Saturday in Proper 17C – September 7, 2019 – Luke 6:1-5 – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee
“One sabbath while Jesus was going through the cornfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, ‘Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ Jesus answered, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 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 gave some to his companions?’ Then he said to them, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’”
The problem is not that the disciples are stealing the grain. (Travelers were allowed to take a bit for nourishment.) The problem is that they are harvesting it and threshing it, that is, plucking it and rubbing the chaff away in their hands.
That’s work, and according to God’s law, work is not allowed on the sabbath. It’s no wonder the Pharisees raise concerns. Resting on the sabbath defines Jewish identity. Along with table customs, it is part of the sacred piety of the Jews.
In response to their question, Jesus cites a biblical example of human need being considered before the law. Then he says, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”
I must admit, hearing such a strong Christological statement at first made me nervous. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with an authoritative Jesus. I’m just all too conscious that some confused preachers have corrupted his words in order to discount Jewish identity.
We are followers of Jesus. We should never be ashamed of that. We should rejoice in Christ and share him with the world, but not at the expense of the dignity of others.
Interpreting this passage to mean that all of God’s teachings before Jesus’ time are somehow irrelevant is nonsensical and problematic. We don’t simply want to say, “That’s all a bunch of baloney!” And I don’t think Jesus means for us to. On the contrary, God’s laws are important. To this day they shape Christian—and Jewish—culture.
Consider the context in which Luke wrote. The “Jesus movement” was in its infancy. Folks were still trying to make sense of it all, and many Jewish followers of Jesus weren’t sure whether or not to continue keeping Jewish customs.
Perhaps the Gospel writer is offering a response to such question. Following the law is not necessary to be a follower of Jesus. It can be done, but it’s not the primary identity marker of a Christian. The primary identity marker of a Christian is life in Christ. That means following Jesus and living like Jesus, who took on our human nature, lived a human life, and died a painful human death.
God loves us so much that he shares our journey with us—each of us—in the flesh. Jesus walks beside us along the way, just as he did his earliest disciples. And he wants what’s best for us, even if it does, from time to time, mean doing a little work on the sabbath.
After all, we do need to eat. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Even on a Saturday morning, at the outset of the sabbath day, we gather to do the work of God’s people, to pluck a bit of living grain, not from the field but from the altar, and to feed on the grace of God.