When we hear the story of Jesus’ disciples eating grain they had picked on the Sabbath day of rest in Mark 2:23-28, we might wonder what the Pharisees were so upset about. The disciples weren’t hurting anybody and I’m sure that the people who owned the field wouldn’t have missed a few stalks. So what’s the problem?
When God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses in Exodus 20, God said explicitly that his people were not to do any work on the seventh day of the week (vv8-11). What was called the Sabbath was meant to be a day of rest. In order to define what was ‘work’ so the Jewish people could keep this commandment, a complicated set of rules developed which defined what a person was and was not allowed to do. From this perspective, picking grain from a paddock was considered ‘work’ and so the disciples were breaking God’s command.
The Pharisees’ reactions might appear to be a bit extreme, but do we sometimes react in a similar way? Most Christians have our own ideas about how we should observe our own day of rest. We might not have them written down, but most people I’ve known in the church have their own set of rules about what and how we should do what we do. I’m meaning things like what songs or hymns we should or shouldn’t sing, what liturgies we should or shouldn’t use, when we should sit and when we should stand, how people should dress, how children should behave, and the list could go on. It might be uncomfortable to admit, but most of us have a set of rules that we think people should follow in the church. Then, if people don’t do what we think they should, we can start to be critical of them, kind of like the Pharisees were of Jesus’ disciples.
What is ironic is that Christians are breaking the Sabbath law just by worshiping on Sunday. Biblically, the Sabbath day of rest is Saturday – just ask someone from the Jewish community or a member of a Seventh Day Adventist church. There are two main reasons I’m aware of why Christian changed it to Sunday. The first is that the early followers of Jesus met together on the first day of the week to remember and celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The second reason was because they wanted to send a clear message that we are no longer under the law but under grace. As people whose relationship with God and eternal futures are not based on whether or not we keep the law, we are free to meet together and worship whenever is good for the community of faith.
That is why Jesus replies to the Pharisees’ criticism by saying that ‘the Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath’ (v27 NLT). Jesus teaches us that people were not created to be slaves of the law along with its rules and expectations. Instead, God gave us the law to serve us. Rules are meant to be a blessing, not a burden, especially in Christian community. If our rules are no longer serving God’s people, or if they are becoming a burden to God’s people, then we need to ask whether they are fulfilling God’s purpose. If that is the case, then maybe it is time to set those rules aside in the freedom the gospel gives us.
What seems to matter most to Jesus, not just in this story but all the way through the gospels, is people. If the rules get in the way of people finding grace or healing, love or forgiveness, then Jesus breaks the rules to give them what they need. This is what made the Pharisees so angry with Jesus, and even here, at the start of the second chapter of Mark’s gospel, the religious and political leaders of Jesus’ time are already starting to wonder how to get rid of him. They begin planning to kill him because Jesus prioritizes people over their rules. For Jesus, people are much more important that religious rules and laws.
What would our communities of faith be like if we took the same approach? I understand that we all have our preferences about when and how we worship, the style of music and liturgy (or lack of it), how people should dress and behave when they come to church. But how might our churches be different if we were willing to put our preferences and expectations aside and made people our priority?
In our congregation we have two worship services each Sunday: an earlier service with a more formal liturgy and hymns played on an organ, and a later service with less structured liturgy and a band playing more modern songs. I put the challenge out on Sunday for people to think about what things might be like if we prioritized the people of the other service – the young, the elderly, and everyone in between – over and above our own set of rules about what worship should or shouldn’t be. If we took Jesus’ words seriously about God giving us a Sabbath day of rest for our good with people being what matters most, how could we show others how important they are to Jesus by prioritizing them?
We need to remember that Jesus prioritizes each and every one of us by giving his life for us. We extend and communicate grace and love to each other when we prioritize each other and are willing to make others in our community of faith more important to us than our rules, laws and expectations. When we understand that Jesus prioritized people over rules, no matter what their age, background or gender might be, then we begin to embrace them in God’s grace and love as we follow him and do the same.
I have been serving this congregation now for almost three years. There are people in our church who think I am changing too many things too fast. There are others who think I’m not changing things quickly enough. This is the life of a pastor – it is impossible to keep everyone happy. However, the change I’m really working towards and hope to see is not about service times or styles of music or liturgy. The change I hope for is in our hearts. I would like us to recognize that rules were made for people, not people for rules, and that Jesus prioritized people over rules.
As followers of Jesus, then, I hope that we will make people our number one priority, even if it means breaking some rules to do it.