Sermon: Jesus (mis)reads the scriptures

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
Pentecost 2, 3rd of June

Mark 2:23-3:6

After all the many weeks of Lent and Easter, here we are in Ordinary Time; back with our gospel for the year, the Gospel according to Mark. Just as when we left him before the Transfiguration, Jesus is embroiled in controversy. The Pharisees are shocked at Jesus’ apparently cavalier attitude to the laws governing the Sabbath. Modern Christians are shocked at Jesus’ apparently cavalier attitude to biblical interpretation.

As Jesus and his disciples are walking through some cornfields one Sabbath day his disciples take and eat some of the heads of grain. We might think that the controversial issue is the theft of someone else’s grain, but according to the twenty-third chapter of Deuteronomy, ‘If you go into your neighbour’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbour’s standing grain.’ (Deut 23:25) The disciples’ plucking of heads of grain is permitted by the law. But should they be doing it on the Sabbath? The Pharisees think not; and make their opinion clear to Jesus. Jesus then defends his disciples by drawing on a story from Israel’s history, told in their scriptures, the story of a hungry David.

The trouble is, Jesus is misrepresenting what David did. The story in the first book of Samuel does not describe a hungry David and his followers entering the house of God where Abiathar was the high priest and eating the bread of the presence. According to the first book of Samuel, David alone calls the priest, whose name is Ahimelech rather than Abiathar, out of the temple, and asks for the bread of the Presence. There’s no mention of anyone being hungry or anyone eating; we certainly don’t see David giving the bread to his companions, although we might assume that that’s what happens after the story that the book of Samuel tells. If the Pharisees had taken Jesus at his word and gone to read ‘what David did’ they would puzzled by the many ways in which the story that Jesus tells differs from that in their scriptures. Either Jesus or Mark has got the story wrong. The details confused might seem so minor that they are unimportant, but the Pharisees lived for analysing those sorts of details. Why did none of the Pharisees answer Jesus back?

The answer is that this is a story about authority and Jesus’ interpretation of his disciples’ plucking grain, and his later healing of the man with the withered hand, show us that Jesus has an authority that cannot be challenged. In his healing of the man with the withered hand Jesus is again playing around with tradition. Jesus asks those around him, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But that isn’t the issue! No one is suggesting that Jesus do harm to anyone, or that anyone is to be killed. All the Pharisees would ask of Jesus is that he wait until the Sabbath is over before healing the man with the withered hand, just as the women among Jesus’ followers will later wait until the Sabbath is over before going to tend his body. A withered hand is not a life-threatening injury, nothing would be lost by Jesus waiting a few hours before telling the man stretch out his hand. But Jesus is making a point about his authority. Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. It is up to him to decide what is and is not lawful to do on that day.

At the end of today’s readings we find the Pharisees conspiring with the Herodians to destroy Jesus. This is a sign of how important the keeping of the Sabbath was to them; seeking to kill a Sabbath-breaker was not considered impossible. The Sabbath laws were among the most important ways in which the people of Israel kept and demonstrated their difference from the peoples who surrounded them. The Pharisees were often stricter in their observance of the law than were the ordinary people, but not when it came to keeping the Sabbath holy. It was on something on which all Jewish people could agree. It was one of the things that made them Jewish, whether they lived in the province of Palestine or in the Jewish diaspora that existed throughout the Roman Empire. No Jew would accept Jesus’ Sabbath-breaking, unless they had previous accepted Jesus as the authoritative interpreter of the Law.

And so we see that Jesus is the Lord not only of the Sabbath; he is also the Lord of biblical interpretation. No one would disagree with the Pharisees’ interpretations of the scriptures, but Jesus challenges it because they are interpreting the scriptures out of the hardness of their hearts. Why we are interpreting the Bible matters as much as how we are to interpret the Bible, and here Jesus condemns perfectly correct interpretations that are being used to catch someone out and show how wrong they are. Jesus is even ready to rewrite a story in the scriptures to make a point. There is little support here for biblical literalism or for interpretations that are biblically correct but pastorally dismissive. As Saint Augustine wrote, some four hundred years after Jesus lived: ‘anyone who thinks he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them’. (On Christian Teaching, 1.86)

The Bible is a collection of writings that are anything from two thousand to ten thousand years old. It contains myth, history, poetry, prophecy, laws, gospels, and letters. It was written originally in Hebrew and Koine Greek, languages foreign to us. Parts of it contradict other parts. We cannot simply read the Bible; every reading is an interpretation. When we wonder how we are to interpret the scriptures, when we wonder what to do with parts of the Bible that are utterly alien to us, or with parts that contradict other parts, we need to remember that for us Jesus is the authoritative interpreter of the Scriptures. Just as the Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath, so he is the Lord of the Scriptures. We read the Bible through the lens of Jesus’ commandments to us, to love God and our neighbour. Any interpretation that, in Augustine’s words, does not build up this double love, is an incorrect interpretation, and would cause Jesus to grieve at the hardness of the interpreter’s heart.

As we listen to the words of scripture, O God, bless our doubts, our wonderings, our wanderings, our soul-struggles. May the scriptures help us to explore life’s deep questions and deeper mysteries. Most of all, may they speak to us of you, the God who is love, and may they build within us the love of you and love of our neighbour that Christ commands of us. Amen.


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