Flinders, looking south to Wilpena Pound November 2014

Galilean Sabbaths

The lectionary has returned us to Galilee. After the terror of Easter and the surprise of Pentecost, we are in the place where the risen Christ said we would meet him. (Mark 16:7) There is no resurrection appearance of Jesus in Mark's gospel, aside from the obviously later additions now included at the end of Chapter 16. I am in agreement with the understanding that the gospel text itself contains constant hints of resurrection, and that we meet these as we live in the ordinary Galilean life of a disciple who is not bewitched by the allure of the Jerusalem elite. (See The First Resurrection in Mark for an example of this reading.)

In his first public statement, Jesus is clear that he stands apart from the power structures of the time.  "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.'" (Mark 1:14-16) There is an invitation to trust something greater than the kingdom/empire of Rome and its vassals.

His authority and authenticity is widely recognised. "They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee." Mark 1:27-28)

He has authority to forgive sins! "But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the paralytic— 11“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.”  (Mark 2:10-11)

And he associates with sinners. "16When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, 'Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?' 17When Jesus heard this, he said to them, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.'" (Mark 2:16-17)

This is a time of new wine.  “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.22And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” (Mark 2:21-22)

Which all brings us a Sabbath day.

23One Sabbath [plural]1.  he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” [plural]

25And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27Then he said to them, “The sabbath [singular] was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; [singular] 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” [singular]

I find Jesus' response fascinating. The thrust of what he says challenges the whole nature of religion, and yet it contains a glaring historical error, for Jesus is wrong about Abiathar. The priest who met David was Ahimelech. (1 Samuel 21:1-6)

The story continues on another sabbath day, if not the same one:

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, [sabbath is again plural] so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the [singular] sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. 

We are only in chapter 3, and Jesus' fate has been decided. Both Davis and Loader point out that whilst it is obvious that the lawful thing— we could say law-full thing— is to do good and to make whole, "since σῴζω in the fullest sense means to ‘make whole’," (Davis), the Pharisees choose to do harm and to kill.

The key issue which I see in this reading is the nature of Sabbath and, by extension, the nature of our place and existence in Creation. Davis describes Jesus' distinction as it applies today.

The idea that ‘humanity was made for the Sabbath’ continues to be a wildly popular theology that God created the law and humanity needs to live up to it or else we are lost. In that theology, God is chiefly known as holy, and humans have to achieve a certain level of holiness – through following laws or practicing purity rituals - to be acceptable to God.

The alternative theology, which Jesus poses here, is that ‘the Sabbath was made for humanity.’ In that sense, God is chiefly known as love and the laws and purity rituals are for humanity’s own good. Or, even better, they offer ways that humanity can respond to God’s grace with gratitude.

There is something deeply healthy in seeing God as holy.  It is to recognise our failings and limitations. To have a sense of the holy is to be human; Homo sapiens with no sense of something other and beyond us, would be mere animal. The holiness traditions of my denomination witness to a great desire to live in harmony with God; to "live up to" the goodness God has shown us. These traditions promise us a way to a deep and rich relationship with God.

But to glimpse holiness is also to glimpse appalling truths about ourselves. As I have just said in my Sunday sermon, "The more time we spend in church… the more we realise how far we fall short." To live by law, as though we were made for the Sabbath, is to undertake a hopeless task. Yet something prevents us from allowing the love of God to embrace us; we are bound in the shame of our falling short, determined to hide our failures from God, and determined to do better ourselves.

In this text, Jesus is addressing a deep division in our way of being disciples. It is perhaps the fundamental question of how we understand our situation before God. Paul addresses it in his writing on works verse grace: "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death." (Romans 8:2)

What we see in the case of the man with the withered hand, and in the rejection of Jesus and the plot to kill him,  is a situation where holiness has become an end in itself which overwhelms humanity. Davis suggests that Jesus' question, "Have you not read…" may be translated, "Have you not comprehended what David did…" He says

ἀναγινώσκω can be interpreted “read,” but it implies more than a simple familiarity with a story. Some kind of distinction and accuracy in understanding the meaning of the story seems implied. Of course they had read the story. They just did not see the significance of David’s actions, doing that which was not “lawful,” for their own way of apprising lawful actions.

 They watched carefully, or intently, but did not see.

When the hand is stretched out in this story we see a symbol of a withered, disempowered, humanity; a man who lived in poverty— how could he work, a man whom many thought was being punished for his sin. (cf John 9:2)  His healing is described as a restoration. (3:5) It is about being made whole, and restored to relationship with God despite the religious tendency to say he was separated and invalid-ated by his sin/withered hand.

The aspiration to holiness too leads not to wholeness and restoration,  but succumbs to a narrowly, locally defined morality. Such an attempt to be moral can never be successful, for it is always time bound, and, blinkered by its cultural perceptions, always complicit in the wider sins of the culture in which it lives. Such 'holiness' watches intently, but does not see. Wholeness is to stretch out and be relaxed in the knowledge that we are loved, and in that freedom, to respond with love to others.

Under the observation of the scribes of the Pharisees Jesus proved his authority. "But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the paralytic— 11“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” (2:10-11) Just as wisdom is proved by her children (Luke 7:35) Jesus' authority is proved by its fruits. The call to repentance (Mark 1:15) is a call to trust the absolutes of Jesus' love and compassion, rather than to trust inevitably arbitrary human morality.

Jesus standing apart from the power structures of the time in his first public statement, is now complete and total. For the very Pharisees who long for holiness and submission to God's law, go out and create an unholy alliance "to kill" with the Herodians; the collaborators with Empire. What starts as the desire to love and honour God, degenerates into the preservation of privilege and political power at the cost of human life.

In Australia, one of our newest politicians, in her first speech to Parliament, has drawn attention to our inhuman and illegal treatment of refugees.

Australia as a wealthy country can afford to take more refugees, but it cannot afford “the ongoing cost to our national psyche” of subjecting asylum seekers to “shameful” indefinite detention in offshore immigration centres, Labor’s Ged Kearney has said.

Kearney used her first speech to parliament on Monday to telegraph her intention to work towards a “humane refugee policy” during her time in federal politics – a public signal before a policy debate expected at the Labor conference in July and a state party conference in Victoria this coming weekend. The Guardian (reported May 21 2018)

But as Father Frank Brennan says of her party,

Labor knows it has no chance of winning an election unless its commitment to keeping the boats stopped is as firm as the government's. (Eureka Street)

Despite our claim to be a secular nation, I suggest that the callousness2 on both sides of politics is about the sacred and the holy. Our concern for holiness has degenerated into the preservation of political power at the cost of human life.  Robert Hamerton-Kelly said of the Pharisees who saw the man healed on the Sabbath

Jesus is “angered and saddened by their hardness of heart” (3:5), a hardness that is precisely the attitude that serves the Sacred at all costs and sacrifices the human individual to the system. The climax of the section introduces the prospect of Jesus’ death. He has challenged and exposed the victimage system and now he is to become its victim too. (p. 80) (Quoted here)

Look at what we call our long term systematic inhumanity towards the most vulnerable folk on the planet, including innocent little children: Operation Sovereign Borders. This is the kind of language we Australians scorn. It sounds like something appropriate to the florid rhetoric of the USA, or Russia. We only use this sort of language if something goes wrong with the cricket, or someone criticises Anzac day; it has the colour of sacred language, and is used sparingly.

When what we call sacred destroys life, then that sacred has nothing to do with the God of Jesus, but is a structure we use as a culture to hide our violence from ourselves. The pretence of honourable cricket tells us we are good, despite all the sledging. Anzac day elevates the undoubted heroism of our soldiers, to hide our armies' violence and war atrocities, not to mention the dubious nature of our alliance with the USA and all its world destroying greed, from which we gain so much.

The refugees are one more faux enemy, one more scapegoat, whom we can punish to convince ourselves we are right and holy, in order to let us live life undisturbed by our conscience. And when someone steps out of the system, they become its victim. Most recently it was Yassmin Abdel-Magied, before her it was Scott McIntyre. Don't even think about ball tampering.

And the false holiness of the churches which suspect that God is punishing the poor and sick for their sins, and ask: Who sinned, this man or his father, is mirrored by the continual attempt to punish those on "Newstart" despite the fact that it is impossible to employ all those who wish to work because there are not enough jobs to go round.

So Jesus presents us two ways of living: an arbitrary holiness that requires people submit to its whims and tyrannies, or the compassion of God which restores those who are suffering and brings us all to a full humanity. Arbitrary holiness is, in fact, an idolatry. The compassion of God is Creation ongoing, a living as joint heirs with Christ and being brought to fullness. Paul's words "if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him" in Romans 8:10-23 suggest our idolatry is to refuse to trust, and to refuse to suffer.

The Rabbit Hole of Abiathar
I searched 1 Samuel to find David and Abiathar the high priest (so called,) and found instead, that his father Ahimelech had given the bread of the sanctuary to David as David fled from Saul.  Ahimelech and 84 others were massacred by Saul for his mercy to David. (1 Samuel 21-22)

“You, Doeg, turn and attack the priests.” Doeg the Edomite turned and attacked the priests; on that day he killed eighty-five who wore the linen ephod. 19Nob, the city of the priests, he put to the sword; men and women, children and infants, oxen, donkeys, and sheep, he put to the sword. (1 Samuel 18-19)

Abiathar was a son of Ahimelech, who survived the massacre, and fled after David.

The story of David continues through  to the uprising of his son Absalom, which begins with popularist politicking that would be right at home in Canberra:

2Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the road into the gate; and when anyone brought a suit before the king for judgment, Absalom would call out and say, “From what city are you?” When the person said, “Your servant is of such and such a tribe in Israel,”3Absalom would say, “See, your claims are good and right; but there is no one deputed by the king to hear you.” 4Absalom said moreover, “If only I were judge in the land! Then all who had a suit or cause might come to me, and I would give them justice.” 5Whenever people came near to do obeisance to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of them, and kiss them. 6Thus Absalom did to every Israelite who came to the king for judgment; so Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel. (2 Samuel 15:2-6)

Eventually, David is forced to flee for his life. Raymond Brown noted similarities between the flight of David, and Mark's story of Jesus' passion: "several of the evangelists are echoing the Ascent of Olives reference in II Samuel 15:30." (Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 1 pp125-126)

 Knowing the story so well, how does Mark confuse Abiathar and his father? John P Meier points out that the Pharisees would have mocked Jesus with delight if he had said this; "You reckon we haven't read the story!?" So perhaps the reference is put into Jesus' mouth by Mark.

Despite the theoretical purpose of addressing and confuting one's adversaries outside, most religious aplogetics and polemics are directed inward. Their real function is to give a sense of assurance and reinforcement to the group producing the polemics. (Meier "Plucking Grain on the Sabbath," pp581)  [A bit like the asinine sayings on church notice boards, such polemics preach to the choir.]

Michael Turton suggests  "in 2 Samuel it is Abiathar who escapes (sic) back to Jerusalem carrying the Ark of the Covenant, just as it is Jesus, who brings the new covenant to Jerusalem." He wonders if the "error" is  a deliberate prompt to reference the new covenant.

I find this too obscure to believe. But the story presents David at his best.

Chapter 15:24-30 has the priests, now including Abiathar, coming to take the Ark of the Covenant out of the city, so that it may be taken with David as he flees from the coup against him by Absalom. David sends them back:

25Then the king said to Zadok, “Carry the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me back and let me see both it and the place where it stays.26But if he says, ‘I take no pleasure in you,’ here I am, let him do to me what seems good to him.” 27The king also said to the priest Zadok, “Look, go back to the city in peace, you and Abiathar, with your two sons, Ahimaaz your son, and Jonathan son of Abiathar. 28See, I will wait at the fords of the wilderness until word comes from you to inform me.” (2 Samuel 15:25-28)

At this point, David refuses to seek to own and define the holy, and instead, trusts his God.

There is an odd coincidence in the story of Abiathar and the Old Testament reading this week where God says to Samuel regading Eli: "14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever." It was a bitter confirmation for Eli of the word given to him in 2:31 that "no one in your family will live to old age." (1 Samuel 2, 3) In the turmoil as Solomon seeks to succeed his father David, we read

26 The king said to the priest Abiathar, ‘Go to Anathoth, to your estate; for you deserve death. But I will not at this time put you to death, because you carried the ark of the Lord God before my father David, and because you shared in all the hardships my father endured.’ 27So Solomon banished Abiathar from being priest to the Lord, thus fulfilling the word of the Lord that he had spoken concerning the house of Eli in Shiloh.  (1 Kings 2:26)

Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
Mark 2:18-28   (2006)
Mark 3:1-8  (2006) 

  1. What seems to us to be an odd use of the plural sabbaths might simply be a convention of Greek language. However, Mark D Davis notes:

“Sabbaths” is plural here [24] and in v.23. In vv.27 and 28, it will be singular. (Mark’s use of the plural for Sabbaths is a word study in itself.) Add that to the imperfect (“They were saying”), rather than a simple aorist past tense and it might be that this was an ongoing contention that comes to a head on this particular occasion, rather than a simple one-time event.

  1. Davis translates "hardness" of heart as callousness: "This could read “the hardness of their hearts,” but the gospels sometimes use sclerosiswith καρδίας (resulting in the transliterated term cardio sclerosis). Here the noun is πωρώσει, which could be ‘hardness,’ but refers to the knotting callous that hardens over fractured bones."


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