First Reading Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Moses gives Israel the commandment to observe the sabbath, because God rested on the seventh day. Slaves, foreigners in the land and animals are all included in the instruction to make it a day of complete rest.
Second Reading 2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Paul explains that he and Timothy do not proclaim themselves but Jesus Christ. Although afflicted they are not crushed, carrying the death of Jesus, whose life is made visible in them.
Gospel Mark 2:23 – 3:6
The Pharisees complain that Jesus’ disciples have been plucking grain on the sabbath. Jesus explains that there is nothing wrong with someone hungry gathering food because the sabbath was made for people. The Pharisees are even more displeased when Jesus heals a man and plot to destroy him.
HOMILY “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
Are you good at following rules or are you someone who likes to be a bit different, challenging boundaries? To follow the rules means sticking to an accepted principle or instruction that states the way things are or should be done. Rules suggest what we are allowed or are not allowed to do. During this week the footpath around the Tower was closed, for safety reasons, so scaffolding could be installed ready for re-pointing to start next week. There was an orange fence across the path from the porch to the wall and signs all over stating the footpath was closed and to use the alternative path to the Rutherwyke Room; all users were contacted to let them know to go the other way around. Yet several people, literally taking their own lives into their hands, chose to ignore the signs and step over the fences and try to walk the usual path anyway. They decided, for whatever reason, not to follow the rules! Thankfully, nobody was hurt and let’s be honest, we are all very different – some of us feel very strongly that rules or boundaries offer us security.
Others feel boundaries are really barriers to being fully the people God has made us to be. Most of us will be somewhere between these two extremes of rules verses anything goes. Some people like rules that are very simple with a yes or no answer, or to put it another way, they see things as black or white. Many of us now understand life to be various shades of grey and some rules are less helpful for a diverse and complicated humanity. We are not all the same, after all.
Some rules that apply today go back in human history many thousands of years, such as the Ten Commandments, while some other rules from that era are no longer considered important as human science, psychology and evolution have taught us a better, more inclusive way of understanding the world, our lives and even our bodies. Likewise, the Church over the centuries has sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit to inform decision making. Some rules today are very sensible, for example driving on a certain side of the road: it is strange driving abroad on the ‘wrong side’, and then, when returning home, having to remember to stay on the left again! In southern Ireland this past week, the public have taken part in a referendum over abortion rules and voted to change the laws, after many years of campaigning by those who feel very strongly either way. Then there is the sugar tax, adding in rules and effectively a penalty if you want to drink something which is high in added sugar. Each issue causes debate, and so it should, and consequently the rules can be re-drawn…although we may not always be happy with the conclusion.
In today’s Gospel Jesus comes up against the rules of the Jewish religion as understood at the time by the various leaders of his day – this time the Pharisees and Herodians. And there were many rules to follow concerning all sorts of activities, from washing of pots to food and hygiene, to morality and the keeping of the sabbath – an imposed day of complete rest from work. Looking at the Old Testament book of Leviticus we can catch a glimpse of the breadth of subjects covered by an array of legal statutes and ordinances. In our Lord’s day, ignoring or deliberately breaking such rules was a big problem. The keeping of these rules reflected a deep sense of corporate relationship between God and his people Israel. Hence, our first reading from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy begins with the Ten Commandments, including the command: “But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” (Deuteronomy 5:14) This is where Jesus comes a cropper with the religious of his day, as they perceive him to be “at work” rather than recognising the good nature and intent of what he was seeking to do!
Several of our congregation are involved in providing care to those in need and hopefully none of us would say that nurses shouldn’t go about their essential work on a Sunday. Yet, back then, the faith leaders in charge defined exactly what the rule meant, with a rigid interpretation they held as important. Jesus was therefore challenging their authority by his actions. Friends, rules can take on a life of their own until we are completely unable to remember their original purpose. Thankfully we have a parliament whose job it is to keep our rules in check. The same is true for the Church of England – we have our own form of government, General Synod, and it is filled with elected Christians like us who strive to seek God’s will and the leading of the Holy Spirit when considering changes to our teaching and tradition. And this is very important because Jesus told his disciples the Holy Spirit would do exactly that – lead us into all truth: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13) The Church too has its rules but, important as they are, they are no substitute for developing a relationship with God through our own prayer and meditation, and we risk using them badly if we fail to do so.
Jesus recognised that people are more important than the sabbath; rules were made for them and not the other way around. In the same way, the modern Church exists to point us towards God. Compared to first-century Judaism its rules are few, and with good reason. By challenging interpretations of the rules, Jesus made himself so unpopular that the Jewish authorities sought to kill him and it ended in his crucifixion. But that terrible death, the inevitable result of God’s perfection coming up against frail, imperfect humanity, allows us to rethink. It gives us the freedom and responsibility to listen carefully to God and the leading of the Holy Spirit, and show compassion to others in our decision making as we work together to share the love of Christ with those we meet on life’s journey. Amen.
1. Different people respond differently to rules. Some guidance is needed but freedom is also a marker of our Christian faith.
2. First-century religion had many rules that faith leaders had worked hard to define.
3. The rules about keeping the sabbath applied to all in the land and were particularly strict – but Jesus saw need and sought to meet it regardless.
4. Although there are still rules, Jesus’ death has changed our relationship to them. We are called to listen carefully to God to understand what rules might mean for us as we share Christ’s love – we listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit.