St. Andrews 6/3/18 2nd Sunday after Pentecost. Mark 2:23-3:6
The Rev. Patricia Dickson
As part of my research for sermons, I look at what other preachers have written for the same Gospel reading. This time, everything I read was about the Sabbath, which is a perfectly wonderful topic, especially since Isaiah tells us that God wants us to “delight” in this day of rest. However, I found myself interested in Jesus’ anger— this is the only time it is named outright in the Bible (although we can intuit that he was also angry overturning tables in his Father’s house). I wanted to know more about what provoked Jesus, namely, “hardness of heart.”
It was a common practice in Jesus’ day for hungry passersby to pick ripe heads of grain from another’s field. They would put the grains in their hands and rub them together to remove the inedible husks and would eat what remained. They were allowed to have whatever amount they could eat on the spot— no grain was to be taken away to eat later or to sell. This practice was lawful everyday except the Sabbath. No work— which included reaping grain— was permitted on this day of rest.
And so the Pharisees— who had to have been near the field hoping to set a legal trap to ensnare Jesus— approached him and asked why his disciples were not observing the Sabbath. Jesus— who had to have known the Pharisees out to get him—responded with his own question, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?” Jesus’ asking the Pharisees— who were experts in Scripture— if they hadn’t read this story was an enormous affront to them and belied Jesus’ irritation. He then told them an abridged version of the story.
An expanded version is needed for us, however, to fully understand Jesus’ reference. The story of the hungry David and his companions is recounted in 1st Samuel. David knew there was always “presence bread” in the temple’s Holy Place, a sanctuary off limits to all but the priests. According to Exodus 25:30, God commanded that this bread be before God at all times. Twelve loaves were to be made weekly from the grain offerings of the Israelites and placed on a gilded table before the Lord in the sanctuary. The previous week’s bread was to be divided up by priests and consumed only by priests and their sons in a holy place.
This was the bread that David and his companions ate. Technically speaking, it was unlawful for them to eat it, but Jesus revealed that because they were hungry and in need, it was absolutely the right thing to do. Therefore, he told the Pharisees that the “Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” In other words, Jesus is saying that he is Lord of all of our days, God’s law is designed for our good, and that love, mercy and human need supplant legalism.
It was such human need on the Sabbath that led Jesus to ask the man with the withered hand in the Synagogue to “come forward” for all (including the Pharisees) to see. Before restoring the man’s hand, he asked the Pharisees if it is lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save a life or to kill. They offered no response because there was none. He looked at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.
I am reminded of a story. A young woman was baking a ham using her grandmother’s recipe. When it came time for her to cut the small end of the ham off, she called her mother and asked why she had to do that. Her mother said that she and her mother had always done it that way and told her to just do it, it had to be important or her mother wouldn’t have included it in the recipe. Unconvinced, the young woman called her grandmother and asked why she was supposed to cut the small end of the ham off. Her grandmother laughed until her stomach muscles hurt and then told her, when she was finally able to speak, that she cut the small end of the ham off to fit it in a pan that was too small.
No wonder Jesus was angry at the Pharisees and grieved at their hardness of heart. What had started out as God’s simple laws for humankind’s good had, over time, become complicated, nonsensical, inviolate legalism. In other words, the Pharisees’ approach to righteousness was too small, just like the pan.
But note well: hardness of heart is a human thing, not a Pharisee thing. In addition, experience suggests that there are two kinds of hardened hearts. One wrought by choice, the other by circumstances. Neither are terminal, but can be. We are all subject to both, to varying degrees.
The obstinate hardened heart demonstrated by the Pharisees is forged of stubbornness, rigidity, self-centeredness and self-righteousness. Such a heart is boarded shut and will not admit of alternate views. It is marked by strangling legalism, absolutes, superiority, and an exclusivity that generates hate for anyone or anything that differs from it. It draws fixed lines in the sand that lead to violence. This is the hardness of heart that makes Jesus angry.
The other form of hardness of heart is wrought by circumstances— perhaps the man with the withered hand suffered from it. It is forged by disappointment, loss, fear, or a life so hard and pain so deep that the heart just can’t take it anymore. This hardened heart locks down to cope and to prevent the vulnerability that may lead to further harm. It is marked by depression, despair and isolation. This is the hardness of heart that makes Jesus weep.
Now, the thing about hardened hearts— regardless of cause— is that they have the potential to close us off from the very help we need. The words of Jesus and his acts of love made no impression upon the Pharisees, except to solidify their contempt and increase their desire to kill the threat he had become to their power. And yet— the man with the withered hand appears to have opened his heart to trust Jesus and come forward to be healed.
What made the difference? Choice is involved, if only in a fleeting moment of doubt or despair so deep that it compels us to reach out and break free. In the meantime, the God of Infinite Love and Compassion— who desires that no one will be lost— even those with the darkest hearts of ice cold stone— abides with us always and longs for us to let him in.
So, having been reminded of God’s love and mercy by a few heads of grain and stale presence bread, let us redouble our efforts to reach out to the broken hearted and the hard hearted in Jesus’ name. And if we are the ones whose hearts are closed, let us seek out help, here, at St. Andrew’s, today. After all, this is what we do— we follow the law of love— the most beautiful and gentle law of love. Amen.