Sunday, August 19, 2018

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 2
23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Sometimes I think you’re keeping stuff from me.

Stuff like great quotes, little know facts, and historical tidbits that you know I’ll enjoy. Take, for example, the eminently quotable John Fitzgerald Kennedy. President Kennedy collected quotes, shared quotes, and generated quotes in a way few presidents have.

And those of you old enough to remember President Kennedy have first hand knowledge of something I have only recently learned: He loved reversals, lines that take something and then turn it into something else. An example? I’ll ask you. What’s his most famous reversal?

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

It kind of defined the spirit of the age. The president challenging people to set aside narrow self-interest in favour of serving others. Oh, how times have changed. But let’s not dwell on that, let’s look instead at these great reversals that JFK loved and no one felt the need to share with me.

"The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us."

“Our problems are manmade—therefore, they can be solved by man."

“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

"Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames."

I’m going to assume it’s something he picked up at Harvard, perhaps while reading the classics, since this type of reversal was quite popular among Greeks and Romans. It has a technical name, antimetabole (anti-meh-tab-oli), a device that allows new meaning from the reversal of (often) common words.

Take for example, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” See how the use of the word “tough” transforms from “hard times” to “people who can handle it.” So the linguistic trick is to employ the same words, but expand the meaning. Some have suggested that “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” was first said by Joe Kennedy, father of JFK, so perhaps the president found this linguistic habit a little closer to home.

And the technique doesn’t even need to be that complicated. Back to the first example (“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”), all the president is doing is shifting the focus from selfish to selfless. He still reverses the words, but mostly seeks to create a comparison. And since the preferred option is usually presented last (“what you can do for your country”) it reinforces that this is the option to choose.

I share all of this because we should all strive to remember what presidents are like, and because Jesus also favoured reversals—we find one in our passage:

27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

It’s an antimetabole (anti-meh-tab-oli) of the more simple variety, reversing the same words, but in this case presented the preferred option first. In this way to seems to add authority. It fits with all the “verily, verily” passages, which continue “I say unto you...” followed by some important lesson.

So what does this sabbath lesson mean, and who on earth is Abiathar?

Maybe we’ll look at the second question first. We get to Abiathar through a field of grain, as Jesus and his disciples create some controversy picking grain on the sabbath. The Pharisees challenge them, and (as is his custom) Jesus offers them a lesson. Jesus recounts the (then) familiar story of David’s struggle with King Saul.

David is on the run from Saul, who considered him a rival for the throne. He shelters among the priests, and seeks food for himself and his men. The chief priest prays to the LORD for guidance, and is instructed to give the sacred bread of the priests to David and his companions (1 Samuel 22.10). Lacking weapons, David also asks for a sword, and the priest turns over a treasured relic, the very sword that David took from the giant Goliath years before, and the story continues.

The lesson Jesus points to is God’s willingness to overlook a hard-and-fast rule for the sake of David’s future. The story of Israel’s greatest king hinges on surviving this moment, and God provides. In other words, it’s God’s rule, and God may belay the rule if it conflicts with something else God hopes to achieve.

For the rule-driven, for the Pharisaic, this kind of thing drives them mad. Why make a rule if you’re going to set the rule aside the first time some future king is in trouble? What’s the point of having capital L laws if they suddenly become optional? To this, Jesus would say something like “the sabbath law was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath law.”

In other words, observing the sabbath is supposed improve our situation, not make it worse. If Jesus and his disciples are hungry, and David and his companions are hungry, why should following the law add to their burden? If the point of sabbath is renewal, how can hunger on the sabbath renew them?* Clearly, it can’t.

Just now you might be thinking “I’m not really a rule-bound person, but even I wonder at God’s willingness to make exceptions.” And I hear you, even if you’re just thinking to yourself. I wonder too at this subjective God, making and breaking rules to suit this or that need. And then I remember Exodus 32.

It’s one of my favourite scenes in the Ten Commandments. The Israelites roll out the Golden Calf, which in the film looks like a cross between a rabbit and whippet, painted gold, and paraded among the people. The narrator says the people were “perverse and crooked,” when it actually looks more like a country line-dancing.

Meanwhile, on Sinai, God fumes at their disobedience. Making another god to worship jumps to the top of the shall nots, and God says “look at what your people do. In my anger I will destroy them all and make you into a great nation instead.”

But Moses pushes back: “First of all, these are your people, the very people you just rescued from Egypt. Do you want the Egyptians to say ‘what kind of god would rescue the people only to kill them in the wilderness?’ I don’t think so. So turn from you anger and keep your promises, the promises you made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

And God repents. God’s subjectivity saves the Israelites—God’s willingness to turn aside from anger and forgive them the party and the whippet-rabbit cross. God’s subjectivity is based on the very practical principle that the law was made for us, we weren’t made for the law.

The law is meant to guide us, to temper our actions, direct our choices, not bind us to fail. If we were made for the law, our constant failure would eventually render the law void. Is a law even valid if no one is able to keep it? Jesus knew that keeping the sabbath (and all the other laws) were aspirational, goals for human living, and not the kind of legislation that would lead to our doom. We’re too broken for hard-and-fast, too human for the letter of the law.

But just as God’s law is aspirational, God’s forgiveness is aspirational too. God’s forgiveness is the signal that God sees more in us than we can see in ourselves. We know our limitations, but God sees beyond them to see what David and his companions can do, what the disciples can do, and ultimately what we can do—when we understand that we are loved and forgiven.

So if I had to sum it up, I might say something like ‘you can’t have faith in God unless you accept that God has faith in you.’ Amen.

*Lamar Williamson


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