Loving Lawbreaker

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 — Week of Proper 24, Year One

Henry Martyn, Priest, and Missionary to India and Persia, 1812

William Carey, Missionary to India, 1834

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, 988)

Psalms 38 (morning) // 119:25-48 (evening)

Lamentations 2:8-15

1 Corinthians 15:51-58

Matthew 12:1-14

Whenever the response to human need is in conflict with the law, even if it be a Biblical law, even if it is one of the Ten Commandments — love always trumps law. The opportunity to do good, to extend mercy, to act with compassion, to relieve suffering, to love is paramount. Mere law, rule, commandment, scripture, or tradition must move aside in the face of the opportunity to act with compassion.

Today we read a story of Jesus’ breaking one of the Ten Commandments. The religious authorities are furious. They believe that his action threatens and compromises the foundations of their faith and religion. The Sabbath was one of the most distinctive characteristics of Judaism. Just over a hundred years before Jesus, many faithful soldiers during the war of the Maccabeans preferred being killed rather than to defend themselves on the Sabbath and thus desecrate the holy days.

You might argue that Jesus didn’t really break the fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” You might argue that he was merely reinterpreting the tradition in a more loving, inclusive and compassionate way. But don’t say that to a traditionalist. Don’t make that argument to a literalist. Jesus’ act was liberal revisionism and a threat to the faith once delivered.

Jesus and his disciples were walking through the grainfields on the sabbath. That’s pretty suspicious in the first place. There was a strict limit on the distance one could walk without violating the sabbath. The disciples were hungry, so they began to pick grain from the stalk and eat it. Absolutely forbidden. That is a form of harvesting. Not allowed on the day of rest. When the controversy is raised in the synagogue, Jesus asks them, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” It’s a good question. He enters a centuries-long conversation among rabbis about what is lawful and what is unlawful on the sabbath.

During Jesus’ life two competing schools of the Pharisees debated: “Man was made for the sabbath,” said Rabbi Shammai. “The sabbath was made for man,” claimed Rabbi Hillel. About a hundred years after Jesus, Rabbi Akiba would help establish a widely accepted criterion: “Every case of danger of life allows for the suspension of the Sabbath.” So, the basic rule would become: Don’t do things that can be done on the day before or on the day afterward; but, if danger of life exists — a woman in childbirth; a terrible accident — you may act without violating the sabbath rest. In the strict community of Qumran, even aiding an animal giving birth or an animal in an accident on the sabbath was outlawed.

It is clear that Jesus sided with the more liberal interpretation of Hillel. (Maybe that influenced his move from Nazareth to Capernaum. The synagogue at Nazareth was an ultra-conservative sect, not unlike today’s Hasidim; the synagogue at Capernaum aligned itself with the school of Hillel.) But even progressive Judaism did not go as far as Jesus did in Matthew 12. After all, the disciples could have fasted a day rather than pick the grain. And Jesus could always heal a withered hand the day before or the day after. Neither of these was life threatening. They need not be done on the sabbath.

According to traditional teaching before and after Jesus, Jesus broke the 4th Commandment.

Paul recognizes the implications. We hear him today at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. Adam’s sin introduced the necessity of the law as the measure of humanity’s wrong. The law was created to guard and bind sinful humanity. And the price of sin is death. But the life, death and resurrection of Jesus breaks the deadly stranglehold of all three — sin, death and the law.

In Jesus, the question changes entirely. It is no longer, “What does the Bible say? What is the commandment or law or statute?” The question is now, “What is the loving, compassionate, healing, hopeful, merciful opportunity before you? Do that.” Christians are still figuring out how to live into his radical example.

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