We are people who respect the law. That’s one of the things that binds us together as Americans. Upholding the law is central to who we are as a nation. We try to carefully think through measures before making them law because we know the impact will be so great and will affect people in a wide ranging set of circumstances. We expect the law to be fair and just. When the law is not upheld, we expect there to be consequences that are also fairly administered.
Generally speaking, we think of the law as good. Except when it’s not. When laws are applied unfairly, when they are used to enforce prejudices, or when they may do harm to people, they may no longer be good laws. In those circumstances, it’s good to be able to change the law, whether that’s civil law or religious law.
When Jesus began to serve people, especially people he found in dire need, he was confronted by religious authorities who knew the law and saw it as their responsibility to enforce it.
In the second and third chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples are on the move. They are traveling on the Sabbath and need something to eat. The disciples walked through a field and picked some grain to eat, which was an acceptable thing to do on the Sabbath. People were expected to set aside part of their fields for travelers or hungry people to glean food as they needed it.
The Sabbath itself was a radical idea that stated everything deserves at least a day of rest. Sabbath was established while the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. Slaves didn’t have time off for rest. The great wealth and luxury created for Pharaoh required thousands of people to work for nearly nothing — and to never quit. Part of the reason the Sabbath is so sacred to the Hebrews is because that day of rest was won while they were slaves. And it was a day of rest for everyone and everything. Even the beasts of burden were given a day of rest. To violate the Sabbath law of no work was to insult the sacred story of the Hebrews being chosen by God, being given a day of rest, and then being guided out of slavery into freedom.
The law is the law and the rules are the rules for good reason. That is, unless they’re not. What happens when someone needs help on the Sabbath? What happens when an animal is injured or trapped on the Sabbath day? There were exceptions to the rules when they were needed.
The greater purpose of the Sabbath was to provide rest. It was to say no matter what the demands for the creation of wealth might be, that wealth cannot be worth more than the well-being of the people who create it for others. In the end, the purpose of Sabbath is for the good of everyone.
Imagine taking a day of rest to soak in the goodness of creation, the blessings of relationships with people who love you and whom you love. Imagine taking a Sabbath from the noise of the busy world or even a Sabbath from the noise of the news, discovering some simple things for which you may offer thanks, and having the time to offer it.
It was on that same Sabbath day that Jesus discovered a man with a withered hand. The rule keepers waited and watched to see what he would do, hoping they might be able to charge him with some offense. He asked them whether it was lawful to do good or do harm on the Sabbath. When they said nothing, Mark tells us Jesus looked at them with anger. It’s one of the few times Jesus is said to be angry. He told the man to stretch out his hand. When the man did, his hand was restored.
Immediately, the religious rule keepers and Herod’s followers, the civil rule enforcers, conspired against Jesus. They had missed the larger meaning of Sabbath, which was about serving and protecting humanity through rules that acted out behaving more humanely, that led to better lives for people who had little or nothing.
I wonder if there are immigration rules, civil rights rules, or voting rights rules that were established to make life better for people who had little or nothing, but are being used instead to keep good things from happening. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” Jesus tells us. We may find ourselves in some conflict over rules that now separate some families from one another or place hardships on people as they try to exercise their right to vote. Were those rules made for the good of humankind, and not humankind for the good of the rules? Using Jesus’ test for the good of those rules can show us how they may be enforced or how we may work to change those rules so that the greater good of humanity is being served. What brings families together? What leads to people knowing greater freedom and respect? What enables people to more fully express their desires for how we may live together? Rules are rules, after all. Rules become good rules when they serve the good of humankind.
Lander Bethel is the minister of Grand Avenue Presbyterian Church in Sherman and First Presbyterian Church in Denison. He earned a doctoral degree in ministry from McCormick Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Genna, live in Sherman, and they have three sons.