A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
January 29 ,2017
Last week, Jesus was talking to Simon Peter about fishing for people. We considered what that somewhat awkward metaphor might look like today. If you read the rest of chapter 5, it seems that fishing for people involves healing people with leprosy, teaching, healing a man who friends drop through a roof so they can get to Jesus through the crowds, teaching some more, and eating dinner with tax collectors and sinners.
The whole while, people are watching Jesus. The crowds watch him to see if he’s really the healer their friends told them about. Might he have healing for them?
The religious leaders are watching Jesus too.
Luke doesn’t trust the religious officials. And maybe he’s correct not to. I notice that the Pharisees don’t tell their own story. Luke does. And so I hope we will attend to their actual questions of Jesus more than we give authority to Luke’s interpretation of their motives. We know what they asked. We only have Luke’s story of why they asked.
Here are their questions from chapter 5:
Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?
Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?
John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.
While there were signs and miracles that pointed to Jesus being God’s son, I think it is also fair to say that the biggest sign—the crucifixion and resurrection—had not yet happened when Jesus was roaming through Galilee on his healing tour. There were lots of healers roaming the countryside, many of them claiming to be the Messiah, in fact.
Now, we know Jesus as the Son of God. But then, how were people to distinguish between the many healers? The band Dire Straits has a line in a song, “two men say they’re Jesus. One of them must be wrong”.
The Pharisees think Jesus is just some guy.
The religious leaders are asking legitimate questions about Jesus’ authority to break the rules. If some guy just showed up here and started changing all of the long established beliefs and practices we’ve held dear for thousands of years, or 60 years, or 2 years—-how would we respond?
And while perhaps picking heads of grain as you walk through a field might seem like a small, nitpicky issue, I hope we can see it as ‘of a piece’ with their bigger concerns. Whether Jesus is picking heads of grain or doing healing miracles, the questions are all connected.
In the passage we just heard, the questioning continues:
‘Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’
In all of these questions, people are struggling with AUTHORITY.
And I think our society is struggling with similar questions.
Where does authority reside?
Is it in the individual, to do whatever they want to do?
Is it in the community, to do what is in the best interest of the “common good”? If that’s the case, who gets to make the rules for a particular community?
Does authority reside in the US Constitution or in the Bible? And if so, who gets to interpret?
Does authority reside with God? And if that’s the case, who gets to interpret the divine intention, the divine scripture?
We contend with each of these questions in all aspects of our lives.
How do parents decide to transfer authority to a child as they grow up?
How do we decide to obey the laws of our city, state, and country?
How do we vote, and to what degree is our vote the conferring of authority on the person elected?
How do churches interpret scriptures that were written thousands of years ago, to a different culture and context, in light of what we know and have experienced now?
I see this at the state house all the time, often when one religious perspective acts as if their authority is greater than yours or mine. On Friday, I was with a group of clergy to speak in favor of Idaho removing a religious exemption for medical treatment. Currently, under Idaho law, you or I could claim God doesn’t want us to take our child to the hospital for treatment for a treatable condition. Children are dying because of this exemption.
The state legislature has the unenviable task of navigating the authority in this issue. Do parents, or should parents, have the ultimate authority to let their children die because of religious beliefs? Do children have any authority over their own lives? Does the state have the authority, or should it use its authority, to intervene and protect children? Where does the constitutional freedom to practice religion run up against the authority of the state to protect its citizens? How does the state decide which religious beliefs should stand, and which need moderating?
Where is your authority?
I had a high school classmate tell me last week that she was praying for you (the congregation I serve) because I was leading you astray, and it was her RIGHT as a Christian to tell me of the error of my ways.
It’s good to know people are praying for you, right? One might also ask, though, where her authority comes from? Or where does mine?
Jesus gives a lot of different answers to the various questions. Some of the answers are a little cagey, trying to throw it back at them a little. Some of his answers are pretty clear. In chapter 5, Jesus says, “…but so you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….”
In this passage, Jesus says, “‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”
We are faced with a Jesus who claims to be the lord of the Sabbath and able to forgive sins.
Which are idolatrous statements if they aren’t true.
The Sabbath instructions are laid out in the 10 Commandments, among other places in Hebrew scriptures. And the first Commandment is “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
In that first commandment, we’re reminded who has authority. God.
Not pharaoh, or political party, or money, or work, or fame, or fear. God, and God alone, is our authority.
We’re given some clarifying details about who this God is—The Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
God’s authority is clarified through God’s saving work in their own history, pulling them out of slavery in Egypt, rescuing them when they were refugees in need of a home.
The way God spells out divine authority also serves to remind Israel of why they should not pretend they are their own best authority. You needed help once too, remember. I saved you when you were a refugee. Someone else will need help in the future. Here are rules so that you can live together, help each other, and live well.
If you read all of the commandments together, you get a picture of life lived in completion. When you acknowledge God is the only God, and believe God’s instruction to keep Sabbath holy, it means you follow a God who worked 6 days and rested on the 7th.
It is in the stopping, the stepping off the treadmill of the rat race, the Sabbath, that we re-set, are renewed, and are restored for living into the rest of the commandments, which are about how we live together in community, with our neighbors.
Old Testament Scholar and one of my seminary professors, Walter Brueggemann writes:
“So imagine, says Moses at Sinai, you …are not little replicas of anxiety-driven Pharaoh. You are in the image of God who did not need to work to get ahead…..”
I know the 10 Commandments were a bit of a detour from our passage, but when Jesus says
‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath’, it should bring to mind this larger question of both authority and how we live in community with commandments to care for each other. Jesus is grounding his authority as lord of the Sabbath in the God who created Sabbath in the first place.
It is not about who is plucking grain on the Sabbath. It’s about how we live together, support each other, and acknowledge that God is our authority.
Jesus then says “‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ He is reminding them of the bigger context of obeying the Sabbath.
The world we live in today feels particularly fraught with division, and with people struggling over authority. I know it feels different than what we’ve known—for good or bad, depending on your politics, perhaps—but I hope in these texts, we can acknowledge we come from a long line of people struggling with these issues.
Pharaoh told the Hebrews that their worth was only in their fear. Fear of each other. Fear of not having enough. Fear of not making enough.
God told the Hebrews their worth was in their belonging, in their care for one another, in the community they could create, in the welcome they could offer to people in need of community.
Honoring sabbath is also an act of resistance against Pharaoh’s world that tells you that you are alone, and you must work more, fear more, never rest.
In Sabbath, we remember that if God could stop on the seventh day and rest, that means God had no fear about what would happen to his work of creation if he took a day off. The anxieties produced when Pharaoh is in charge keep us from that rest, and that trust in creation, and that trust in each other.
In this passage, it seems as if Jesus wants to remind the religious leaders, and remind us, that the practice of Sabbath is life giving resistance in the face of a world full of anxiety. He asks, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ and he claims his authority to challenge an interpretation of Sabbath that does not give life.
In these fraught political times, with “fake news”, “alternative facts”, and division for the sake of division, I pray we seek an authority that is true and that calls us to faithful response to the problems in the world. I pray we can seek to be people who save life and not destroy it. I pray we can trust enough in the God who created us to take days of sabbath rest so that we can manage our fear and live into our hope. I pray we can be people of welcome, and community. For there is a world out there in great pain, in need of welcome and hope for a new life.
Who is our authority?
Pharaoh or God?