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Law Versus Need
Mark 3:1-6 (12/07/97)
I invite you to turn with me now in your Bibles to Mark chapter three and follow along with me as I read verses 1-6. Hear the Word of God.
1 And he entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand.
2 And they watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him.
3 And he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, Stand forth.
4 And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace.
5 And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other.
6 And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him. [AV]
Amen. May the Lord bless that reading of his word to our hearts and to our souls.
A New York Divorce Lawyer died and arrived at the pearly gates. Saint Peter asks him "What have you done that would make you good enough to get into Heaven?"
The Lawyer thought a moment, then said, "A week ago, I gave a quarter to a homeless person on the street." Saint Peter asked Gabriel to check this out in the record, and after a moment Gabriel affirmed that this was true.
Saint. Peter said, "Well, that's fine, but it is not really enough to get you into Heaven."
The Lawyer said, "Wait! Wait! There's more! Three years ago, I gave another homeless person a quarter." Saint Peter nodded to Gabriel, who, after a moment, nodded back, affirming this, too, had been verified.
Peter whispered to Gabriel, "What should we do with this fellow?"
Gabriel gave the Lawyer a sidelong glance, then said to Peter, "Let's give him back his 50 cents and tell him to go to Hell."
Now that joke is based on the question: How can we know that we are good? In ancient Israel, a tailor had an easy answer to that question. The law said that he should not go outside after the Sabbath began with his needle stuck in his shirt. The needle was the badge of his trade. If he wore it, he was bearing a burden and doing work, which was forbidden on the Sabbath. Thus, the tailor could say that if he took off his needle on the Sabbath, he was obeying the law and therefore was good.
That is legalism. Legalism draws up a list of things to do or not do and says that if the believer obeys the list then the believer is good. The Israelites had the Old Testament in which God had given them certain commandments. To be sure that the commandments were never broken, the rabbis built what they called “fences” around them. That is, they added a multitude of regulations to the commandments so that if a believer kept all the regulations he or she could not possibly break the commandments. For example, to return to aforementioned tailor, if he wore his needle stuck in his shirt, he was bearing a burden and doing work. To make certain that he did not do work on the Sabbath, the Pharisees said that he should take off his needle every day at sunset, lest on the evening of the Sabbath he forget and wear it and violate the Sabbath (by the way the Jewish day began at sunset not sunrise. A day was from sunset to sunset). Taking the needle off every sunset was a fence that prevented the tailor from violating a commandment.
The Pharisees are not the only ones to build fences around the law. Christians do it even today. Today in the USA, many people who oppose gambling admit that all card games are not in themselves wrong, but they say that people should not play cards because playing cards can be used in gambling. Let us carry it a bit farther. The cards in the children’s game Old Maid are not marked the same as regular playing cards. Is it all right then to place Old Maid? Well, Old Maid is still a card game. Conceivably playing Old Maid could lead to playing with regular cards, which could lead to gambling. The question faced by the modern legalist then is the same question faced by the Pharisees: How far out do you put the fence? How strictly must behavior be regulated?
The pharisaic answer to that question was very strictly. By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees had constructed a fence of 613 regulations that would enable a Jew to keep the law of God and thus be good. Regulations about keeping the Sabbath were especially meticulous. The Pharisees believed that two things marked them out as the chosen people of God. One was circumcision. The other was Sabbath-keeping. The fourth commandment required that no work be done on the Sabbath day. To fulfill this commandment, it was necessary to define work. The Pharisees drew up a list of 39 things that were work. Sowing was work, and plowing was work; Tying a knot was work; Lighting a fire was work, and so on.
Now all this may seem strange to us, but it makes perfect sense if we believe that God has given certain rules to be obeyed and that we become good by obeying those rules. Let us give the Pharisees their due. They were religious people who honestly tried to obey the law of God. They were right to try to keep the law. Jesus said, “Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19). But the Pharisees in all their fence-building, regulations, customs, and traditions had lost sight of the purpose of the law. Jesus, by word and deed, returns us to that purpose. Jesus shows us how a Christian will keep the law. No doubt about it, Jesus was a shock to the Pharisees. He told them they had it all wrong. That is why scripture tells us that eventually the Pharisees turned against Jesus and plotted to kill him.
Repeatedly, in the gospels, we see the same debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. In Mark 3, we read of a man with a withered hand who came to Jesus on the Sabbath day in the synagogue. In v4, Jesus asked, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?"
To understand the question, we must know the teachings of the rabbis. The rabbis made a distinction between doing good and saving a life. They permitted a good Jew to save a life on the Sabbath Day, but if the good deed could be postponed to another day, then the rabbis thought that the deed should be postponed. The man with the withered hand was not going to die before sunset, nor presumably was he in great pain. Jesus could easily have waited a few hours to perform the miracle of curing him. Thus, mercy would have been done, and the Sabbath kept, and the Pharisees would have cheered Jesus. But Mark tells us that Jesus was “grieved at their hardness of heart” Here was a man who needed help, and they did not care. So Jesus deliberately broke the Sabbath, to teach them a lesson and to teach us a lesson. The Sabbath is not important. People are important. In Mark 2:27, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Thus, if the Sabbath and the law get in the way of helping people, then break the Sabbath and break the law, because people come first.
Do not misunderstand what Jesus is saying. Generally, Jesus kept the law. He kept the law as an expression of love. All that Jesus is saying is that if human need requires us to go beyond the law, then go beyond the law, because the Sabbath was made on account of people, people were not made on account of the Sabbath. And what applies to the Sabbath applies to the whole law. The law was made for the sake of people; people were not make for the sake of the law.
We see the same principle in Luke 13 when Jesus healed a woman who for 18 years had been bent over and could not straighten up. Again he healed her on the Sabbath day in the synagogue. He knew exactly what he was doing. He did it deliberately.
In Luke 13:14 the ruler of the synagogue said, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day." In other words, he said, “Listen Jesus, this woman had had this ailment for 18 years. Her life is not in danger. Keep the Sabbath and heal her tomorrow.”
Jesus replied angrily, in vs 15-16 "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” The regulations of the Pharisees permitted a person to care for an animal on the Sabbath. The farmer could feed and water his stock. Jesus was angry because the Pharisees in their fence-building and regulation-making were treating a dumb animal better than a human being. In effect, Jesus said to the Pharisees, You missed the whole point of the law. With all your regulations you have taken mercy and compassion out of the law, and thus you have destroyed the purpose of the law. Jesus is saying, Use your common sense. If it is all right to do good to an animal on the Sabbath day, it is all right to do good to a human being on the Sabbath day.
We can multiply examples of this controversy with the Pharisees. In Luke 6, on the Sabbath day, Jesus and the disciples were passing through a field of grain, and the disciples picked the ears of grain and rubbed the grain out of the husk and ate it. They violated two of the 39 articles of work. They reaped grain and threshed it. You might say, surely a handful of grain was a minor violation, but it does not make any difference how minor it was. The Pharisees thought that keeping every rule and regulation was the whole point of life. Therefore any violation of any rule, no matter how small, was a major issue. So in Luke 6:2, the Pharisees asked the disciples “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” Jesus answered with an Old Testament illustration, saying, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?"”
Jesus’ meaning is the same in all these scripture passages. Human need is the first law of human behavior. If our brother or sister is hungry, then fix them some food, even on the Sabbath. Now a generation ago, this congregation would have gotten angry at me for saying that, because it used to be that families did not cook on the Sabbath day. They cooked on Saturday and everyone ate it cold on Sunday. The focus of many Christians has been on keeping the Sabbath day holy. Certainly Jesus would agree with that, but he would say that we do not keep the Sabbath holy if we are do harm or allow harm to be done to people. It is not love if we use a law or a regulation to avoid meeting human need.
In the scriptures we have considered today, Jesus did not depart from the law of Moses. He taught us a new way to apply the law. He said, Use the law to help people, and if it so happens that we must break the law to help people, then break it. In extreme cases, even the Pharisees allowed the law to be broken. They said that if a person was in danger of death, the law could be broken to help them, but Jesus went even further than that. He said, If you can do good of any kind, do it, because doing good is a higher law.
When Jesus disciples picked grain on a Sabbath, it was a trivial act. When Jesus justified their action, he, in effect, was saying to us that any action, no matter how small, that produces an increase in human well being is the first law of Christian behavior. Any action, whether it is difficult like inventing something new, or simple like giving a neighbor a smile, any action that makes human life easier and more abundant is the kind of thing we ought to be doing.
Jesus applied this point of view in his association with those that the Pharisees defined as “sinners” under the law. Most Jews were not Pharisees. The average person could not afford the time and money to keep the law like the Pharisees. Average people were called “people of the land,” and were considered by the Pharisees to be rituality unclean. They were not physically unclean. They bathed as often as the Pharisees, but the Pharisees said that they were spiritually unwashed, and refused to eat or associate with them. Jesus loved them. The Pharisees would go to any length to avoid the people of the land. Jesus would go to any length to help them. Our Lord, in his mercy, saw the yearnings of those publicans and sinners and reached out to them, and we should see the yearnings of those people that our society regards as trash and reach out to them.
You can see then that the basic attitude of the Pharisees was totally opposite to Jesus. The Pharisees said, “The focus is the law.” Jesus said, “The focus is people.” The Pharisees said, “Serving God is keeping the rules.” Jesus said, You have missed the whole point. The purpose of the law is to teach love, and if you do not love, then all your rules are just so much gibberish. For example take the commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The point of the commandment is to teach us how to express love for our spouse. If we keep the commandment, but have not love, we have miss the point of the commandment.
The law of behavior for those who accept Christ as Lord is human need. Human need precedes all other ethical and moral rules. The Pharisees said that a person should be governed by the law and built fences around the law to make sure that they were governed by the law. Jesus taught us that the law itself is a fence. The law is a fence around the central commandment of love, and we should always be governed by love.
We see this attitude in they way Jesus acted. He did just the opposite of what he should have done had he wanted to establish himself in the eyes of the Jewish world as a respectable religious leader. Had Jesus been concerned about his respectability, he would never have healed on the Sabbath day. He would never have permitted his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath day. He certainly would not have associated with those whom the Pharisees, the respectable people, despised.
But Jesus did not care about his reputation. He did not care about his image. He cared about people. The lesson then is: If we care about Jesus, we also care about people. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 01/13/05