Jesus 2020: Religious Freedom

Scripture: Matthew 12:3-14

You may have noticed by now that the Pharisees are never the good guys in these Gospel stories. They are always depicted as Jesus’ opponents, hypocrites who are looking for ways to trap him; they are irredeemable legalists who love the law for the law’s sake.

You should know as we get into today’s reading that some scholars, Jewish scholars especially, have pushed back on this characterization of the Pharisees. The Pharisees, they say, were part of a Jewish religious movement focused on understanding God’s law and following it well. Some have even argued that Jesus himself was Pharisee, and that all the anti-Pharisee talk we find in the Gospels has more to do with the growing divide between Christianity and Judaism at the time they were written than with Jesus himself.[1]

We’re talking this fall about times in the Gospels when Jesus gets political, and we’ve already encountered and will encounter his political opponents “the Pharisees” a lot. It’s always easy to demonize our opponents. But I hope that we can hold two ideas in tension as we move into our story today: on the one hand, #NotAllPharisees. On the other hand, we can still hear the human issues at the heart of this conflict that Jesus finds himself in.

In our reading today, Jesus and his disciples are on the road, and they happen to walk through a wheat field. The disciples are hungry, and they begin to pluck some heads of grain and eat them. Not a big deal, probably, except that some of our Pharisee friends happen to be lurking in this wheat field as well, and it happens to be the Sabbath, and you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath, and to these Pharisees, that includes plucking grain.

Not all Jews would have agreed that plucking heads of grain was breaking the Sabbath. The Bible doesn’t say that. The Bible says you shouldn’t work on the Sabbath, and you shouldn’t make other people work for you, either (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5.) OK, clearly harvesting is labor; you shouldn’t harvest on the Sabbath. Well, then, what counts as harvesting? Do oxen have to be involved? Can you go out into your own field with a sickle? How about just plucking a few heads of grain?

As Christians I think we’re kind of pre-conditioned to laugh these questions off, but I don’t want us to do that. I want us to hear them as genuine questions about how to live faithfully. These are the kinds of questions Pharisees asked. But of course it’s possible to take this line of questioning too far; it’s possible that your answers and what you stake on them become less religious discernment and more political power play.

And such is the case with our Pharisees in this story. “Look!” they say to Jesus. “Your disciples are working on the Sabbath!”

I like to imagine the disciples looking up, wide-eyed, mid-chew. I like to imagine the look that Jesus gives his accusers. “Come on,” he says, “you know even David and his troops ate the offering bread off the altar in the Temple when they were hungry.” He’s establishing precedence, here. And the work of the Temple still goes on on the Sabbath. Don’t you know, he says, that something greater than the Temple is here?

As usual, Jesus didn’t ask for a debate, but he’s not going to back down from one, either.

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Jesus says. Sometimes hungry people getting to eat is more important than perfectly following the rules.

Jesus is hardly upending Judaism here. In fact, he’s quoting the prophet Hosea. The idea that mercy comes before a rigid application of the law is itself ingrained within Jewish tradition.  Once again, it’s not the law itself that is the problem! The Sabbath was a God-given gift to God’s people, a respite from the grind of six days of labor, a protection for people and even animals who worked for other people, so they wouldn’t be exploited. The purpose of God’s law was never to weigh us down. It’s supposed to guide us in living well.

From the wheat field, Jesus follows the Pharisees into their synagogue, where they find a man with a withered hand. “What about him?” the Pharisees ask Jesus. “Is it lawful to cure him?”

Jesus shakes his head and says, “The Sabbath was never about preventing good,” and he heals the man’s hand.

The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, you see, is never really about the Law. Rather it’s about a stance toward the law that makes the law the end rather than the means to abundant life. It’s his opponents’ overly tight grasp on the law that’s the problem. And remember, this is not a particularly Jewish problem (#NotAllPharisees) but, like most things in the Bible, it’s a human problem playing out in one particular place and time.

Like most political conflicts, this one is about power, because the Pharisees hold power if they hold authority over how the law is interpreted and wielded.

But it’s also about so-called sacred cows, and what happens when they’re challenged.

Have you ever challenged someone else’s sacred cow? One of those things that is so important to a person or community that one dare not even bring it into question?

These can often be small things, that may even sound funny to those of us on the outside. My pastor colleagues will often tell stories about how they stumble upon these things in church – who would have known that one particular piece of art on the Fellowship Hall wall was Never To Be Moved?

And sometimes they’re bigger things. A flag in the front of the sanctuary. A statue in a public park. A certain way of telling history that has turned out to not be so historically accurate.

Maybe a better question is this: have you ever been the one who had a hard time loosening your grasp on one of these things?

A few months ago my high school came up in the local news. I went to a magnet school where you had to take a test to get in. The school consistently ranks very highly among the people who rank these things. It’s also been the case since I was there that there are very few Black and Latino students at this school; the student body is mostly white and Asian. That was the case again this spring when admissions data came out, and the number of Black students admitted was recorded as “too small to count.”

In the alumni group, people started talking. They talked about how standardized testing has been shown to contain inherent racial bias, and how the dearth of Black and Latino students doesn’t really serve anyone well, and how maybe the whole concept of the school needed to be reconsidered.

I read that and I felt myself getting defensive. Because of course I loved my school, and you know, the status quo had worked out OK for me.

And I noticed the gut reaction I felt at the thought of changing something that I liked, something that made up some small part of my identity, and then I thought, oh, maybe this is how people feel about those Confederate statues.

The fight over my high school went on to the School Board, which just this weekend voted to remove the admissions test from the application process. They didn’t totally abolish the concept of the school, though to hear some of the reactions, they might as well have. I’m sure there’s room for legitimate disagreement on this topic, but it seems to me that wanting to keep the status quo, wanting to maintain some level of control over the whole admissions process, does have to do with the power and privilege we so often fight to maintain. Of course those aren’t the main arguments that people would make, but I say that because I think that’s what it was for me.

Jesus has a way of challenging these sacred cows.

Sometimes just because I think something’s important doesn’t make it good for everyone. It doesn’t mean that thing serves the church’s mission, or that it furthers the cause of liberty and justice for all in our country, or that it reflects God’s ultimate will.

God’s will is always abundant life for God’s children. That was the purpose of the Sabbath law in the first place. When it came down to a question of ritual observance vs. meeting basic human needs like hunger or healing, of course the human needs win out.

And yet in today’s Gospel passage, it’s enough to make this group of Pharisees want to “destroy” Jesus.

I wonder what those places might be where we have trouble letting go of our own stuff in favor of mercy and justice. Because as I now understand, it’s not just a problem for Pharisees. It’s a problem for me, too. And maybe, in some aspect of your life or our life together, it’s a problem for you.

But Jesus Christ is Lord of the Sabbath and Lord of our lives. And there is something greater in our midst than anything else we so tightly hold onto. It’s the Kingdom of God, where all God’s children are fed, and healed, and treated with dignity, and free. It’s that to which the Law points us. And it’s that toward the Spirit guides us. And it’s that for which Jesus invites us to let go of whatever is holding us back.


[1] Cf. Amy Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus; Hyam Maccoby, “Jesus the Pharisee” in Jewish Quarterly, Vol. 51, Issue 2, 2004.

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