Feasting with tax-collectors and sinners. Eating when the professional holy men say no. Finding snacks in the fields. Healing on the seventh day. What these four scenes all have in common is Jesus does not see eye-to-eye with the Pharisees. As things amp up and escalate, the Pharisees start getting more and more obsessed with trapping Jesus, finding some way to steal his thunder, something to discredit him and disband his following. Because, make no mistake, the Pharisees know that Jesus is a threat. He's fishing in the same pools they are, and his vision is not theirs. To the Pharisees, the only way to get the kingdom of God to come and set the people free is for all Israel to finally give up each and every sin, each and every compromise. Later rabbis said that if everyone in Israel could keep the whole Law for just two weeks, the kingdom of God would show up then and there. That's all it takes; that's what the Pharisees are after: just to teach everyone how to behave for even just two weeks – and God will work wonders.
For a Pharisee, the point of a law is to be followed to the letter as consistently as possible. Any gray areas have to be given clear definition. All the ramifications have to be worked out. They're sticklers – so much so, Jesus quips they'll even tithe a tenth of what's in their salt-shaker. The Pharisees were eager for the kingdom... on their terms. They wanted to lead by example, and they wanted to protect the common folk from accidentally breaking the Law. So they famously “built a fence around the Law,” fleshing out all the details through their traditions. The Law tells you what to do and what not to do; and the Pharisees will gladly tell you exactly what it means to do it or not do it. They'll tell you which days to fast, they'll tell you what counts as work banned on the Sabbath. The Pharisees will tell you who's acceptable company; they'll tell you what clothes are allowed and when you should find somewhere else to be, they'll tell you what you can drink and what you can't drink, what music you can like and what you can't. You don't have to be smart or wise; the Pharisees will do your thinking for you – isn't that good news for all them 'unedumacated' “people of the land”? The Pharisees have your back! Just be clones of the Pharisee down the road, mark all the boxes on his checklist every day, and you'll come nowhere near to breaking the Law. That comes with a money-back guarantee.
Jesus has a different outlook, though. Jesus wants nothing to do with that kind of thoughtless, mechanical faith. The Pharisees are all about the letter of the law; the Pharisees are not about the heart of the Law's Author. For Jesus, you cannot understand the law without reflecting on why it was given, what is it supposed to do, what is it for, how is it supposed to shape you and the people around you and the world to look more like his Father? That's the question the Pharisees aren't asking; that's the question the Pharisees aren't teaching anyone to ask. The Law is part of the saga of God's beautiful creation and his care for all people; the Law belongs to a story of mercy and redemption. The point isn't to look at the Law and see a list of rules; the point isn't to look at the Law; the point is to look through the Law and see God – a God willing to go eat with tax-collectors and sinners to win them back to him (Mark 2:15-17).
All the details of the Law point to the great themes. Jesus says the Pharisees miss the big picture: well, sure, they tithe mint, they tithe dill, they tithe all the spices they can, but they've “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). The Pharisees have tunnel-vision: they will strain their soup to pick out the tiniest little fly, but they will not bat an eye when a camel splashes down in the bowl (Matthew 23:24)! It's not that they should've ignored the details, Jesus says, but if you lose sight the big picture, what good are all the little jots and tittles? The Pharisee project of getting Israel to blindly follow their rules only makes for a surface polish, but even the Pharisees need deep-cleaning (Matthew 23:25-28). So for Jesus, when the Pharisees build their fence to cut people off from God's justice and mercy, when they apply a law in a way that doesn't serve the purpose it was given for, then forget the technicalities! Live instead by “faith that worketh in love” (Galatians 5:6). That's what Jesus is all about.
Now, in 2002, a school caught on fire. It was an all-girls' school. An unattended cigarette on an upper floor apparently started the flames, and soon the girls were scrambling to get out of the building. Rescuers came to help them, but there was a problem. This school was not the school next door. This school was not the school down the street. This school was the Mecca Intermediate School in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi religious police, the mutaween, blocked the rescue efforts. See, the girls didn't all have their headscarves or their cloaks on, so the mutaween did not want to risk the impropriety of allowing them around the rescuers or letting them be seen with their heads uncovered in public. So the mutaween pushed the girls back into the burning school. Fifteen of them died; many more were injured.
Nearly twelve years later, a medical emergency befell a student named Amna Bawazeer at King Saud University. The paramedics arrived, but the paramedics were men, and the administrators wouldn't let them into the women's-only campus to get to Amna – so she died. Both cases outraged even most people in Saudi Arabia, even though it's famed for its ultra-strict Wahhabi version of Islam, and both of those cases probably would have infuriated even the Pharisees – but the thing is, this kind of thing is where the Pharisee logic will lead.
What the mutaween totally missed, what the Pharisees gave short shrift, is that we were not made to fit into a nice, tidy box. We were not designed to be cut down or stretched out to accommodate some alien set of rules, some arbitrary list of dos and don'ts for us to live by. As Jesus said, we were not made for the sabbath; the sabbath was made for us, made for our benefit, for our well-being (Mark 2:27). We weren't made for the Law; the Law was given for us. Now, it's easy to twist that sentiment, easy to use it as an excuse to set our feelings and notions above God's word, as many in this country do. But that's not at all where Jesus' logic leads. We were made for a place in God's will. We were created with a definite nature that defines our health. Each of us was made to crave food and water, made to breathe air, made to work and play and rest, to worship God and be conformed to his character. And the rules God gave were always meant to safeguard our wholeness and teach us about our need and train us in the imitation of Christ, which we can only do by the grace of God.
When the rules get stretched and bent and twisted to lead us away from that – and that's exactly what made the Pharisees so spiritually dangerous, and also one of the great sins of supposedly Bible-believing churches in America that wreak spiritual damage left and right – when those rules get stretched, well, that isn't faithfulness to God's instruction. It distorts it. When they aren't guideposts on the narrow road that leads deeper and deeper into the life of Jesus, then they've been stripped from their meaning and denuded of the wisdom of God.
We were not made for the sabbath. The sabbath was made for us, for human flourishing. The sabbath was meant to give us rest. The sabbath was meant to let us recharge. The sabbath was meant to replenish our health and our joy. The sabbath is a vote of confidence in God's kingship, setting aside a day to admit that he can run the universe just fine without us. The sabbath points us forward to the rest of God's everlasting kingdom: “So, then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God's rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:9-10). We were not made for the sabbath.
We also weren't made for fasting. Fasting isn't the reason we were created. Fasting was invented for us. Fasting was invented to offer checks and balances to our relentless desires. Fasting reminds us that we aren't God, we never will be God, everything we have is a gift from God. Fasting gives us a way to express godly sorrow for our sins and our failures, and turn over a new leaf. Fasting helps us show solidarity with the poor, with the disadvantaged, with the marginalized and oppressed of the earth. That's what fasting is for! We were not made for fasting; fasting was made for us. We weren't even made for lasting marriage between one man and one woman, but it was made for us – made to help us flourish, made to train us in forgiveness and self-sacrifice, made to raise up the next generation and train them in the love of God and neighbor, made to remind us that new life comes from the eternal union of God and his people, made to be a living parable of life and not of death, as so many twist it to mean. Every “thou shalt not” is a guard rail between us and a what's not good for us.
God gave “good statutes and commandments” to his people (Nehemiah 9:13), and “the commandment is holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12) – that's not me talking, that's Paul: “The commandment is holy and just and good” – but following the commandment blindly isn't the best way. That's a good way to break it. If we believe, we should seek “good judgment and knowledge” to see how it all works and to navigate our complex world (Psalm 119:66), the places the Law can't cover individually. The Law points to God's wisdom for skillful living. Now, even the Pharisees admitted some of this. They prided themselves on being scholars, on being the ones who had sound insight into the Law and why it was given and how it works. The Pharisees could usually admit that emergency situations were special cases. Almost every Pharisee would have denounced the Saudi mutaween for not putting the rescue of precious human lives above lesser laws. But Jesus pushes them further. Jesus pushes the Pharisees further than they're willing to go.
Jesus insists that the kingdom isn't going to wait for Israel to get her act together. The kingdom isn't something that the Pharisees can earn by their loud and eloquent prayers or their flashy charitable donations or their squeaky-clean behavior. See, if patting yourself on the back could turn the kingdom's turbines and generate power for the new creation, well, the Pharisees can do that! They're experts at patting themselves on the back. But that's not what brings the kingdom. Jesus says that the kingdom isn't to be earned. It's here on your doorstep when you least expect it. When the kingdom rings your doorbell, you don't have to vacuum the carpet, you don't even have to brush your teeth before you bolt out the door. All you have to do is go, follow, commit without stopping, be cleaned on the inside and not just on the outside (Matthew 23:26). The kingdom is here, the kingdom is among you, the kingdom has already emerged out of the mysteries of the future held in God's hand – and if the kingdom has emerged, then the kingdom is an emergency!
What the Pharisees don't get is that Jesus is about the kingdom, and the kingdom is a feast of joy and peace and righteousness (Romans 14:17). The Pharisees want to know why Jesus and friends don't fast like they do (Mark 2:18). Fasting is all well and good for the mundane world, fasting is a great a way to spend every Monday and every Thursday during life as you know it, but the King's here – and he brought the kingdom party, the King brought a wedding feast (Mark 2:19). In Jewish culture, a wedding was a seven-day festival that superseded most other responsibilities, even fasting. You do not fast at a wedding – even the Pharisees knew that. What Jesus wants to get across is that he stands in God's shoes as Israel's bridegroom; he's here to celebrate as he draws sinners back to God and brings a dead nation back to life. He came to get the kingdom ball rolling! And that is every bit as much an interruption of daily life as anyone's wedding ever was, so until the days of sorrow, the days of the cross, the disciples are right not to by the rules of regular rhythm (Mark 2:20). The kingdom is here.
The Pharisees just don't get that the Jesus crew is on kingdom business. As he and the disciples walking along at the edge of the fields, the disciples get that familiar rumbling in their stomachs. As the Law allows, they reach out, grab some extra grains of wheat, they rub it, and they eat it as a snack (Mark 2:23). The Pharisees are watching, the Pharisees are using up their own precious Sabbath walking allowance to lurk in wait and spy on Jesus, and they see their chance (Mark 2:24). Here we go! This must be one lousy rabbi, to not have told the disciples that picking a couple pieces of grain does count as work that disrupts the sabbath rest! That's what the Pharisees are thinking. The Pharisees were bending the Law again: The Law says not to cook on the Sabbath, so normally Jewish families did all their cooking the day before. But if the disciples were too busy then, what are they supposed to do now – starve? That's not what the kingdom is about! The disciples are hungry because they're out on kingdom business!
Jesus reminds the Pharisees that the rest of the Bible unfolds what the Law looks like in practice. In the story of David on the run, we see another man, God's anointed, out on kingdom business. He has a real need, but he cannot stop and be distracted by all the legal niceties of finding food the right way. David didn't have the luxury of lugging extra cans of soup around, or he couldn't sit around all day making sandwiches in his cave's kitchenette. So as a last resort, David stops at the shrine, and he eats priestly food – he skirts the letter of the Law – because kingdom business comes first (Mark 2:25-26). The Law was not meant to get in its way. Likewise, as Matthew tells it, Jesus adds another example: the Law actually tells the priests in the temple to offer sacrifices on the sabbath – that's work! The Law tells those priests to do that work on the sabbath, because the salvation of Israel depends on it, depends on the temple and its system of sacrifices (Matthew 12:5). But mercy's greater than sacrifice (Matthew 12:7), and Jesus, well, he's greater than the temple, and he's here, looking the Pharisees right in the face (Matthew 12:6). He's Lord of all things, even the Sabbath (Mark 2:28; Matthew 12:8). If the sabbath was made to serve human need, how much more the needs of the Perfect Human, the heavenly Son of Man? He's Lord of the Sabbath, he's both Son of David and David's Lord (Mark 12:37), and he is on kingdom business, and the disciples are with him on that business, and the sabbath was not made to slow the kingdom down.
Well, after that, the Pharisees are desperate. In the synagogue, the whole community should be united, thinking and worshipping as one: followers of Jesus, followers of Shammai, followers of Hillel – those are the two great leaders of the Pharisees – all should be one Israel under God. But the Pharisees are bent on division. There's a man there with a withered hand, and all the Pharisees can think is to use him as a pawn. The Pharisees will exploit his disability to trap Jesus (Mark 3:1-2; Luke 6:7). That's all they see in him: what they can get out of him. The way the Pharisees thought, if something like work (or sort of like work) could wait 'til the next day, it had to wait 'til the next day Otherwise, it was breaking the sabbath. This man isn't in a state of emergency, he doesn't need a trip to the ER, he can wait. Some of the stricter Pharisees banned even praying for the sick on the sabbath.
They just don't get it. The Pharisees do not get it. (Sometimes, neither do we.) Can't they see past the withered hand? Can't they see a man, a human being made in God's image? This is the very creature the sabbath was meant to serve – and they think the sabbath should keep him hurting and broken for even one more day? Jesus says that restoring life and doing good is kingdom business, and the sabbath is no meant to stop it – not even put it on pause for a day. The Pharisees are lying against him. What work has Jesus really done? Can they admit he healed the man? Jesus didn't even touch him; he just spoke, the work is God's work (Mark 3:5). For Jesus, finding what's lost, picking up what's fallen, making whole what's broken – that is what God's kingdom coming to earth is all about. Mercy trumps sacrifice, kindness and healing trump even the sabbath. Doing good or doing harm, saving a soul or putting it to death – those are the only choices (Mark 3:4). There is no third way. Faced with his need, the Pharisees can't help doing one of those two things, and neither can we. The irony is that, after failing to make any of these charges stick, the Pharisees are reduced to making common cause with their enemies, the Herodians; the Pharisees are reduced to plotting murder – a blatant violation of the letter and the spirit of the Law they were trying to defend (Mark 3:6). All throughout history, no matter the noble motives at the start, those who defy Jesus end up not standing coherently for anything, just rabidly against him.
Now, as a church, we are called to be on kingdom business. That doesn't mean we disregard fasting; that doesn't mean we disregard the sabbath. It does mean we are about justice, mercy, truth, and grace. It does mean that we're about righteousness, love, peace, and joy. We're sent to heal the nations by pointing to Jesus and being like Jesus. If our traditions and our rituals stand in the way of that, we have to step around them. God is bringing his newness, and we cannot hold it in the same old wineskins (Mark 2:22). The Pharisees' rules on fasting kept them from joining the celebration of the kingdom. The Pharisees' rules on sabbath work kept them from kingdom mission, kept them from rejoicing to see someone restored from brokenness to wholeness. The Pharisees' rules on ritual purity kept them from embracing the outcast and the downtrodden. In their pursuit of holiness, they lost sight of God's heart. In their zeal for the Law, they ran right past what the Law was about. Counting thousands of twigs, they were blind to the forest – and to Him Who Planted It Long Ago (Isaiah 22:11).
If even God's laws can be distorted and twisted so that they can lead away from Jesus, if even the holy commandment of God can be shoved like an obstacle into the way of kingdom business, how much more our own traditions, our own rituals, our own popular sentiments and personal preferences and political talking-points? Does the way we “do church” unfailingly point the way to Jesus? Does the way we “do church” unceasingly reveal him to a starving world in denial of its hunger pangs, or do we take our pet agendas too far? Our hymns, our sermons, our service times, our structures, our walls and our windows and our parking lot – all are good things, I trust, and often beneficial, but they are not “the weightier matters of the law.” Are we sensible that justice is more important than 9:00 AM? Do we know that mercy has more gravity than stained glass? Do we see that God's amazing grace is so far beyond John Newton's “Amazing Grace”?
Or, does our obsession with preserving America as a “Christian nation,” however we define that – does that ever maybe conflict with the mission and values of the kingdom of God? Well, make no mistake, the church does have a calling to impact society; Christians disagree how much of that calling is lived out through shaping the governing institutions and laws. But if we gain every court and every Congressman, and yet we lose a million souls, where's the upside to that, what does it profit the kingdom to gain all that and lose souls (Luke 9:25)? Baptism was our naturalization ceremony, “Jesus Christ is Lord” is our pledge of allegiance, our citizenship is in a higher country (Philippians 3:20). We love our nation, but if kingdom business comes before the sabbath, it comes above a lot of other things we hold dear, too. Kingdom business trumps fasting and flower gardens and football games. Kingdom business trumps our complacency and our cars and our Constitution and our comfort.
Seeing where these things are good and useful, where they're guideposts, and on the other hand, where they get in the way – well, I'm not saying it's easy. Yes, it takes brainpower; it takes practice searching the Word and listening to the Spirit. It's not for the lazy, it is not the faint of heart. It just can't be outsourced to the religious professionals like the Pharisees – or like me. It takes all of us, all of us, working together, carrying our crosses and marching after Jesus. We are called to be disciples on kingdom business, doing good and restoring lives by living out the Spirit's presence as he extends Jesus' life through us. Don't let anything, no matter how good, no matter how decent, get in the way when you're on a mission for the kingdom of God – because man was not made for the sabbath.