So here we are in this morning’s gospel at the very beginning of third chapter of Mark, so it’s still early in the story, and already Jesus is a marked man. The Pharisees and the Herodians are conspiring to destroy him.
And what has he done to make them so angry? Well, first of all, he watched his disciples pluck some grain as they walked through the fields. Presumably they were hungry, and they ate what they picked. People get hungry on the Sabbath, just like any other day. But picking the grain was considered harvesting, and that was considered work, and in the eyes of the Pharisees that was a violation of the Sabbath.
And the Pharisees were there in the synagogue watching when Jesus healed the man with the withered hand. And they thought of that work as healing, too, another Sabbath violation, so now the Pharisees and the Herodians are conspiring to destroy him.
I think maybe for us, it’s just weirdto think that either of these things would be enough to make anyone want to conspire to destroy Jesus. We’re not part of that culture, we don’t get it. Sometimes religious passion can take people in unholy directions, even when they’re basically good people and they mean well.
Maybe it’ll surprise you, but the people in this story are all good people. It’s set up for us to come down on the side of Jesus, not on the side of the Pharisees and the Herodians, but actually, everybody in the story is religiously devout. Everybody in this story cares about honoring God, being in relationship with God, and the only place where they disagree is, what’s the best way to do that?
The Pharisees get a bum deal, really, in the New Testament. They’re holy people. They really care about their relationship with God. Their emphasis on observing rules as the basis of that relationship actually has its roots in the time of the Exile, when the Jewish people, whose religious life had focused on the Temple, suddenly are in exile in Babylon. The Temple is destroyed. How can they continue to practice their religion without it?
Their answer is, by being faithful to these religious practices. The Pharisees maintained these practices, and later, when the Second Temple is destroyed in 70 A.D., they are the ones who make it possible for Judaism to continue, for people to continue in right relationship with God. This is the framework for that relationship.
So they’re not really, at heart, bad people, and they do get a bum deal in the sense that even though it says they’re conspiring to destroy Jesus, if you read ahead in Mark, they’re not the ones who bring him down in the end. It’s the chief priests and the scribes and the elders who are responsible for Jesus’ death.
So the Pharisees are good people who maybe are a little too scrupulous as presented in this story. The Herodians, well, frankly, nobody really knows who they are. They don’t show up very often in the New Testament. We presume that they were people who supported the restoration of the dynasty of Herod.
There were actually several Herods. Herod the Great is the one who killed all the baby boys when the three kings told them that they were looking for Jesus. So he’s not a particularly nice guy. He’s actually nominally Jewish, though not very Jewish in his lifestyle. He has several sons. Herod Antipas is the one who puts John the Baptist to death. Again, not a particularly nice person, but the point for the Herodians would have been to restore Israel as a national kingdom, to restore them as God’s people in a government entity and not just have them be part of the Roman Empire. So again, you can argue that they were basically working for the common good and caring about Israel as God’s people.
Now getting back to the Gospel, the heart of this story is a disagreement about how to observe the Sabbath. The Sabbath is about more than just a rule or a law. It’s bigger than that. It’s a gift from God. As we heard in the First Reading, God gives the Sabbath as a day of rest for everyone. Not just people, but also animals. Not just the masters, but also their slave and their servants. The Sabbath is a sign of the covenant with Moses. It’s a reminder of God’s liberating deliverance from evil, from slavery in Egypt.
So it’s a mark of identity, a mark of relationship with God, and Jews didn’t all agree on how to go about it. They didn’t then, and as a matter of fact, they don’t now.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a hospital in an area with a large Jewish population. They often have what’s called a Shabbat elevator. The Shabbat elevator is one of the most aggravating things in the world if you’re in a hurry to get from one part of the hospital to another and you’re not Jewish, because what happens is it stops at every floor. The doors open, the doors closes. Then it goes to the next floor, and the same thing happens. The point is that for observant Jews, pushing that button would be work, a Sabbath violation, but on the Shabbat elevator they can get around the hospital without pushing any buttons. All they have to do is step on and step off.
And when I was doing my chaplain training at St. Mary’s Hospital down in Langhorne, one of my colleagues was a young rabbinical student, and before sundown at the beginning of the Sabbath, he would set up what we would call a string of Christmas lights in his apartment, and leave those on until Saturday night. If he had to turn the light on that would be work which would violate the Sabbath, but if the light was already on, it was okay.
To us, these things sound maybe a little silly, because this isn’t our culture as Christians, who gave this kind of Sabbath observance up in the first century. But Jesus wasn’t against observing the Sabbath. He was in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He did observe the Sabbath. The point of dispute in today’s story is how far to take that.
When the Pharisees are watching to see if he’ll heal the man with the withered hand, the Gospel tells us that Jesus is grieved by their hardness of heart. He’s angry that anyone would be so cruel, really, as to withhold healing for that reason. He asks them a question about whether it’s okay to heal, to give life on the Sabbath, which is really what the Sabbath is all about, deliverance of life, but he doesn’t wait for them to answer the question. He just goes ahead and he heals the man’s hand. Earlier, he had said the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath. In other words, he values a compassionate response to human need above the value of the observance of the rules about the Sabbath.
I think that lesson is easy for us to understand when we’re talking about this particular Gospel story. Of course Jesus should have healed the man. Wouldn’t you if you could, whether it was the Sabbath or not?
But I think when it comes to applying it to our own lives, sometimes it gets a lot more difficult for us to make the connection. So I want to tell you a story about a young man named Father Ray. Father Ray and I have some things in common, starting with the fact that we’re both ordained. Father Ray knew when he was a teenager that he wanted to be a priest. As a matter of fact, so did I, but he got there a little sooner than I did.
He grew up and studied philosophy in college, then spent two years in seminary. He was ordained and he serves now in Atlanta at the Cathedral of Christ the King, which by a strange coincidence is a church that my family and I attended for a couple of years when I was a kid and we were living in Atlanta. My dad was the Atlanta bureau chief at Time Magazine.
So we were parishioners back in the day at Christ the King. It’s a beautiful church, and oddly, it’s built on the site which formerly was the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan. When I was a kid we used to tell stories that there were catacombs underneath the property that were related to the Klan. I never knew if that was true, but it sure was scary for a kid.
Now Father Ray is 29 years old, and he’s good looking, so not surprisingly, considering the combination of his youth, his energy, his enthusiasm, his good looks, he’s much beloved by the people there.
However, there are some people who would take him out of that parish and in fact would send him out of the country, despite all that’s been invested in his education and his formation, because he was brought to the United States from Mexico by his parents when he was two years old, and they didn’t have the right paperwork.
I’ve seen interviews with some people who would say, “It’s a sad thing, but they broke the law and he has to go.” And all I would say to that, and it really is to the point of every case where we could apply the lesson from this Gospel, the lesson of valuing compassionate response to human need. All I can say to that is, “What would Jesus say?”