March 18, 2014
Mark 2:23 – 3:6
It might be tempting to characterize Jesus as a rebel and a renegade. Perhaps one reason why He has been popular among people who dislike structures and institutions is that He comes across as an anti-authoritarian, someone who thumbs his nose at those stuffy old religious leaders with all their stuffy old rules.
But this is a misrepresentation of the gospel story. Take today’s reading. Jesus gets in trouble with the Pharisees for what appears to be a violation of the Sabbath rules. In short He “works” on the Sabbath, first by plucking grain to feed hungry disciples and then by healing a man with a disability. And all those who resent having “rules” imposed upon them immediately applaud.
But a closer reading will show that Jesus does not violate the fourth commandment at all. Far to the contrary, he fulfills it. The Sabbath commandment was about freedom from oppression, be it the oppression of work (Exodus 20: 8-11) or the oppression of human injustice (Deuteronomy 5:15), or – according to the actions of Jesus – any other form of oppression. What we have in today’s reading is not a case of Jesus flexing his muscle and using his divine authority to trump a rule. What we have is Jesus embodying the highest purpose for which that rule was given in the first place. The commandments were not given to restrict human freedom; they were given to safeguard that freedom and to promote human flourishing at the highest level. Jesus doesn’t bend the rule to fit the situation; he takes the commandment beyond the mere written code and “enfleshes” or incarnates its true intent.
When you compare his action to ours, our selfishness immediately reveals itself. We routinely play loose with the moral structures of life, but rarely do we do so for the purpose of incarnating its true purpose. It’s usually just for the sake of favoring our needs and wants in the moment, whether it’s bending the truth in our conversation with others, allowing our minds to harbor resentful or lustful thoughts, misrepresenting ourselves on our income tax returns, or any of thousand other ways that we bend the rules to our favor. We justify such things in all sorts of creative ways. After all, didn’t Jesus set us free from the law.
Not exactly. What Jesus set us free from is the dead and lifeless way of legalism. But we aren’t just set free from something, we are set free for something. We are set free to pursue the heart of God and the good of our neighbor.
For Jesus, this meant giving up his life on a cross.
Holy God, in this season of Lent help me to see all the ways that I deceive myself about my own goodness. Reveal those places where I am not honoring your commandments. Help me to pursue the highest purpose for which your law was given. And thank you that you have set me free. Through Christ I pray, Amen.