Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Unlawful Behavior"

Mark 2: 23-28

1 Samuel 21:1-6

      I never tire of stories shared by the late author and humorist Erma Bombeck.  She wrote of a

certain “supermom” who possessed the gift of seemingly being able to do everything right.  She

kept a spotless home.  She cooked like a chef.  She kept her husband happy.  She always had a

copy of Dr. Laura’s latest book on the coffee table. And she usually answered the door pregnant

when the priest came by for a visit. 

      “One day,” Bombeck wrote, “I asked her how she did it, and she said, ‘As a Catholic, I follow

the example of the blessed virgin Mary.’  And I said, ‘Marge, it’s a little late for that.’  She said,

‘Very well, I’ll tell you.  I have certain customs I follow daily without deviation.  Every evening,

when the children are bathed and tucked into their clean little beds, and their little shoes are

racked up, and their little clothes are all in the hamper, and I’ve heard all the little prayers of the

children, I fall down on my knees and say my own little prayer:  ‘Thank you, God, for not letting

me kill one of them today.’” 

      In our gospel lesson from Mark this morning, we find Jesus and His disciples going through a

grainfield on a particular Sabbath day.  The disciples are famished, so they begin to pick a few

heads of grain.  Some Pharisees happened to spy them doing this, so they go to Jesus with their

complaint which went something like this:  “Rabbi!  Do you see what these disciples of yours are

doing?!  They’re picking grain!  Now you of all people should know it’s against the Law of Moses

to do work of any kind on the Sabbath.  How can you stand by and allow this?!”

      You see, the Pharisees were like the perfect little “supermoms” of the Law.  They prided them-

selves on doing everything right.  They were spotless in their adherence to their 613 plus oral

interpretations of the Mosaic Law.  They would have had the scroll of the Torah and yet to be

written down Talmud on their coffee tables had it fit.  We have to wonder if Moses himself ever

imagined, when God gave him ten basic ethical and moral commandments at Mt. Sinai, that human

“tweeking” of these commandments would someday yield enough to fill a law school library?

       Moreover, the Pharisees were growing to despise Jesus because His liberal views were

attracting huge crowds who were burdened under the weight of law on top of law.  Jesus was

a threat to their religious brand.  He seemed to undercut their authority.  So little wonder that

these supermoms of religious order, propriety and perfection were upset when they found Jesus’

disciples violating Sabbath labor laws by picking grain.  They jumped on Jesus, accusing Him of

leading anarchy against the fourth commandment which states:  “Remember the Sabbath day, to

keep it holy.”  In their eyes, Jesus was proving to be a horrible example of how a good Jew should

act.  And isn’t it human nature to want folk to act the way we want them to act?  Of course.

      There’s a story of a religious businessman at the turn of the 20th century who was speaking to

a Native American chief.  He had a suggestion for him:  “A white man has only one wife, and you

have five.  Why don’t you set for your people a better example by obeying the laws and customs

of the white man, and give up four of your wives and remain faithful to the fifth?”  The chief

replied with a smile.  “I will do as you suggest under one condition.  You pick the one I am to live

with, and you can go and tell the other four.” 

      Some of us who are a little older remember the day when certain laws and customs were

part and parcel of the proper Sunday protocol, often demanded by the church or by devout religious parents.

  There were some things which were considered lawful on Sunday: worship in the morning; afterward, studying,

reading, writing a letter, or listening to church folks talk about the pastor’s sermon from that morning. 

Then there were things considered unlawful on Sunday: 

 playing ball, swimming, grilling meat outdoors, shopping, going to the movies, and later,

watching television.  I may have shared with you before that several of my college buddies and I

once received official letters of reprimand from the Dean of Students at Geneva College for doing

that which the Reformed Presbyterian school deemed unlawful on Sunday.  No, we weren’t

picking grain.  We were playing Frisbee on the front lawn of Memorial Hall.  We ceased and desist

under threat of suspension.  Yet to this day, I still don’t understand how throwing Frisbee could

violate any so-called Sabbath Law, or bring offense to the Almighty.

    We may smile and chuckle at such laws and customs, finding it hard to believe they were even

enforced.  I wonder if Jesus may have smiled and chuckled Himself when the Pharisees were get-

ting so bent out of shape about this thing the disciples were doing on the Sabbath.  Let’s not misunderstand. 

Jesus respected the religious faith in which He was raised.  He was not a scofflaw. 

He honored and upheld the spirit of the Law of Moses which called for a day of rest for replenishment

and renewal, both physical and spiritual.  Jesus’ problem was that in place of the spirit of the Sabbath Law –

which was intended for the benefit of the people -- was set a millstone which hung heavily around the necks

of those who sought to be faithful to God.  Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ criticism with an ancient story they would surely know.

      As we read earlier from 1st Samuel, David and his army were fleeing from King Saul.  They

were hungry and had nothing to eat when they came upon the house of God in the town of Nob.

David asked the priest Ahimelech, who was on duty, for something to eat for him and his soldiers.

But the only food available was bread of the Presence—a specially-baked and blessed bread which, 

according to Jewish Law, was not to be partaken by anyone but a priest.  Because there was no

other, the priest gave David the bread, which he and his troops proceeded to eat.  One question

this Old Testament story begs of the Pharisees is this:  What is more important – strict adherence

to Law, or meeting the needs of people?  The point Jesus is making is that the disciples are no different than

David and his companions.  They are hungry, come upon a field of grain, and eat what is available.  Yes, it is the Sabbath.

  But why get so bent out of shape over so small a thing as this? 

      Jesus concludes with what we might call the “punchline:”  “The sabbath was made for humankind,

and not humankind for the sabbath.”  That is to say, satisfying the basic needs of

people is more important than following a particular law, or custom, or tradition of the day; even

a religious one.  And surely God cares more about people whom God has created than He does

about the laws man has interpreted, and multiplied into libraries, and hung around the necks of

folks like a millstone. 

      Most of us would agree that in the big picture, and certainly as we’ve come to know God in and

through Jesus Christ, the needs of people are of ultimate importance.  Yet I think today, we are

living in a cultural context wherein the pendulum has swung to the other extreme; quick as we

seem to be to abandon law altogether; figuratively tearing the ten commandments out of every

book, and from every classroom and courthouse wall.  Jesus intent by His own admission was not

to abolish the Law of Moses – those moral and ethical commands given at Sinai, such as Sabbath

codes – but rather to fulfill the Law of Moses;  in Jesus’ very life to get to the heart and spirit of the

Law; not intended to be a millstone around the neck, but to be a means of liberation from human

selfishness and sinfulness; a living expression of love for God and love for neighbor.  That is the

heart and spirit of the Law given by God, to all people, for all time.  Prohibiting the plucking and

eating of grain, or the tossing and catching of a Frisbee on the Sabbath, is akin to, again in Jesus’

own words, “….swallowing a camel while straining a gnat.”

      As we come to the communion table this morning, let us understand.  We do not come to celebrate the

sacrament because we must, but because we may.  The table is set before us as a

remembrance meal of Jesus’ sacrifice, and the grace which it affords to all humankind.  Even

though our Presbyterian Book of Order states that communion shall be celebrated at least

quarterly, celebrating the sacrament is not fundamentally about responding to church law.  It is

fundamentally about responding to Christ’s Spirit.  We come of our free wills in response to Jesus’

invitation.  Let’s be clear that the receiving of communion is not to be, in any way, a millstone

around our necks.  Rather, it powerfully symbolizes our liberation from human sin, and is rooted

and grounded in love.  Come, Jesus says on this day of Christian sabbath; Come.  Take the grain. 

Eat.  Be filled.