Sunday, June 2, 2024

Second Sunday after Pentecost
Pride Sunday
Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (2 Corinthians 4:5-12/NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (Mark 2:23-3:6/NRSVUE)

At the last church I served, there was a box sitting on a table in the Sunday School classroom with a sign on it that said: “Questions for the Pastor.” I know this because I’m the one who put it there. My intention in doing so was to give the kids a way to ask me things about God and Jesus and the church when they came to mind because I couldn’t join them for class; you see, Sunday School there, like here, took place during worship and that’s a time during which I’m otherwise occupied.

It took a little while for this endeavor to gain momentum, but eventually the submissions started coming in — and judging by the obvious maturity of some of the handwriting, at least a few adults had some pressing theological questions too. Let’s just say there were some real doozies, but one of my particular favorites, though, was this: “Did Jesus ever get angry?”

The canonical gospels (by that I mean the four that made it into the Bible) do contain stories where Jesus is obviously mad about something (five of them, to be exact) — that time Jesus flipped over tables in the Temple, for example. But today’s story from Mark is the only place in all four gospels where the Greek word for “anger” is used to describe what Jesus is feeling.

Mark’s Gospel was available to Matthew and Luke when they were writing theirs, and both recount versions this same event, but neither mentions that Jesus was angry at the Pharisees’ “hardness of heart” when they refused to say that it was lawful to “do good or” to “save life” on the sabbath. New Testament scholar Bart Erhman surmises that anger didn’t fit the image of Jesus that either Matthew or Luke (but particularly Luke) wanted to convey, so they just omitted it; Mark, by contrast didn’t seem to have a problem with an angry Jesus, which makes sense because many have described Mark’s portrait of Jesus as being the most human, and humans sometimes get angry. But why is Jesus angry here — angry enough that Mark would make a point of telling us that he is?

Our reading for today tells of the last of a string of five controversies involving Jesus that begins in Mark’s second chapter and ends here in the third. We’re only a few chapters into book and Jesus is already causing trouble — good trouble, mind you, but trouble nonetheless. Previously, Jesus ends up on the wrong side of this group of Pharisees by dining with sinners and not observing the fast; this time, he’s calling into question not only what’s permissible to do on the sabbath, but also what the whole point of the sabbath is in the first place.

The intensity of these arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees about practices under the law has been growing steadily and this final one about the sabbath is the most fraught of them all; it’s the one that makes Jesus angry, and it’s the one that pushes the Pharisees to decide to destroy Jesus.

This conflict is intense because the sabbath — the time at which everyone and everything gets a chance to to rest and reflect and recharge — was a really big deal. Sure, the commandment to observe it only comes in at number four on God’s top ten list, but God spends a whole lot of time talking about it. While they are clearly important, “You shall not murder” and “You shall not steal” are only one verse each, but “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy” goes on for three more verses (and two of those verses are pretty long).

Just to be clear: Jesus isn’t questioning the validity of the commandment to observe the sabbath here, he’s simply challenging people to think about what it means to observe the sabbath rightly, to consider the implications of the law in the broader context of all that God desires for humankind and all creation. And, make no mistake about it, Jesus is intentionally pushing people’s buttons here to make his point (he was pretty good doing that).

Mark tells us that Jesus’s foil in this argument is “the Pharisees,” and their presence here is kind of… complicated. In Mark’s Gospel, the term “the Pharisees” is used to describe what seems to be the most prominent Jewish group in that place and time. These particular Pharisees are depicted as being highly legalistic, hyper-concerned with matters of ritual purity, and consistently hostile to Jesus and his ministry.

I say “these” Pharisees with great intention here because it’s really dangerous to infer that the thoughts and words and actions of a small group of people is necessarily representative of some larger group. Mark definitely has an agenda here, and we need to acknowledge and understand that. At the risk of oversimplifying things, for Mark, Jesus is good and the Pharisees are bad.

In actuality, we really don’t know much about the Pharisees beyond what other people — including, but not limited to, the New Testament authors — tell us; there are simply no surviving writings from any Pharisees themselves that might provide a different point of view about who they were or what they stood for.

Mark’s squabble with these Pharisee’s (which is really Jesus’s squabble) is that they are taking God’s law and using it in ways that God never intended it to be used — to exclude certain people, to prevent certain people from experiencing the life in all it’s fullness — rather than using it as a means for building and sustaining beloved community. They strayed so far from God’s intentions, in fact, that one could say that they’ve replaced God’s law with their own. And that’s Jesus’s problem here.  

In ancient Judaism, arguments like this one between Jesus and the Pharisees served a really important function. Sure, God gave the people the law, but it was up to the people to interpret the law, to determine how it would apply to the specific circumstances of their everyday lives. At the risk of oversimplifying things yet again, in this particular debate over sabbath observance, Mark depicts these Pharisees as being concerned with the letter of the law while Jesus is shown to be concerned with the spirit of the law. And I’ll give you one guess as to who Mark thinks is right about this.

As our reading begins, Jesus and his disciples are going through the grainfields and the disciples are plucking heads of grain. The Pharisees see this and question Jesus, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Though the Pharisees could be seen as being technically correct here — it was, in fact, a violation of the prohibition against work on the sabbath to harvest crops — God specifically says (in Deuteronomy 23:25, to be precise) that it was perfectly fine for a hungry traveler to pick by hand grain from someone’s field.

Now, were Jesus’s disciples actually in need of food or were they simply trying to start something with the Pharisees? Mark never says one way or the other. And you do kinda have to wonder why these Pharisees were walking around out there in the fields like some nosy neighbors — on the sabbath, nonetheless — just waiting for Jesus and Friends to do something that they could take issue with.

In any event, it soon becomes clear where Jesus stands with respect to all of this: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” In other words, it’s not about the Deuteronomy provision taking precedence over the Exodus one; it’s not an argument about whether picking grain for one’s own consumption actually constitutes “work” on the sabbath; it’s about the spirit of the law — a law that’s intended, above all else, to promote and sustain life — having priority over the letter of the law.

And then Jesus heads off to the synagogue to cause even more trouble on the sabbath. He finds there a man with a withered hand, and the Pharisees once again are lying in wait to see what he will do (as if that were ever in doubt). Now, there is no indication that this man’s condition was actually life-threatening (and thus curing it permissible under a strict interpretation of sabbath law); then again, Jesus doesn’t really care whether it was or wasn’t.

Knowing that the Pharisees are watching, Jesus turns to them and throws down: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” And, of course, we all know how Jesus would answer these questions. But the Pharisees are silent, and it is their silence that ultimately angers Jesus. It is important to remember as well that Jesus’s actions here lead Pharisees to commit themselves to silencing him, to destroying him — which they try to do without success.

And so maybe the resulting questions for us to consider, as modern disciples of Christ, on this Pride Sunday of all Sundays, are these:

What are the rules and norms and laws we live by that foster the kinds of lives that God is calling us towards: lives defined by love and healing and justice and community? And what are the ones that keep us — some of us, and thus all of us — from living those kinds of lives? You know: ones that keep people from going to the bathroom where they choose, or reading books that might open their minds, or getting the healthcare they need and deserve.

How angry do we get when these rules and norms and laws do harm instead of good, when they kill instead saving life? Because Jesus clearly got angry when this happened.

Do we choose to speak up or to be silent when we see them doing harm, when we see them killing? Because Jesus clearly chose to speak up when this happened.

And what kinds of risks are we willing to take in order to challenge them and to change them for the benefit of all? Because Jesus clearly thought this was worth taking some risks for.