“Who/What’s On First?” Tuesday Mediatation. 4/28/20. Alan Neale.
Trinity Church, Newport, RI

Mark 2:23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” 25 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priests, and ate the Bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then Jesus said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

Ronald Reagan once said, magisterially and effectively, in a Presidential debate “There you again…” and thereby lightly and effectively disarmed his opponent.

In this passage from Mark’s Gospel the religious leaders continue to create controversy with Jesus; I’m not sure whether Aramaic has a phrase for “There you go again” but if so… it would have been far from inappropriate in this context.

It’s interesting to note that Jesus (or Mark the Gospeller) roughly, though not precisely, summarizes the story of I Samuel, 21 – a story about David taking consecrated bread that was supposed to be preserved for the priest. Oh, by the way, the generous minded priest in Samuel is Ahimelech not Abiathar… oops, sometimes we all make mistakes.

So far from ignoring Scripture, dismissing the Law, Jesus instead insists on the bigger picture. It was I think Martin Luther who counselled, “Let a/one Scripture by interpreted by the/whole Scripture.” At our peril we take isolated texts to justify our prejudice and bias, to dismiss, condemn, isolate. I remember words of my wonderful and much loved mentor, John Watso: “A text out of context is a pretext.”

Rabbinic traditions dating to a century after Jesus if not earlier expressed opinions similar to Jesus words in this passage including “The Sabbath is handed over to you, not you to the Sabbath” and (most effective) “Profane on Sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.”

Seems to me that Jesus is challenging what it is to be holy, to establish holiness in our lives and communities. Far from causing separation and isolation, the dynamic movement of holiness to make whole (“whole-ness”), to create connection (to be in step with) the holy God… to endue not remove life and love.

Probably what riles the religious leaders the most is not that some uppity preacher from Galilee condones a few grains of wheat being plucked but rather that he is declaring himself as “Lord” and “Master” of the Sabbath – this is tantamount to claiming that the law’s ultimate purpose is to serve Jesus. The scandal resides here: he presents himself as no ordinary teacher. And yet this far from ordinary preacher takes to himself the title “Son of Man” which, though patient of a myriad of means, means definitively his complete identification with all people; with you and me in every situation, at every time.

In many ways the Gospel of Mark is a story of recurring controversy. Passages like this one help us to interpret the controversies and also, eventually, the events at the end of the narrative. As Donald Juel writes, “For us, as for Mark, the Cross ought to be a sober reminder how easily the most noble motives can be perverted. It points out how quickly an institution can become and end in itself, stifling legitimate concerns of those outside that may seem to threaten stability. It illustrates how frequently insidious forces we scarcely notice can transform the best-educated, the best-intentioned among us into insensitive leaders, desperately out-if-touch with what is real.”

But Mark also has good news to announce. This story of the in-breaking reign of God will also tell of compassion and transformation. Jesus, like the God who instituted the Sabbath, is committed to preserving life. His ministry will expose the oppressive and corrosive tyrannies of fear, imperial pretense and religious hypocrisy wherever they may reside. But… finally.. he will deliver us from them all.