Rev. Deacon Tom Bates
June 3, 2018
LINK TO PDF VERSION (Good for saving or printing out)
Today I thought I would talk to about two issues that come up in the Gospel readings from Mark: legalism and the inerrancy of the Bible.
Today’s Gospel Reading deals with the observance of the Sabbath, which was one of the most distinctive elements of Judaism and, of course, legalism as opposed to righteousness was a major frustration of Jesus’. An entire tractate of the Misha, namely the Shabbath, was the subject of Sabbath observance and”remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” is found in Holy Scriptures, as well. In the Gospel of Mark, we have Jesus’ take on observance of the Sabbath. Basically in Mark 3: 4, Jesus seems to be saying that the Sabbath is a day to do good. God provided the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship, but he did not mean that concern for rest should keep us from lifting a finger to help others. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, obviously doesn’t mean for us to allow our Sabbaths to become a time of selfish indulgences. In Mark 3: 5, we have Jesus’ take on legalism. “Jesus looked around at then in anger, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts.”
God rested on the seventh day and I think he or she has given us a good example. Rest is important. It’s one of the seven practices of highly effective people according to Steven Covey. He calls it sharpening the saw. You are more efficient if you take time to sharpen the saw than you are to keep on cutting with a dull saw. I like a lot about Bishop Michel Vono. One of the things I like about him is his concern that we take care of ourselves physically and spiritually and his availability to help us do that. We need 7-8 hours of sleep a night and rest to be at our best and healthiest.
Would we do better at keeping the Sabbath holy if there were legal restrictions on some Sunday activities. For example, when we were in Germany, stores closed on Saturday afternoon and washing your car on Sunday was prohibited. When you get out of habit of shopping or I think mowing your lawn on Sundays, there was more incentive to remember that the Sabbath was holy. I’m not saying that you can legislate morality, I’m just saying some laws and some restrictions can be helpful – not to all, but to some.
I spent 27 years in the army where the spirit if the laws was the important thing. Everything else could be waived. I’m frustrated by legalism. I grew up in Montana where the speed limit on the highways was safe and prudent. That didn’t work and Montana now has posted speed limits. In fairness, I think law makers have decided that the traffic regulations are more stringent than they need be for many to protect us from the bad driving few. I was recently cited for failure to come to a complete stop; went to court and got off with 90 days probation. My defense was that what I did was reasonable. Jane would not have protested the fine for failing to come to a complete stop and I’m sure many of you are like Jane. She says obey the law even when no one is looking. I do now come to a complete stop every time there’s a stop sign and am less frustrated by some of the unnecessary legalism, but understand that the laws are for our protection just as God’s law is for our well being and salvation.
The Old Testament forbade work on the Sabbath Exodus 20: 8-11. The scribes enumerated 39 kinds of work that were prohibited and a third of these was reaping. The Pharisees interpreted picking a few heads of grain as reaping.
The reference to David and his companions is the incident recorded in 1 Samuel 21: 1-6. The consecrated bread was twelve loaves that were put on a table in the tabernacle, the house of God, each Sabbath, probably to symbolize God’s presence and provision and which were eaten only by the priests at the end of the week. David and his men were not priests, but Jesus seems to be saying that what they did was justified because they were famished. In other words, human needs should take precedence over legalistic restrictions.
“Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” There are several reasons given for Jesus’ own people wanting to kill him. His failure to observe the Sabbath is one of them. The Pharisees permitted healing on the Sabbath only when life was in danger. The shriveled hand was apparently not life threatening. The Herodians opposed John the Baptist because he condemned Herod’s divorce and remarriage. So perhaps they then joined the plot to kill Jesus because of the Jesus’ relationship with John.
Before we leave, Mark’s gospel, let’s consider verses 25 and 26. “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need. In the days, of Abiathar, the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread.” The problem for scholars is that Ahimelech, not Abiathar was high priest at this time. The most common explanation for the mistake is that Mark probably forgot although some think it was an error in translation and they explain how easily that could have happened. Abba Abiathar in Aramaic means father of Abiathar who was in fact Ahimelech.
Does this error in Mark change anything? To answer the question, let’s consider what a gospel is and what it is not. Gospels are not history and they are not always historically true. They do not draw on first hand testimony or documents. They do not use archives – for instance court records for the trial of Jesus or birth records for his genealogy and they were composed decades after the resurrection of Jesus. Gospels have been described as meditations on the meaning of Jesus in light of Sacred History, in other words in light of the Old Testament, the Sacred Writing of their day. They are a kerygma, a proclamation of the good news of Jesus, the Christ. They are a form of prayer. They are commentaries on the Old Testament. Some scholars believe that the life of Jesus is impossible to understand outside the on text of the Old Testament and for that reason almost always one of the readings in our services is from the OT.
Another reason for wanting to kill Jesus can be found in the Gospel of John at the 11th Chapter and 45th verse. The reason is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. This reason sticks in mind because it seems so farfetched to me. The rationale is as John’s Gospel explains: “Therefore many of the Jews, who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
What are we accomplishing? They asked. Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.
The one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up. You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than the whole nation perish.
He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.”
Do you think we’ve learned anything from these stories in the Gospel of Mark? I think we have, but we are probably still too legalistic in some sectors of life. We don’t have people killed for healing on the Sabbath any more, but at the same time we do want people to do God’s will and obey God’s commands. Philip Schoenberg emailed an interview of a recent author who was explaining some of the changes in belief and some of the problems people have with the church. One of the problems is coercion. There is religious pressure to obey God and live a good life and therefore some coercion. Coercion existed in Jesus‘day certainly or he would not have advised us to take out the log in our own eye before we try to remove the speck in someone else’s eye. I’m the opposite. I do not mind the coercion. I go to church to worship God and become a better person and frequently need some encouragement, support and coercion.
A related problem for the church according to this author is a change in mores. In today’s society, many people are living together before marriage and according to the author they do not consider it a sin. So it’s like an insignificant error in accuracy in the bible. The biblical author got that wrong so everything else is questionable. Not so, in my mind, any more than the church says sex before marriage is a sin which it isn’t in their minds; therefore I want nothing to do with church. Hang in there. We have a lot wrong with our worship, but we have whole lot more right. Amen.