Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath

At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’

He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

- Matthew 12:1-14

My study bible notes that the plucking of a few ears of corn in a neighbor's field is permitted by the Law (Deut. 23:25). Therefore the objection by the Pharisees in this instance is an example of rigid legalism - a way to criticize that demonstrates, to my mind, their real intent. The Pharisees are claiming that this is "reaping" which is unlawful on the Sabbath.

Jesus goes on to name examples in the Old Testament of the blameless violations of the Sabbath rule. These examples, as noted in my study bible, show that the law is not absolute over human need or service to God. The "bread of the Presence" (sometimes translated as "showbread") suggests the Bread from heaven which is set on holy tables in the house of God, the Church.

Jesus declares that "the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." In this statement we can read many things. There is first and foremost his declaration, preceding. He says to the Pharisees, 'I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the guiltless.' First of all, the Pharisees, in their rigid legalism and scathing criticism, fail to perceive the kingdom. They fail to perceive the reality of the spiritual nature of Christ and his followers and their ministry - the "something greater than the temple" that is in their midst. Secondly, in their harsh perspective, they fail to understand the words of the teachings for which they are responsible: I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6). Without the proper perspective, they cannot perform their own responsibilities correctly: the true intent of the law and its statements of mercy are lost on them. They commit the grave sin of condemning the guiltless. Finally, "the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." The author of all is the ultimate Rule. The law is meaningless, a form of harsh slavery, without understanding the Person who is its author. Ultimately, the Lord's care is for his children, for mercy and love. Love is God's nature: without this understanding, there can be no correct interpretation of law because the understanding of the author of the law is lost.

My study bible also notes that the law permitted healing on the Sabbath, but only in cases where a person's life was in danger. Jesus goes further than the law here, by healing the man's withered hand. Mercy is extended in this healing, to demonstrate not just the intent of the Law, but its author's full authority. In Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law - and we recall his teachings from the Sermon on the Mount about this fulfillment in mercy and love. It is his job to care for his children. A harsh interpretation of holy law cannot be in the intent of its author: the Lord of the Sabbath. The Son of Man, my study bible notes, is therefore Lord of each day, of all of time, of every moment in which we make a choice to nurture and to heal - or to condemn the innocent through a false perspective of legalism that does not take in the full picture of the reality of man, and the spiritual reality of God.

So, in this sense, this passage is a concrete illustration of need for spiritual sight and hearing as taught in yesterday's reading. Without developing a conscious understanding of spiritual reality and its nature of love and mercy, how can we interpret - even in our own time - the "laws" of spiritual practice, or of morality and ethical behavior? How can we even approach these texts of scripture in the New Testament - just as Jesus criticizes those "experts" who fail to see what is in the Old? Have you heard harsh criticism that fails to see the love in these teachings? On both sides of the question, for me, I hear criticism and false condemnation from what we might call rigid legalism - those who'd use the letter of the law not simply to condemn innocents who need mercy but also to condemn those with faith in what they read. "Scholarship" (some of which I consider flimsy indeed) can call us to question what we read to the extent that teachings about love become examples of engineering by the Fathers of the Church with dubious intent -- or we can ignore the teachings of love altogether in a rigid form of legalism in examples we've seen throughout history and we know all too well. We remember that those who need spiritual fulfillment are to be served with love and mercy, with that which will help their faith.

From these teachings, we understand Love to be a spiritual reality. It is not something we put a rule to - be it political, ethical or moral - but something much more that we perceive with our hearts. It is something in which we participate through relationship with Spirit, and in so doing, we must grow in that love and mercy, in our understanding and practice of it. How do you expand to build a bigger picture, to cultivate sight and hearing, if not in Love? How can we understand life from a better, more insightful perspective, if not through Love? Love does not countenance all things, contrary to some very simplistic opinions. Rather it has insight, it loves truth, and it does not harbor those who harm and who condemn the innocent or belittle their faith. How do we practice and grow in love? We recall that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath - and pray for our relationship to grow with that Source that is Love Itself, that we may grow in the understanding and practice of love and mercy, too.

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