Every once in a while you come across a list of archaic laws, many of which are still on the books. Have you seen this sort of thing? Here are some laws that were at one time or are still in force:
In Wyoming, you cannot take a picture of a rabbit during the month of June.
In Harper Woods, Michigan, it is illegal to paint a sparrow and then sell it as a parakeet.
In Wisconsin, there is a law that says you cannot serve apple pie in public without cheese.
It is illegal to whistle underwater in Vermont.
It Tulsa, Oklahoma, you need a licensed engineer to open a soda bottle.
It is illegal for a man to knit during fishing season in New Jersey.
In Connecticut, a pickle has to bounce to be considered a pickle.
We were not immune to these sorts of laws in Iowa. It was once a law that one armed piano players in Iowa had to perform for free. And ministers in Iowa needed a permit to transport wine.
There was a reason for these laws – not necessarily a good reason, but you don’t just come up with things like this out of the blue. Maybe someone in Vermont drowned as a result of an underwater whistling contest. Now, I don’t know the origin of the bouncing pickle rule in Connecticut – and once it had been bounced, would you want to eat it? The law in Iowa about clergy transporting wine makes more sense. It was passed in 1919, so it had to do with use of communion wine during prohibition. I don’t know if it is still on the books or not.
While some laws seems strange and arbitrary, others are valuable and necessary. The Hebrew people sought to live according to the Law - God’s Law. The Law existed to allow God’s people to live fully and faithfully and joyfully and with integrity with God and with one another. The Law was summarized in the Ten Commandments and was found in the Torah – the Books of the Law, the first five books of the Bible. The Law was expounded upon in the Talmud, a commentary on the Law that explains in great detail how the Law is to be carried out.
Now in our text for today, we have two controversies involving Jesus and the law regarding keeping the Sabbath. The controversy is between Jesus and the Pharisees. I think it is helpful to know a little bit about the Pharisees, because the way that they come across is often a caricature. The Pharisees were a reform party within Judaism, with a concern for following the law and living one’s faith not just on the Sabbath and not just when you went to synagogue, but in one’s daily life.
Living out the faith on a day-to-day basis was difficult in a culture where it felt like your faith was under siege. Israel was an occupied nation. Hellenistic influence and Greek culture was all around. Roman soldiers were stationed throughout the country. There were those who worked with the Romans, collaborated with the Romans. How do you maintain Jewish traditions, how do you hang on to your culture, how do you keep your faith when you are in the middle of a dangerous and chaotic world? How do you maintain your religion when the powers that be are hostile towards it?
For the Pharisees, the answer was in keeping the law. Keeping the Law as carefully and completely as possible. This was what made them different. This is what made them Jews. This is what made them who they were. It’s not that they were fundamentalists about the law just for the sake of the law – this was what held them together as a people.
The Law was something that could be followed by anyone, anywhere. The Pharisees were offering devotional practices and ways of living out Jewish faith that did not require oversight or mediation by religious leaders.
So when we come to these stories, we need to understand that the Pharisees weren’t just hung up on rules and regulations, as we might sometimes hear. They were sincere in their concern for the welfare of the people, and Sabbath observance was a part of that.
In our text, Jesus and his disciples were going through some cornfields. His disciples picked some ears of corn and ate it. This constituted work on the Sabbath and was not allowed, and some Pharisees questioned Jesus about it. Why did his disciples disregard the Sabbath?
Jesus replied by appealing to a story from the Old Testament, where David and his companions ate bread from the Temple which was only for the priests to eat. He told them that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.
And then on another Sabbath, Jesus was at the synagogue and there was a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees are watching, and Jesus knows it. He tells the man to stretch out his hand, and the man is healed. Healing on the Sabbath was also considered work, and unlawful.
It seems that it is Jesus’ attitude about it all that really infuriates the Pharisees. He asks, “Is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath? Is it lawful to save life or destroy it?”
Jesus is getting behind the law itself to the intent of the law. The Sabbath, and the Law itself, was about life. For hungry people to eat – that is about life. Healing for someone who had no use of his hand – that is about life.
Why was Jesus so threatening to the Pharisees? Jesus seemed to threaten their whole enterprise of sanctifying people through adherence to the law. He seemed to have a casual and cavalier attitude about Sabbath observance, about ritual observance. He ate with tax collectors and sinners and his disciples did not fast. And then he even claimed authority to forgive sins.
Now, I know that Sabbath observance is not exactly a hot topic these days. It has been a long time since it was. At one time, there were a number of restrictions on commercial activity on Sundays – they were called blue laws, and many of you remember that, but that was fading out even when I was a kid.
We have kind of gone the opposite extreme of the Pharisees to where there are no Sabbath restrictions. We can shop, we can go out to eat, there are plenty of youth soccer and Little League games on Sundays. I don’t mow the lawn on Sunday unless it is a near-emergency, but that is due mostly to my upbringing – it is certainly not a community expectation. We could agree on the importance of rest, the importance of renewal, the importance of balance in life, the importance of time for worship, so it’s not that the idea of Sabbath is unimportant, but even then, what does this scripture really have to do with us?
Luke included these stories in his gospel because Sabbath observance was an issue for the early church. In a church made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians, this was a real issue that had to be worked out.
Again, that may not make this an exciting topic for us, but what lay beneath it is important. The questions surrounding the Pharisees’ challenge to Jesus and Jesus’ answer to them as well as Luke’s choice to include these stories in his gospel has to do with faithful identity to a community’s traditions and beliefs in light of ever-changing circumstances. In other words, how do we live out an ancient faith in a new day?
It would be wrong to say that Jesus didn’t care about the law. He kept the law, but he saw the law in a different light, a different perspective. It was easy for the Law to become an end in itself. The Pharisees could be so devoted to the Law that they could lose sight of the bigger purpose of the Law.
Jesus has a different take on the Sabbath. First, he says that Christ is Lord of the Sabbath, not the other way around. The Sabbath was created for us – we were not created for the Sabbath. Then he says that doing good on the Sabbath is lawful and in keeping with the scriptures. The issue here has to do with having an openness of spirit and being able to discern what really matters.
We can criticize the Pharisees for their rigidity, but let’s face it: we can all be rigid. When it comes to faith, there are those we would consider to be fundamentalists – closed minded, unwilling to change, unwilling to consider other viewpoints, dead certain that their way is the right way and the only way. But as much as I hate to say it, the fact is that we are all fundamentalists about something.
- The jogger going out at 5:30 a.m. on a dark, blustery, snowy morning is a fundamentalist about her exercise regime.
- The carpenter whose workshop looks like a display ad is a fundamentalist about the location of each and every one of his tools.
- The 6-year-old who makes his parents pick off every single one of those tiny dehydrated onion squares from his Happy Meal hamburger is a fundamentalist about his food.
- I know that in some households, if whoever goes grocery shopping comes home with a store brand instead of Heinz ketchup, they will discover a ketchup fundamentalist in their family.
The streak of fundamentalism that is there within all of us is not necessarily bad. Insisting on promptly recording every transaction you make and keeping your checkbook balanced is a good thing. There are folks on our street who are fundamentalists about the appearance of their yard. More power to ‘em. Being a “fundamentalist” about some things can strengthen our sense of self and our resolve as followers of Jesus in a world where following Jesus is not always easy.
This is really where the Pharisees were. Strictly and unwaveringly following the law was a way to keep the faith in a world in which that was not an easy thing.
But such rigidity becomes a problem when it reaches into the depth of our souls and hardens our hearts towards others and takes away our capacity for compassion. The codes of behavior that we seek to live by can become a problem when they keep us from what God wants the most.
We started out with some odd and offbeat laws that in some cases may still be on the books. In each case, these laws had to give way to a higher and more important law – sometimes the law of common sense but often a higher legal standard. The state of Iowa cannot forbid one-handed piano players from making a living because of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment or the Americans with Disabilities Act or maybe something else - you can ask one of the lawyers here this morning. But there is a bigger picture law that supersedes the One Handed Piano Player law.
At the root of it, that is the disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus sees a higher law. And the higher law, according to Jesus, is to love God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves. The law, including Sabbath keeping, is to help us in doing that, to guide us and assist us in doing that. When the Law keeps us from loving our neighbor, then there is a problem. Maybe the problem is not the law itself but the way we understand it and apply it and live it out.
The higher law is the law of love. And this is where it hits home for us: how do we live out our faith – how do we live out Jesus’ ethic of loving God and neighbor – in a chaotic and unsettled and polarized world?
We read our text for today and want to put ourselves in Jesus’ shoes. We want to stand with him as he answers the Pharisees. But truth be told, we have a lot in common with the Pharisees, and I actually feel compassion for them. They are keepers of the tradition, they are the good church-going folks, they are seeking to be faithful in a world in which that is not easy.
But Jesus shows us that the way to do that is not through easy answers. It is not in one-size-fits all solutions. The way forward, the way to live our faith in a complicated world, is by seeing the world through the eyes of love – messy and difficult as that may be.
This brings us to the last few verses of our scripture for the day. In last week’s text, Jesus called his first disciples. Now, he calls all twelve, and they are listed by name. It strikes me that they are called after Jesus has already been embroiled in controversy. So they know going in, this is not going to be easy.
And that is the way it is for us. Sometimes following Jesus can be tough. But we have his example. And we have one another. And we have his law of Love. Amen.