Fixing the Sabbath

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Here is the Cliffs Notes version of the story from Jesus’ life that we will explore today: Jesus’ disciples had a snack, then Jesus healed a guy with a disability, so the religious leaders started making plans to kill Jesus.

I certainly understand if you think murder is a bit of an over-reaction to the offense of munchies and a miracle. But things will make a little more sense if you pay attention to what Jesus said while those things were happening, as well as noticing what the calendar said while those things were happening.

The story is found in Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, and Luke 6:1-11. The three writers agree on the basics of the day’s events, but each highlights different parts of the story.

Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grainfield. Some of his disciples were hungry, so they plucked some heads of grain to enjoy as they walked along. Some Pharisees, key religious leaders of the day, saw what the disciples were doing. They got themselves good and offended and said, “JESUS! YOUR DISCIPLES ARE BREAKING THE RULES! THEY ARE DOING WHAT IS UNLAWFUL!” (I’m pretty sure the Pharisees would be the kind of people who would type their comments in all caps). The disciples’ actions might offend some of us because of their reckless disregard for the gluten contained in their choice of snack. Or maybe we would be bothered by the fact that they are eating grain that does not belong to them (though actually it was an expected act of generosity and care for the poor to allow people to do what the disciples did – see Deuteronomy 23:25, which basically says it is ok to grab a handful of your neighbor’s grain as long as you don’t drive your John Deere onto his land and start harvesting). But what bothered the Pharisees was the day on which the disciples were doing their nibbling. It was the Sabbath.

God had commanded his people not to work on the Sabbath. It was part of the original Top Ten list. First century religious leaders then spilled countless gallons of ink making lists of things not to do on that day, and then spent lots of time saying “gotcha” to people they caught doing those things. They were appalled by the fact that Jesus was letting his disciples get away with their Sabbath snacking, so they took it upon themselves to lecture him.

Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ lecture with a series of audacious statements.

First, he blasted their legalism. He reminded them that David broke the rules by entering the tabernacle and eating consecrated bread, and that priests in the temple broke the rules by working on the Sabbath. He implied that the Pharisees were more obsessed with “the rules” than God was, and that they needed to get over themselves and quit trying to out-holy the Holy One. Jesus told the Pharisees that they had it upside down when they valued rules more than they valued people.

Second, Jesus told them that their interpretation of the Sabbath was backwards. He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). God knew that we would be unable to live the life he wanted us to live if we were frantic and frazzled and worn out and wiped out from whirling around 24/7. So he gave us a gift: he told us to take a day off every week. The Pharisees had taken a day God intended for burdens to be released and made it into a day of carrying the huge burden of obsessing over how many steps we could take or how many ounces we could carry without making God mad. God’s vision for Sabbath was not that if we disobediently did yardwork that day, fire would fall from heaven and consume us and our mulch. God’s vision for Sabbath was that he loved us enough to give us the opportunity to rest. The Sabbath was a comfortable recliner given to us by God; the Pharisees insisted that people carry it on their backs. Jesus informed them that by their attempts to transform a lavish blessing into a legalistic burden, they were the ones who had actually broken the Sabbath.

Third, Jesus declared that he was Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28). Wow! He had the nerve to claim that on the heavenly organizational chart, he was higher than God’s law (in the same conversation he also announced that he was higher on the org chart than the temple – see Matthew 12:6). So if he wanted his disciples to have a bite to eat on the Sabbath, that was his prerogative to allow them to do so, no matter how badly it offended the Pharisees.

Just in case the Pharisees weren’t furious enough, Jesus walked straight from the grainfield to their synagogue. He spotted a man with a shriveled hand that needed healing. He could have just whispered to the guy and asked him to clandestinely touch his cloak and receive a cure, but he wanted to keep provoking the religious leaders, so he had the guy stand up in front of God and everybody. Jesus again challenged the backwards value system of the religious leaders, reminding them that though they were appalled by the thought of healing the man on the Sabbath, they wouldn’t hesitate to pull their sheep out of a pit if it fell in on the Sabbath. Then Jesus did the “work” of healing the man and making him as good as new. By then the Pharisees had had enough of Jesus’ audacity, and they went out and started plotting his execution.

Those Sabbath adventures help us to keep our priorities in line with reality:

People > sheep.

People > Sabbath.

People > rules.

Jesus > everything.

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Want to explore further?

  1. Read the three different Gospel accounts of the Sabbath controversy (Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, and Luke 6:1-11). What is unique about each account?
  2. Search for the word “Sabbath” in the Gospels on biblegateway.com. Read some of the other passages that describe Jesus breaking the rules of the religious leaders.
  3. What would it look like for you to prioritize people over rules today?

Jesus Is Worth It

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Three times in the Gospel of Luke we read about Jesus having dinner in the home of a Pharisee. Casa de Pharisee is a surprising place to find him, since Jesus and the Pharisees were not exactly BFFs. That probably had something to do with the fact that Jesus kept calling them names like “hypocrite” and “snake,” and he kept saying things that set off their theological propriety alarms. They weren’t very fond of his audacious habit of doing things only God could do, like forgiving sin and redefining the Sabbath. And it bugged them that he had really low standards for table fellowship, showing an annoying tendency to welcome sinners and eat with them.

But Jesus also welcomed Pharisees and ate with them. All three times we read about him in their homes, we see him conducting a clinic on how not to get invited back. He lectured and critiqued his hosts, and he told stories in which he used them as an illustration of what not to do.

The first Pharisee host to experience Jesus’ rudeness was named Simon, and his story is recorded in Luke 7:36-50. Simon invited Jesus and some other guests to dinner, but before they got to dessert an awkward party crasher showed up. A local woman “who lived a sinful life” (v.37) heard that Jesus was there and invited herself in. She stood behind Jesus, weeping. Then she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wipe them with her hair. Then she started kissing his feet and pouring perfume on them.

Luke describes Simon’s reaction:

“When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.'” -Luke 7:39

Simon’s internal monologue reveals a fundamental assumption of the Pharisees: holiness requires separation from that which is unholy. The goal of the Pharisees was to be holy, to obey God’s law, and to help others to do the same. And they assumed that the way to stay pure was to stay as far as possible from that which was impure. The title “Pharisee” most likely comes from a word that means “separated one.” They invested a tremendous amount of energy in avoiding people and situations that might contaminate them.

Simon assumed that Jesus would share his pious repulsion from sinners. So the fact that Jesus was not saying, “Eww, gross” and running from the building to get away from the flawed female at his feet must have meant that he didn’t perceive what a sinner she was, which must have meant that he was not all that folks made him out to be.

But Jesus was fully aware of the woman’s sinfulness. He simply was not frightened of it the way Simon was. Jesus chunked the Pharisees’ ethic of quarantine from sinners and lived an ethic of embracing sinners. Jesus had the audacity to believe in reverse contamination – that his goodness would rub off on the sinful people around him. He touched lepers, and he rubbed shoulders with tax collectors, and he let sinful women do embarrassing things with his feet.

Luke 7:40 tells us that Jesus “answered” Simon, which is interesting and more than a little unsettling since v.39 says that Simon was talking to himself. Jesus told Simon a story about a moneylender who had two clients who couldn’t pay him back. One owed two months’ salary, the other owed two years’ salary. The lender graciously forgave both debts. Jesus teed up an easy question for Simon: which of the two clients would love the moneylender more? Simon gave the obvious reply that the one who had been forgiven more would love more.

Jesus then clarified that the nice little story was being enacted in real life at Simon’s dinner party. He basically said, “Let’s do a little comparison and contrast, Simon. I came to your house, and you didn’t even think I was worth basic hospitality: you didn’t give me water for my feet, or a peck on the cheek, or oil for my head. But this woman has not stopped adoring me since she arrived. She has poured out bountiful love along with her tears and her perfume.”

Jesus said that the woman’s abundance of affection flowed from her awareness that she had been forgiven a massive debt. Her love was fueled by gratitude for God’s grace. Simon, on the other hand, didn’t feel a need to show much love to Jesus because he didn’t think he owed Jesus that much. The fact that Simon viewed himself as a decent chap who didn’t need a lot of grace left him incapable of going overboard in his love for Jesus.

I confess that the scene at Simon’s table is deeply convicting for me personally, because I have much more in common with Simon than with the woman. You won’t often find me crying at Jesus’ feet. You won’t often see me going overboard in expressing my love for him. And I have to wonder if that lack of abandon is because on some level I don’t recognize that Jesus is worth it – I don’t grasp how much he has done for me – I don’t realize how big of a debt he has forgiven.

After Jesus finished hitting Simon (and me) right between the eyes, he turned to the woman and told her that her sins were forgiven. That pronouncement got the other dinner guests all stirred up over Jesus’ audacity, wondering just who he thought he was. Then he told the woman that her faith had saved her, and she could go in peace.

At the table of Simon the Pharisee, we learn that there appear to be no limits to Jesus’ willingness to extend grace. His willingness to offend is equally expansive.

What would happen if we dropped our Pharisaical pretentiousness, joined the sinful woman on the floor, and gave Jesus the lavish love he deserves?

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Want to explore further?

  1. Read Luke 11:37-54 and 14:1-24, the accounts of the two other times Luke describes Jesus dining in the home of a Pharisee. What jumps out at you about these stories?
  2. Search for “Pharisee” on biblegateway.com and scroll through a few of their encounters with Jesus. What do you think they found so threatening about Jesus?
  3. How would Jesus’ audacious words and actions have impacted you if you had been one of the other guests at Simon’s table? How do they affect you today?

This Cup is the What!?

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When you hear “Communion” or “Lord’s Supper,” I bet the word “audacity” doesn’t come to mind. It is just that nice worship ritual where you eat a bland bite of cracker and swallow a sip of wine (or grape juice if you are a Baptist like I am), maybe praying a prayer of gratitude, or a prayer of confession, or a prayer that the people serving the elements don’t drop them all over the floor. That last one might be just me, I’m not sure. But anyway, the experience doesn’t necessarily have an overly revolutionary flavor.

But the inauguration of the Lord’s Supper was one of the most audacious things Jesus ever did.

Matthew (26:17-30), Mark (14:12-26), and Luke (22:7-23) all tell the story. In order to be properly offended by what Jesus did, we need to realize that he did it at no ordinary meal. He was eating the Passover with his disciples. It is so important for us to get this point that the Gospel writers practically beat us over the head with it. Luke’s account, for example, mentions four times in a span of eight verses that they were eating the Passover meal – in verses 8, 11, 13, and 15. We get it, Luke. It’s Passover.

Passover was a big deal. It was the celebration of God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery. It looked back to the time when God worked amazing miracles to rescue them and to make good on his promise to make them into a great nation. It pointed to the highlight of their history, and to the clearest demonstration the world had ever seen of the nature and power of their God. Every year, the Passover celebration grounded them in their relationship with God, reminding them of God’s most dramatic saving act.

Every year, they celebrated Passover the same way. There was a right way to do it, with most of the instructions dating all the way back to Exodus chapter 12. Each element of the meal told part of the story: the lamb reminded them of the lamb slain so that the blood could be put on the door frames so that the death angel would pass over their homes and spare the lives of their firstborn children. The bitter herbs reminded them of the bitterness of their slavery. The unleavened bread reminded them of the haste with which they had to eat before making a quick exit from the land of slavery, with no time for the bread to rise. The wine reminded them of the blessing and joy of the deliverance God was providing for them, and it was red to remind them of the blood of the lamb. Each year at Passover, the head of the family or the host of the meal would have the privilege of reminding everyone at the table of what God had done for them. There was basically a 1500 year old script to guide the proceedings.

That night with his disciples, Jesus went radically off script.

“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you.'” – Luke 22:19

Wait, what!? The bread represents the haste with which their ancestors high-tailed it out of Egypt, right? Your body? What do you mean, Jesus? And what are you talking about your body being “broken” and “given” and “for us?”

“Do this in remembrance of me.” – Luke 22:19

Huh!? I thought this was supposed to be in remembrance of the Passover, of that big saving act for our ancestors! You are making it all about you!

“In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.'”

What!? Your BLOOD!? Gross. YOUR blood!? I thought it was about the lamb’s blood! And a new covenant? I thought we were celebrating the covenant God made with us through Moses? What’s going on here!?

It is impossible to miss the audacity of Jesus’ words and actions.

Imagine if I showed up at the church I serve as pastor one Sunday and announced that we would be changing curriculum for all of the church’s classes. Instead of studying the Bible, we would begin studying my autobiography. Instead of singing songs of praise to God, we would have new songs written – about me! We would devote the month of December to celebrating my birthday. The church would rightly run me out of town for having the nerve to suggest something like that!

Jesus did something just as bold. He made the Passover celebration all about himself. He said, “If you want to see the clearest picture of the saving power of God, don’t look at the Passover and the Exodus. Look at me. God’s mighty deliverance of his people from Egypt is about to get bumped down to number two on the list of amazing acts of divine rescue. Because my body is going to be broken – for you. And my blood is going to be spilled – for you. And through my death God is going to establish a new and better covenant, a new foundation for his relationship with people.”

Jesus hijacked a centuries-old celebration. He said that the biggest thing God had ever done was nothing compared to what he was about to do through him.

What marvelous audacity!

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Want to explore further?

  1. Read all three Gospel writers’ versions of the Lord’s Supper scene. What commonalities do you see? What are some distinct emphases you notice from each writer?
  2. Read Exodus 12 to get a fuller picture of what the disciples thought they would be celebrating that night.
  3. How does an understanding of Passover, and that Jesus believed he was doing something even bigger than Passover, inform our understanding of Jesus?
  4. How will your next experience of the Lord’s Supper be different?

 

Job One

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Jesus came into a world that focused on the vertical dimension of the life of faith. Most first century Jews would have acknowledged that faith has both a vertical dimension (between me and God) and a horizontal dimension (between me and other people), but they would have assumed that the most crucial part was the vertical part. They figured that what God most wanted was for them to avoid worshipping idols, to offer the correct sacrifices, to get the Sabbath right, to say the right prayers, to tithe properly, and so on.

One of the audacious things Jesus did was to elevate the horizontal. He insisted that the way we treat other people matters deeply to God. He taught that our relationships with people have an impact on our relationship with God, and that those horizontal relationships are actually the best indicators of the health of the vertical relationship.

One clear example of this tendency to elevate the importance of human relationships is in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he describes a specific case in which we should prioritize the horizontal over the vertical:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift on the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” – Jesus, Matthew 5:23-24

No other rabbi would have the audacity to tell people to keep God waiting while they go and straighten things out with a cranky neighbor. The instruction becomes even more surprising when we realize the major production involved in giving a gift at the altar: For Jesus’ original hearers, it meant traveling a great distance to the temple in Jerusalem, undergoing extensive purification rituals, and purchasing an animal to offer. Jesus said that if they went through all of that and then remembered someone back home they had wronged, they should leave Billy the newly purchased goat running loose in the temple and travel all the way home to try to make things right.

How we treat people is a big deal to Jesus.

My favorite example of Jesus elevating the horizontal is recorded in John’s Gospel. It comes at a pivotal moment: Judas has just walked out of the room to go turn Jesus in. Jesus knows that this will be his last chance to say anything to his disciples before he dies. So he tells them he won’t be with them much longer, and then he utters these profound words:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – Jesus, John 13:34-35

I would excuse you for arguing with Jesus that his command to love isn’t all that new. What is unquestionably new is the metric he tells them to use to quantify that love: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Wow. That’s a lot of love. Jesus is saying, “You remember how I welcomed you when nobody else would have you? I want you to love like that. You remember how I gave you a second chance, and a third and a fourth chance when you kept blowing it? I want you to love like that. You remember how I served you, even washing your feet? I want you to love like that. You remember how I spoke the truth to you even when it wasn’t pleasant? You remember how I fed you when you were hungry? You remember how patient I was with all of your questions and doubts? I want you to love like that.”

Jesus says he wants his kind of love to be the identifying characteristic of his followers – he wants it to be how people recognize us. That’s how our discipleship shows: Not by the beliefs we profess, or by the rules we follow, but by the love we demonstrate. Jesus says that job one for his followers is to love like he loved.

Jesus shares this profound instruction with his disciples, and they apparently don’t hear a word of it. Peter speaks as soon as Jesus pauses (no shock there), but he is still stuck on the thing Jesus was saying before giving his big new command. Peter just asks Jesus where he is going. It is one of many times we see the disciples being the “duh”-sciples, not getting it at all when Jesus says something profound. But I’m glad they don’t get it the first time, because Jesus takes the opportunity to reiterate his instruction just a couple of chapters later, this time taking its practical application to even more audacious depths:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – Jesus, John 15:12-13

Again, Jesus gives the command to love. Again, he tells them his love is the pattern. But then he tells them exactly what “as I have loved you” means: it means laying down your life for the ones you love. Jesus lets them know that love is more than warm feelings or good intentions. It is sacrifice. And he is just hours away from showing them how it is done.

Then, I suppose just in case Peter has zoned out again, he says it one more time in verse 17: “This is my command: Love each other.”

It is the culmination of a teaching ministry that audaciously elevated love for people to a higher place of prominence than anyone who came before him.

“Here’s what I command: love like I have loved you. Period. Full stop. That’s not only the first item on the list. It is the list. Love!”

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Want to explore further?

  1. Check out a few other passages in which Jesus elevates the horizontal: Matthew 7:12, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 6:27-36
  2. Read all of John 13. Pay attention to the stark contrast between Jesus’ unfailing love and the failures of his disciples.
  3. Jesus says your primary assignment is to love like he loved us. What is a practical way you can fulfill that assignment today?

What Jesus Said

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Jesus said some audacious things. Let’s take a quick look at a few examples. We’ll grab one from each Gospel just to be fair.

“Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” – Jesus, Matthew 13:17
Jesus was speaking to his disciples, and he basically said that Isaiah and Ruth and all of their other favorite faith heroes would have loved to switch places with them, because they got to hang out with him. He boldly claimed to be the high point of history, God’s feature attraction after centuries of previews. Pretty audacious, huh?

“Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.” – Jesus, Mark 9:41
Those words are pretty audacious, too. Jesus claimed the title “Messiah” for himself, which is no small thing. And he said that he is so important that people will receive rewards and blessings for treating his friends well.

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” – Jesus, Luke 23:43
Jesus spoke these words to the terrorist dying on the cross next to his. He had the audacity to declare himself in charge of the heavenly guest list, and to announce that heaven was open to a guy whose only qualification for entrance was that he had asked Jesus to put in a good word for him.

“Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.” – Jesus, John 8:51
That statement was so audacious that the people who first heard Jesus say it immediately accused him of being demon possessed. They pointed out that some pretty swell folks like Abraham and the prophets died, so Jesus would have to be pretty crazy to claim that doing what he said would make people death-proof.

Audacious words, huh? But none of those statements are really the point of today’s post. We’ll come back to those specific audacious sayings in the future and examine them in further detail. But for now, I’d like for you to notice something about the way Jesus said all of them. Did you catch the repeating phrase? Look again, and notice how Jesus began each of the four statements:

“Truly I tell you…”

In the Gospels, that phrase is the drumroll before several of Jesus’ major announcements and pronouncements. It was a catchphrase of Jesus, a way that he signaled that people better be paying attention because it was about to get good.

Even people who are skeptical about how reliable the Gospels are in conveying the actual words of Jesus have no doubt that he really used that phrase. It shows up too many times in too many independent sources to be made up. And it is not a phrase that any follower of Jesus used later in the New Testament, so we know it is not just a “church saying” that somebody wrote into the Jesus story.

The phrase shows up 79 times in the Bible. All 79 times are in the Gospels. All 79 times, the phrase is on the lips of Jesus.

The word translated “truly” is the Greek word amen. That’s right – Jesus started all of these sayings with the word we usually use when we are wrapping up a prayer and we want to let God know we are bringing it in for a landing. The Greek language actually just hijacked the word amen from Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament. It comes from a word meaning “confirmed” or “verified.” It is a word normally used at the end of a statement to affirm its validity. Jesus distinctively used it to begin his statements.

So what Jesus does with the word “truly” in that unique phrase is unprecedented. But what is really mind-blowing is what he does with the “I tell you” part of the phrase. Jesus uses the phrase to claim an audacious amount of authority.

Other rabbis of Jesus’ day buttressed the authority of their words by quoting other recognized experts. Their teaching would be full of “Rabbi Hillel tells you…” or “Moses tells you…” or “the teaching of the elders tells you…”

Jesus came along and simply said, “Truly I tell you…” No need to quote any other authority. There was no higher authority he could quote. Jesus just quoted himself.

He didn’t even say, “thus says the Lord” like the Old Testament prophets did. He just said, “thus says ME!”

Jesus used a phrase 79 times in the Gospels that made it clear that he believed that his words had weight and value and impact and importance simply because he was the one saying them.

“Truly I tell you…”

Don’t you love the audacity of that?

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Want to explore further?

  1. Grab a Bible (one with Jesus’ words in red would make things easier). Pick a Gospel, and scan Jesus’ words until you find an example of him beginning a statement with the phrase, “Truly I tell you…”
  2. Go to biblegateway.com and type the phrase “truly I tell you” in the search bar. Scroll through several examples of Jesus using the phrase, and notice the variety of statements with which he used that unique prelude.
  3. Read the audacious claim Jesus made about his words in Mark 13:31.
  4. Ponder what it means for your life today that Jesus claimed that his words have such authority.