Lent 2 – Jesus as Rule Breaker

“Jesus as Rule Breaker,” Bob Ryder

Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefor the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day.

Mark 2:23-3:6
One Sabbath day, Jesus and his disciples were walking through the fields. As they made their way, they plucked heads of grain and ate them.  The Pharisees challenged Jesus saying, ‘They’re doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath, why do you let them?’  Jesus replied, ‘Have you never read what King David did when he and his companions were hungry and needed food?  He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence. The law says no one except the priests are allowed to eat that bread. David ate it, though, and he shared it with his friends.’  Are you saying what King David did was wrong? The Pharisees had no reply, so Jesus added, ‘People weren’t made for the sake of the Sabbath – the Sabbath was made for the sake of the people.  And the Son of Man is lord of both people and the Sabbath.’

After that Jesus went to the synagogue, and as it happened a man was there with a withered hand. The Pharisees watched Jesus to see whether he would heal the man on the Sabbath so they could accuse him. Jesus saw the Pharisees watching, so he had the man step forward. Then he said to his detractors, ‘What is it lawful on the Sabbath – to do good or to do harm, to heal or to hurt?’ The Pharisees just stood there with their jaws clenched and their arms folded across their chests.  Jesus looked at them with anger for being hard-hearted.  Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ The man did, and his hand was instantly restored. Then the Pharisees went out and conspired to kill Jesus.

Who do you know who’s made a difference for the better by breaking rules?  Think about that, and I’ll invite you to share at the end of the reflection if someone comes to mind.  Perhaps it’s someone you know by reputation, or maybe someone you know personally.  In recent weeks we’ve mentioned John Lewis, who helped lead the movement challenging segregation in the south by breaking unjust laws and going to jail when necessary.  Likewise we thought about Colin Kaepernick, who drew attention to police brutality by kneeling for the national anthem before NFL football games.  It might not have been an official law on any books, but he definitely broke a rule everyone understands.  He hasn’t worked a day in the NFL since the end of that season.  We all know about Rosa Parks who disobeyed the law about giving up her seat for a white man on the bus.  We thought about Bayard Rustin who organized the March on Washington and made it part of his strategy to challenge unjust laws.  Are there others you can think of?  Is there anyone who’s broken the rules for the better?  Anyone who’s broken the rules for you; with you?

For a short time years ago I had a friendly acquaintance with John Fife, the long-time pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church and Moderator of the General Assembly (the highest office in the denomination) in 1992.  John let me stay with him at his home in Tucson for a visit once when I was in town applying for a job before Susan and I came here, and I got to listen to the story of when he was arrested for his work in the Sanctuary Movement, which assisted refugees and undocumented immigrants from Central America with food, shelter and clothing.  It was against federal immigration law to give that sort of help, but he and many others did it anyway and some were arrested for it.  I remember listening to him chat about the work as if he were helping a neighbor fix a flat tire; such a matter-of-fact common-sense thing to do.  It was the same tone he’d used on the phone when I asked if he could put me up for a night while I was in town.  It was probably a little presumptuous for me to ask, as I only knew John casually, but he couldn’t have been nicer or more gracious about it.  That’s the same way he talked about getting arrested for helping Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees – it was a no brainer.

I see a chiropractor regularly to help prevent a recurring sprain in my lower back, and sometimes to help heal that sprain when it happens anyway.  Not long ago that I had an episode over a weekend, and I came to the office on Monday morning without an appointment – the practice is good about taking walk-ins.  Well my guy knows his stuff, and he performed a couple of adjustments on my back and hips that helped me feel a lot better right away.  You’ve seen me now and then when I’m in the middle of it, kind of bent over like I get.  There’s always a little left over stiffness for a day or two after an injury, but with the treatment I was able to stand up strait again and walk a lot more easily and and get through all the work I had to do instead of being laid up and cancelling appointments.  But what meant as much to me any anything else about the visit was when he said to me, “Anytime that happens over a weekend, call me.  Here’s my cell number.  I’ll come in for an emergency visit, or I’ll get one of the others to meet you here and get you fixed up.”  He used the same matter-of-fact tone as my friend John had talking about helping refugees even though it was technically illegal.  This guy has family and a full-time job and things he likes to do on the weekends.  So it really touched me that he offered to break his own sabbath if – actually when – I have another back injury and the office is supposed to be closed.

Today is the second Sunday of Lent, and we continue the theme Susan introduced last week considering Jesus as a model of resilience and integrity.  As good a way as any to understand the essence of his spirituality is to think about his approach to ministry as a rule breaker.  At first glance, it might seem counter-intuitive to associate someone breaking rules with the notion of integrity, but it doesn’t take more than a moment to realize the difference between the law as a set of rules to govern human behavior and often to keep some people down while giving others an unfair advantage, versus the much larger reality of justice for the well-being of all people the law is meant to approximate and pursue.  They’re very different things, law and justice.  We heard those two back-to-back stories from Mark’s gospel about Jesus helping people even when it meant breaking the rules.  The Pharisees relationship with the rules, the Torah, the law, was to use it as a tool for keeping people in line, keeping the status quo.  They were the arbiters of right and wrong and they used the law to maintain things so that power and wealth stayed with the privileged.  Jesus no doubt already had a reputation as troublemaker, and so while they might not necessarily have made an issue of it if someone else had picked some grain while traveling on a Sabbath day, they were certainly going to take the opportunity to confront Jesus.

There’s nothing especially mysterious or nuanced about Jesus’ logic as he brushes off the Pharisees’ criticism.  Technically, yes – the disciples are “harvesting” and therefor “working” on the sabbath.  But Jesus quickly confronts them with the spirit of the law compared as with the letter of the law.  The sabbath is meant to let people restore themselves one day a week without worrying they’ll be at a disadvantage while others work.  It isn’t about making a sacrifice and keeping a pure observance, it’s about everyone agreeing to give each other the space to rest and enjoy life without grinding constantly.  Obviously, the disciples weren’t plucking grain to get one over on anybody, they were feeding themselves.  He goes on to point out what should have been obvious – humans don’t exist to obey the law.  The law exists to make life better for people.  Not every law is just or fair or leaves people better off.  If doing what you have to do to survive means breaking Sabbath law, so be it.

I want to share a passage from a Wikipedia article about a humanitarian organization in Arizona called “No More Deaths.”  It’s related to the Sanctuary Movement I mentioned earlier, and their work is to provide food and water and medical assistance to undocumented immigrants who attempt to enter the United States by crossing the desert at the southern border.  What I’m sharing is a portion of the article that recounts the prosecution of one of the volunteers…

“Scott Warren – In 2018 migrants were in the news as President Trump threatened to send the U.S. military to close the border and stop the Central American migrant caravans.

In January 2018, Scott Warren, a volunteer with No More Deaths, was arrested and charged with a felony for harboring migrants after Border Patrol allegedly witnessed him giving food and water to two migrants in the west desert near Cabeza Prieta. Warren was tried on three felony charges: two counts of harboring undocumented migrants and one count of conspiracy to transport and harbor them at a structure in Ajo at a staging area for humanitarian aid efforts called “The Barn.” His arrest came only hours after No More Deaths published a report criticizing actions of Border Patrol and accusing them of destroying humanitarian supplies in the desert. Together with Warren, more volunteers were charged by the authorities. At a trial in June 2019, the jury deadlocked after three days of deliberation. Federal prosecutors retried Warren, and in November 2019, Warren was acquitted on all charges.”

When I think about Jesus or lessons from scripture in general, it helps me to find a way past the romance of prosaic language and quaint notions of life in ancient times.  It’s easy to think about the people and places and issues in biblical stories with a “once upon a time” vibe, as if they weren’t quite as “real life” as the existence we know with potholes and piles of laundry and places in the “greatest nation on earth” where the poor and people of color and college students sometimes have to wait in line to vote for seven hours because so many polling places in districts serving those demographics have been closed.  So when I think about passages like the ones we heard from Deuteronomy and Mark, I remind myself that what happened then felt just like it does today.  Or maybe I should say that what’s happening now is the same reality as then – we experience the same kinds politics Mark was writing about.  The law is often used as a weapon by the powerful and wealthy to disadvantage the poor and vulnerable.  Being a follower of Jesus means taking care of each other – especially those who are the most in need – even when it breaks the rules and offends those who are in charge; even when it provokes them to the point where we might be arrested or killed.

Who do you know who’s made a difference for the better by breaking rules?  Perhaps it’s someone you know by reputation, or maybe someone you know personally; someone who’s broken the rules for you; with you. Think about that, and I’ll bring the microphone around if you’d like to share a thought.