Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. (St. Matthew 23:23-24)
Sometimes the cause of a problem lies deeper than it might appear.
Recently, for instance, my right shin began to hurt during and after a run. Put some ice on that right shin and problem solved, right?
Well, not exactly. It turns out that my bruised left knee was causing me to alter my gait, which was throwing off my right leg – hence the shin pain. I had a foundational problem that manifested itself in various other places, and always with bad effect.
To be sure, our lesson from St. Mark 2:23-3:6 deals with issues of Sabbath observance. In our Westminster standards you and I find reference to these events and to Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath, because what Jesus says here guides us authoritatively in our understanding of the Christian Sabbath.
The ultimate, underlying issue, however, is not the proper observance of the Sabbath, as central as that teaching is to this text. The ultimate issue in this passage, and in your own life, is this: who will have authority? Will it be you? Because if you are your only lawgiver, you will err as miserably as the blind Pharisees you meet in today’s lesson. Their misunderstanding of the Sabbath arose from their misunderstanding of authority in life.
Or will your Authority be Jesus, who is Lord of the Sabbath because he is the Lord of Lords?
We see first that unregenerate humans – no matter how religious they might claim to be – always make themselves their authority, which only deepens them in darkness.
It was a Sabbath day, and Jesus and his disciples were passing through grain fields. As they made their way, they picked grain with their hands – not a sinful act in and of itself, but the Pharisees in their blind zeal had added case laws to the law of God recorded in Scripture, and picking grain on the Sabbath violated their understanding of the law. As we’ll see in a moment, they also believed it was unlawful to heal anyone on the Sabbath except in life-or-death cases. In both of these instances, they took the unwarranted liberty of scrutinizing and questioning Jesus’ actions, whether explicitly (with the grain) or implicitly (with the man who had a withered hand).
These Pharisees made a pretense of upholding the Old Testament law of God with all of their scruples. Granted, the law clearly prohibited work on the Sabbath – but what about instances of necessity? Or opportunities to show mercy? The Pharisees would tolerate no gray: they piled their own case laws upon the true Word and demanded that others live strictly by the minutiae of their decisions. So when Jesus dared allow his disciples to pluck the grains of wheat, and when he in the synagogue on a Sabbath day boldly healed the man’s hand, they immediately set out to destroy this violator of the law (who was, in fact, the only Lawgiver in Zion!).
As we’ll explore later, Jesus quoted Scripture to overturn their legalistic, self-righteous approach to the law of God; he also asked them a question about doing good that they, to their shame, could not answer. They supposedly had “read” the Word every Sabbath in public worship, yet they seemed willfully ignorant of the account of David eating holy bread while on a mission for the Lord.
St. Mark records both the holy anger and the grief in Jesus’ heart at the blindness and hardness of the Pharisees’ hearts. All that reading of the Old Testament, yet they somehow thought they could avoid the righteous judgment of God by nit-picking about minor matters. All that reading of the law, yet they failed to see the Messiah to whom it pointed – and the miracle that he worked in their presence.
Their hard hearts, their unwillingness to let the Lord be the Lord, caused them to look clean on the outside while being putrid within.
How about you? Are you fastidious in not taking part in certain Greene County vices, and do you chastise others for profaning the Sabbath – yet you refuse to see your own sin before the Lord? Is your motive for walking in God’s moral law to praise yourself or to show the Lord your gratitude for salvation? Do you observe the Sabbath out of reverence for the Lord Who made you and Who instituted this holy Day before He ever gave the law, or do you keep Sabbath so you can notch one more “good deed” on your record?
If you arrange the law to suit yourself, you will always fail to see your own great law-breaking. And you will misunderstand God’s purpose in giving the law: to correct you, to chastise you and to direct your steps as a Christian.
Jesus secondly uses this occasion to teach you that he alone is the true Source of authority.
Observe not only Jesus’ teaching but his manner in these exchanges: he clearly asserts that he alone has the authority to interpret and to apply the Old Testament law in its fullest sense. The Son of Man – Jesus’ favorite self-designation, referring to Daniel’s prophecy of the Ancient of Days (God the Father) investing the Son of Man (God the Son) with all authority – has authority even over the Sabbath, Jesus says. Don’t miss the impact of Christ’s claim: he is saying that he is equal to Jehovah, Who instituted the first Sabbath after creating all things from nothing and Who commanded Israel, His redeemed people, to observe His Sabbath.
As Lord, Jesus gives you and me the correct and final interpretation of all things.
Was it a violation of the Old Testament law for his disciples to pluck grain and eat it as they followed him? Jesus answers this question with an appeal to Holy Scripture (his very Word). The Pharisees surely would have recalled the account of David going in to Ahimelech the high priest (Jesus refers to this time period as the days when Abiathar was the high priest, which was his way of generally dating the era) and asking for the consecrated showbread, which was reserved by law for the priests. The priest gave the bread to David for him and his men, ultimately because David was God’s ordained servant and was fleeing his enemy Saul. The priest recognized there were bigger issues at stake than rigid adherence to the law: God’s man needed sustenance for his body if he were to fulfill God’s plan for himself and for Israel. Scripture, and Scripture’s Author (!), approved of this decision, because sustenance is necessary even on the Sabbath if one is to do God’s will.
Also on the Sabbath, Jesus healed the man whose hand had been withered – again, a contradiction of the Pharisees’ strict interpretation of the law of God. Was Jesus being cavalier concerning the law? Clearly not: Christ saw he had occasion to do good, to reverse the effects of the Curse on this man and reveal his divine power, so he seized that opportunity. He called the man into the open, with appropriately dramatic effect. By his actions, then, the Lord of the Sabbath teaches plainly that it is lawful and pleasing to Christ that on his resurrection feast day, we do good for others in his Name.
The Sabbath, Jesus instructs us, was made for you and me; we were not made to keep a set of laws. This Day of rest is a time for spiritual orientation, remembering Who is your Creator, your Judge and your Redeemer. It is a time of celebration in Christ’s re-creative work in you by his resurrection. It is a time when you and I emulate the one, true God and demonstrate to the world that we rest in and serve Him, not money or mansions.
God intended the Sabbath to be a blessing for His redeemed people, and observance of the Sabbath includes necessary work (such as eating) and works of mercy. Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, possesses unique authority to instruct you about the meaning and proper observance of the Sabbath.
But you can understand this teaching, and the proper role of the law in your life, only if you know the true Lawgiver in Zion.
Jesus destroyed their self-righteousness – that’s why the Pharisees, who co-opted the supporters of Herod Antipas – wanted to destroy him.
How truly sad.
Christ offered them rest and blessing. He offered them, through his obedience, freedom from the curse of not keeping God’s law perfectly and freedom to live for God in the blessedness of His moral law. Had they known Jesus as Savior, they could have found rest, not burden, on the Sabbath.
But in their blindness, due to their reliance on self as their spiritual authority, they did not see the Savior. They saw only specks in others’ eyes, because theirs had logs in them. Their self-righteousness would not save them from Christ’s judgment of their failure to keep the law of God perfectly.
Perhaps you are a neo-Pharisee, condemning others as you build up yourself in false confidence for keeping your own little scruples. You might not have watched TV on Sunday – but you hardly enjoy the worship of God on His Day. You might not smoke, but you never go out witnessing on Sunday either. As Calvin well observes, your Pharisaism has made you a killer as you fail to bring life to others, whether with physical or with evangelical relief.
But most of you, and most of us today, fall on the other end: we profane God’s Sabbath happily. It is a day of self-gratification, not of pleasing God in worship. Still, you have the same root problem as those Pharisees of Jesus’ day. You – not the Lord – make the rules.
“Lord of Lords.” Ask yourself: Is he?