The Authority Question
“Oh those Pharisees and their silly sabbath rules.”
If that’s our reaction to today’s gospel reading, if that’s what we’ve been taught, then we’re missing the point. Yes, there’s conflict in today’s gospel, that’s for sure, but it’s not really a conflict over what you can do on the Sabbath.
The Pharisees were not some sort of religious bad guys who hid in cornfields waiting to see if anyone would break a Sabbath rule. They were actually the good guys. They were the religious leaders who moved religion out of the temple. They saw faith more as a way of life than a system of temple ritual and sacrifice. They were well-liked, they were a political and religious force in society and they were respected as interpreters of the law. They were known to place a strong emphasis on the observance of purity laws in all of life. But observing the law wasn’t an end in itself. Like all Jews in Jesus’ day, they dreamed of a day of liberation, the day when God would act to liberate them from oppression. The Pharisees believed that if the nation purified itself by strictly observing the Torah, the law that God given through Moses, then God would act to liberate them and overthrow the Roman occupation. Their intentions were good, and their agenda was not just religious but also political. And so they used their authority to set up a strict system of observance of the Torah in all walks of life, even in the cornfields. But there was a conflict looming: Jesus had different agenda for liberation.
Which is why they were watching as Jesus and his disciples passed through the cornfields. Which is why they were ready with their question when the disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. Notice that no one is questioning the right of the disciples to pick grain in someone else’s field. That was ok, that was a provision granted in the book of Deuteronomy to ensure that those who were poor and hungry would have enough to eat. No, the Pharisee’s question was about the Sabbath. The Sabbath was intended as a day of rest, and so it was not lawful to do work such as harvesting grain.
This was a legit question. The Pharisees were interpreters of the law, and so to ask a question about the interpretation of the law was pretty reasonable. Jesus, who is already respected as a teacher, he responds in kind, just like a rabbi should. He goes to scripture and he finds a story which serves as a legal precedent for what he and his disciples are doing, a story about King David in the days that he is fleeing from King Saul because Samuel has anointed David as the new king. This is a typical rabbinical exchange about the interpretation of the law – except for one thing.
Some of you who are older might remember the famous vice-presidential debate in the 1988 American election. The debate was between Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic candidate, an older, more experienced Senator, and Dan Quayle, the Republican VP candidate who was a young man, 41 years old at the time. A lot of people, including Bentsen, were questioning Quayle about his lack of experience. Quayle defended himself in the debate by pointing out that he had the same amount of congressional experience that John F. Kennedy had when he was elected President. Which was just the opening that Bentsen was looking for:
“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
And you know what? The Pharisees could have said the same thing. For an itinerant Galilean preacher to defend his disciples by comparing himself to King David, the greatest of Israel’s kings was absolutely preposterous. And for him to compare the urgency of whatever mission he and his disciples were on with David’s flight from King Saul, a matter of life and death, well, that too seemed ludicrous.
But that’s what Jesus did. And it wasn’t an accident. This isn’t about Sabbath rules, this is about authority. We’re only in the second chapter of the gospel of Mark, and already the authority question is front and centre. Jesus has been recognized as one who teaches with authority. He has exercised authority over unclean spirits. He has claimed the authority to forgive sins.
Here in the cornfields the Pharisees are thinking, “you’re no King David”. And Jesus responds, “you’re right, I’m no King David. I am greater than King David. The Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
How do you respond when someone asserts their authority over you? Do you like it? Do you easily submit to someone else’s authority?
I don’t. I don’t like it when someone asserts authority over me. I don’t think I’m alone. Our culture doesn’t respond well to authority. Perhaps we’re only too aware that authority can be abused sometimes.
But how do you respond when Jesus asserts his authority over you?
The Pharisees don’t respond well. They reject Jesus’ authority. They’re not willing to let go of their own project of national liberation by surrendering their authority to Jesus. They’ve got too much invested, to let go of all that now would be like a death, a cross too hard to bear. The Pharisees have become captive to their own good intentions, to their admirable goals, to their agenda, to their own way of thinking, to their egos, to their position in society, to the system they’ve created.
So how do they respond? One option is always to just ignore the person that’s claiming authority. Forget about him. But Jesus won’t let them do that. He’s too in their face, he’s too public, he’s heading right into the synagogue, and eventually he’ll take his message and his agenda and his claims all the way to Jerusalem.
They can’t just ignore him. So they going to have to destroy him. That’s what the second scene in today’s gospel is all about. There’s no theological debate going on in the synagogue, this is entrapment, pure and simple. They want to accuse him. They want to discredit him. And because it’s hard to discredit someone who has just healed a man with a withered hand, they go out and immediately conspire how to destroy him. All without saying a single word.
Jesus sees what’s going on. Their unwillingness to give up their own power and authority is so strong that they are willing to pervert their values in order to preserve their system. He calls that hardness of heart. And he gets angry. And he grieves.
For us this is not just a matter of historical curiosity. We can’t just hear this story and say “Oh how quaint, look at the way people used to argue about silly Sabbath rules 2000 years ago.”
Because the battle that raged in that synagogue is one that repeats itself over and over again, throughout history and in our own time. People and institutions become so intent on preserving their own systems, authority and privilege that they become willing to pervert the very things, even the very good things, which were their intentions in the first place.
We have our good intentions, our agendas, our systems, our ways of doing things. We have them individually, and we have them collectively. Let me take just one example. As a society, we are committed to prosperity. We want to be happy, we want to live a good life. These are good intentions. So we have developed an economic system that is committed to prosperity, committed to producing the things, and lots of them, that we think we need in order to live the good life, insofar as that good life gets defined in economic goods. Most of us in this country are doing really well, at least in material terms. But we are becoming increasingly aware that our system consumes a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources. Our system promotes inequality and creates poverty. Our system is running on debt which is passed on to future generations. Our system may even be rendering our planet unfit for human habitation.
And then Jesus comes along and says “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Then he pushes us a bit harder, and says “Feed the hungry.” And then he pushes a little further and says, “Sell everything you own and give the money to the poor.”
Jesus claims authority over how we live our lives. Are we willing to submit to that authority, to give up our agendas and our systems in order to do live the way that Jesus shows us?
How do we respond to these claims? Most of the time, we respond the same way the Pharisees did: with silence.
I guess it’s a good thing that we don’t have to destroy Jesus the way the Pharisees did. In our time and place, we have the option of simply ignoring him.
But for those of us who call themselves followers of Jesus, ignoring him isn’t a very good option. And neither is silence in the face of Jesus’ claim of authority in our lives.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that any of this is simple. Figuring out the right way to respond, the right way to live our lives takes discernment and persistence, we need to understand what Jesus’ words mean in our context, there is a need for interpretation, we may feel powerless to change the system.
But when Jesus claims authority over the way we live our lives, and he does, we are called to respond.
And our response has to be more than silence.
Homily: Yr B Proper 9, June 3 2018, St.Albans
Readings: 1 Sam 3.1-10, Ps 139; 2 Cor 4.5-12; Mark 2.23-3.6
Image by Jeff Laitila, Creative Commons