisees’ movement — actually sides with Jesus on these points. Their teachings from the time of Jesus include sayings like: “The Sabbath is handed over to you, not you to it,” and, “Profane one Sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.” There’s an overriding principle in Jewish law which says that preserving life is more important than observing other laws. This rule comes from ancient interpretation of Leviticus 18:5, in which God said, “You shall keep my statues and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live.”
So, probably, what went down between Jesus and the Pharisees was not exactly a disagreement over interpretation of sabbath law. Rather, the Pharisees had already decided they didn’t like Jesus, and they were trying desperately to catch him doing something wrong so they could publicly accuse him and get those crowds of people to stop following him. But Jesus kept just toeing the line, doing things that were just a little scandalous and daring the Pharisees to say something; but Jesus could also turn to scripture and tradition to prove that what he was doing was right.
I read a webcomic this week where the writer remembered back to being a child, to a Halloween where she was sent to school in a dinosaur costume. And being in that costume — being a dinosaur — made her feel powerful, like the rules didn’t apply to her. So when her teacher told her to sit in a circle with the other children, she suddenly felt that dinosaur-power fill her, and she rebelled. She ran around the room, knocking over chairs and toys, grabbing a handful of pens, and scribbling manically on the walls. Then came the showdown: a moment of stillness while the teacher stared her down and demanded, with all her teacher’s authority, “Give me the pens. Now.”A pause as the child stared back at her teacher, deciding…and then she threw the pens right at her teacher’s face.
I imagine that moment in the synagogue felt almost like that to the Pharisees. Jesus, we’re watching you. Don’t do it. Don’t heal that man. It’s the sabbath. We’re the teachers here, and you know what we say about the sabbath. Don’t do it, Jesus. And Jesus looked them right in the eye, reached out his hand, and healed.
Of course Jesus chose these moments of rebellion very carefully. He was making a point. He was, for instance, claiming his own authority over and above that of the Pharisees. I know the law as well as you do, and maybe better; I know that what I’m doing is in line with God’s will. Just try and tell me it’s not. He even put himself in the place of King David: as David had a mission that deserved special dispensation, so did Jesus. Claiming that he deserved the same as the greatest of Israel’s kings was a big claim indeed. No wonder the Pharisees wanted to discredit him.
But, to work our way back to my original topic: this sabbath healing was also an opportunity to draw people’s eyes to God’s real purpose for the sabbath law, and to the central purpose of Jesus’s mission — to draw people’s eyes back to what God is like and what God cares about.
Our first reading for today, from the book of Deuteronomy, told us about the reason God commanded the Israelites to observe the sabbath as a day of rest. God said: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” We could sum that up: Remember that God saved your people from forced labor; now enjoy this day of rest. The sabbath is meant as a gift, and as a day to remember God’s gift of freedom, God’s gift of salvation, and to give thanks by celebrating and enjoying the gift.
Jesus’s mission was to bring those gifts of freedom and salvation to even more people.
So one sabbath day, Jesus met a man with a withered hand. A man who either was injured or born with that difficulty; who probably has trouble finding work; who had, maybe, spent a lot of time anxiously wondering what he’d done that made God curse him. So when Jesus met that man on the sabbath, he knew how to best observe the sabbath law: by granting that man the gift of healing and freedom.
And yeah, maybe it was a little scandalous. The man wasn’t in mortal danger; couldn’t you wait till tomorrow to do the work of healing, Jesus? But Jesus’s mission to bring freedom and salvation was too urgent and too important to be so scrupulous about the sabbath.
And what does that tell us about God’s priorities?
It’s really easy for us to focus too much on the idea that “God is above us, we need to just surrender and obey God,” so that we end up making obedience to laws more important than God’s mission to save people and free people. Or, actually: we end up making our interpretation of God’s laws more important than God’s main mission.
God is bigger than us. God does give us commandments that are difficult. God does ask us to step out of our comfort zone, to do things we don’t want to do, to sacrifice, even — sometimes — to suffer. But think of those things as, like…facts about God.
Who God is, is even more important than that. We can’t know what God wants from us without first knowing who God is. And the God we see revealed in both the Law and the Gospel is a God who cares for people, and not just our souls, but our bodies and our minds, too. God cares for our relationships and our societies and our planet.
If the teaching we’re hearing doesn’t seem to match up with who God is — if it harms rather than saves — it’s worth turning back to the scriptures and seeing what the message really is. That’s what Martin Luther would do. And, according to today’s gospel reading, I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus would do, too.
 Ed Kilgore, “#MeToo in the Pews: A Backlash to the Southern Baptist Patriarchy,” New York Magazine, 9 May 2018. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/05/metoo-engulfs-southern-baptist-patriarch-paige-patterson.html Accessed 3 June 2018.
 Camila Domonoske, “CDC: Half of All Female Homicide Victims are Killed by Intimate Partners,” National Public Radio, 21 July 2017. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/21/538518569/cdc-half-of-all-female-murder-victims-
are-killed-by-intimate-partners Accesed 3 June 2018.
 Quoted in Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 2:23-3:6”, Working Preacher, 3 June 2018. Online: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3667 Accessed 28 May 2018.
 Simon Glustrom, “Saving a Life (Pikuach Nefesh),” My Jewish Learning. Online: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/saving-a-life-pikuach-nefesh/ Accessed 28 May 2018.
 Allie Brosh, “Menace,” Hyperbole and a Half, 2 October 2013. Online: https://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/10/menace.html?m=1
 N. T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 25-28.