Year B: Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Disciples and the Sabbath
Mark 2: 23- 3:6
As he was passing through a field of grain on the sabbath, his disciples began to make a path while picking the heads of grain. At this the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath? He said to them, “Have you never read what David did* when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry? How he went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat, and shared it with his companions? Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
- Do you tend to be a legalist when it comes to religious matters? Do you know what about your background causes you to answer as you do? What is it?
- Does scripture have authority in your life? Why? Has the answer to this question changed over the years?
- Has your idea of honoring the Sabbath evolved in any ways? Explain
Mark 2: 23-3:6
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD
Mark’s series of controversy stories continues in today’s Gospel with two new episodes, both involving the proper observance of the Sabbath.
In the first story Jesus is criticized because his disciples are picking grain on the Sabbath. The Pharisees say, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?” Instead of correcting his disciples Jesus defends them. However, his defense once more raises the question of Jesus’ identity.
Jesus starts his defense by turning to a source of authority that both he and the Pharisees accept: scripture. Jesus refers to a story in 1 Samuel 21:1-7, in which David and his companions, who were hungry, were given bread to eat that would normally be eaten only by the priests. In 1 Samuel the story is not about Sabbath observance but about the fact that responding to a person’s needs may be more important than obeying a rule.
However, after using scripture as a source of agreed-upon authority, Jesus says something that could only have infuriated his critics “Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.'” Here Jesus once again refers to himself as “Son of Man.” This is a reference to the Book of Daniel (see Dan 7:13-14) in which one like a son of man approaches God on God’s throne and is given authority over nations. By using such a title in reference to himself Jesus is claiming that he has the authority in his own person to interpret the law in an entirely different way than do the Pharisees. Jesus is p law and to their authority to impose their interpretation on others.
Jesus once more enters the synagogue and encounters a man withi i a withered hand. The Pharisees are watching Jesus, waiting to find fault. In their eyes, if Jesus heals this man on the Sabbath he will be doing something wrong. They would allow a person to aid another on the Sabbath if that person’s life were at stake, but this man with the withered hand was in no danger. He could just as well be helped on some other day.
The way this story is constructed reminds us of the story of the healing of the paralytic that we read two weeks ago (see Mark 2:1- 2). Jesus challenges the narrow thinking of his critics by asking them 6 to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” Jesus has posed the question in such a way that his critics are trapped. Of course do not want to claim that it is unlawful to do good on the Sabbath. However, according to their interpretation of the law, it is unlawful to heal this man on the Sabbath. Mark tells us their reaction to Jesus’ question: “But they remained silent.”
Jesus is angered by their “hardness of heart.” For Jesus, love of God and neighbor is the fulfillment of the law (see Mark 12:28- 34). The Pharisees pictured in today’s Gospel (as distinct from all Pharisees) have become legalists. They interpret the law in such a way that it loses its underlying purpose, to live in faithful covenant love with God and neighbor. Jesus continues to challenge their false interpretation by healing the man’s hand. The fact that Jesus is able to heal the man adds authority to Jesus’ interpretation n of the law. It is no wonder that the Pharisees want Jesus silenced. Jesus is a threat to everything they believe as well as to their authority. Mark tells us, “The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians [supporters of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee] against him to put him to death.
Chritian faith is carried by a historical community, and so it is thicketed with traditions. To name just some of the variety, there are liturgical, moral, doctrinal, asetical, and ecclesiological traditions. Some go all the way back to Gospel times, ad some stem from the intervening centuries. Some have fallen by the wayside; some have been modified more than once; some claim to have weathered the years in tact. When people contact a historical faith, what they initially meet is a baffling array of traditions.
Traditions are always under scrutiny. The contemporary scene boasts tradition “undertakers,” “miracle workers,” and “birthers.” Tradition undertakers are quick to bury the traditions that no longer seem relevant. They point out how a particular tradition comes from another time, place, and culture. It no longer makes any sense.It is time to bury it. Bury it with honor, but bury it.
Tradition miracle workers take the opposite point of view. Every tradition, no matter how peripheral—and no matter how little used— is capable of being revived and honored. These people continually talk of something “coming back.” Resurrecting the dead excites them.
Tradition birthers are busy creating something new. The new cultural moment with its new understandings and behaviors has to be incorporated into the tradition. This means experimenting with new forms, forms that fit contemporary consciousness.
I deliberately did not give any examples of Christian traditions that should be buried, resurrected, or created. This is where the fight be- gins. What one person thinks should be buried, another thinks should be resurrected, and a third thinks something new should be created. These arguments about how to treat and complement traditional forms can be fierce, and the criteria for sustaining, changing, and creating them are hotly debated. Words like “Neanderthal,” “traitor,” and “panderer” are never far from the minds of those involved, and often they are upfront in the discussion.
In the Gospel, Jesus is a fierce critic of the inherited traditions. He takes on purity-dietary laws (7:1-23), temple traditions (11:15-17), divorce traditions (10:1-12), etc. Although his critiques vary from tradition to tradition, his overall complaint is that they reflect and strengthen a hardened heart. A hardened heart has walled itself off from God and neighbor. The walls it has built are the traditions, and their builders rigorously walk the parapets to make sure God and neighbor do not breach them.
Jesus’ criteria for evaluating the Sabbath traditions might be paraphrased this way: Do they serve life? To the legal and organizational mind, this is maddeningly vague. How is one to make this judgment? How is one to give evidence for it? But to the mystical mind, this criterion is essential. The heart of a faith tradition is its spiritual perception ofthe flow of life between God, self, and the world. This spiritual awareness transcends forms, and it is expressed and communicated through forms. These forms are always partial and historically conditioned. Therefore, they have to be continually evaluated and adjusted. Are they bringing people to the spiritual awareness at the living heart of the tradition? Or are they contributing to the hardening of the heart?
Who can answer this question?
The one who lives out of the God of life and so can discern what makes for life and what makes for death. “The Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (2:28).
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.