TRINITY 1 – Mark 2.23 – 3.6
“Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Jesus, how they might destroy him.”
After just two chapters of his Gospel St Mark records that powerful parties were bent on getting Jesus killed. Why? Did they think that he was a terrorist? No. They thought that he was a danger to their religion and to their national identity. His actions and teaching threatened the foundation of their faith and nation. Jesus seemed to them to be rejecting the Law of God as it had been handed down by Moses.
The fourth Commandment states: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work…” Ex 20.8ff
From Moses to the present day in Israel this law has been observed meticulously. To give a little example I recall when staying in a hotel in Jerusalem it was time to take the lift to go down to the restaurant on a Friday evening. Standing by the lift with me were a Jewish couple and out of deference to them I felt I should not press the button to call the lift. We waited long minutes and no lift appeared. Then the Jewish couple went round the corner of the lobby, out of sight, and so I pressed the button. The lift came straight away and as the bell chimed and the doors opened the Jews returned, smiling in gratitude because this Gentile had done what they, on the Sabbath, were not allowed to do. Pressing a lift button to call a lift was regarded as doing work.
Jesus was condemned because he allowed his disciples to pluck ears of corn to eat the grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry. The Pharisees thought that was equivalent to harvesting, which was forbidden. When Jesus himself on the Sabbath healed someone by stretching out his hand towards him the Pharisees regarded that as doing medical work which was breaking the fourth commandment. For this he deserved death.
Psalm 119, which we recite at the Midday Office every other week, is an amazing hymn in which God’s Law is praised as a gift of blessing and those who recite the psalm bind themselves to observe it. The psalm has 176 verses, divided into 22 stanzas, one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each of the stanzas has 8 verses and each verse in a stanza begins with the same Hebrew letter. Finally almost every verse contains a synonym for the word ‘Law’: for example, testimonies, decrees, precepts, statutes, commandments, and so on.
No wonder that Jews had an awesome respect for God’s Law and detested with horror those who broke it.
But most law codes and customs are made by human societies to ensure their good order. The extent to which these requirements are followed varies within and between societies. It is sometimes said that in our country laws are meant to be kept and those, which are no longer observed should be abolished. In some countries, however, laws are regarded as setting an ideal standard of behaviour but no one expects everyone to achieve it. Attitudes to Law vary from age to age. We live in a tolerant society which allows people freedom in many matters which are thought to be a personal, private matter, which society shouldn’t regulate. It was not always so even in this country.
In today’s Gospel Jesus says ‘The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath’. The principle applies to all laws. They are made or ought to be made for the common good not for the good of a particular class or religion or nation. ‘America first!’ is a bad basis for making laws, or for that matter ‘Britain first!’
Some laws are contrary to God’s law. When the high priest ordered the apostles not to teach in the name of Jesus, Peter and the apostles replied, ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’. (Acts 5.29) From then until now the magnificent army of martyrs have obeyed God at the cost of their lives.
In the Gospel Jesus also said, or perhaps it was a Christian commentator, ‘Therefore, the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.’ He meant that Jesus Christ is the Author and Ruler who has the right to decide every law, and exceptions to those laws, including those about Sabbath observance. This surely applies to all laws governing human behaviour and activity. Ultimately God is Lord of All because he has created and sustains all in existence and knows what is for the good of all. Jesus Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God has revealed to us the fundamentals of God’s Law. God grant that we may live by them.
Crispin Harrison CR