Commentary on Luke 6:1-16
Preaching on ancient Sabbath controversies in the Gospels is no easy task, and in this lection we have two!
One of them deals with plucking grain (Luke 6:1-5) and the other with healing (verses 6-11). The remaining verses, 12-16, focus on the appointment of the twelve apostles and are really more connected with what follows than with verses 1-11.
There are two main problems with reading these Sabbath controversies in our contemporary context. The first is that the church has long misinterpreted the Jewish leaders who oppose Jesus’ activities on the Sabbath as being stiff and legalistic in their opposition. This has led to many anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews in Christian sermons in which concerns about the Sabbath issue are seen as “their” issue and not ours.
The second problem with preaching on Sabbath controversies is that we simply do not care about the issue in today’s church. We Christians have not observed the Sabbath — that is, Friday evening through Saturday evening — as a day of rest for thousands of years. Moreover, in our post-Christian world, we have become comfortable with no longer even observing the Lord’s Day as a “Christian Sabbath.” We are quite comfortable leaving worship to eat brunch with friends, stop by the pharmacy store to pick up some allergy medicine, mow the lawn, and then attend the children’s soccer match.
I name these two problems neither to make myself nor to encourage preachers to make accusations about congregations abandoning key principles of our faith practices. Shaming people for not caring about or observing the Sabbath anymore moves counter to the very logic of the text.
Instead, I begin by lifting up these issues to encourage preachers to recognize that since their congregations do not care about the conflict in the text, they will have lead them to a point in the sermon where they come to care about them. I propose two strategies to do this. This first deals with helping people understand the ancient conflict in a new light. The second deals with drawing a meaningful analogy between the ancient controversy and contemporary concerns.
Revisiting the Ancient Conflict
To help contemporary congregations care about the stories in the text, they need to be able to see the characters in the story and the issue itself in ways they may not have been shown in previous sermons they have heard on such texts.
The Pharisees have been misunderstood and maligned by the church at least since the Jerusalem Temple fell in the year 70 and the church found it in direct competition with Pharisees (as opposed to the priests, Sadducees, or Essenes) as heirs to Israel’s traditions in a post-Temple age. Pharisees were the liberal, mainline Protestants of first century Judaism. While other Jewish sects claimed the people needed the priesthood and the temple to mediate between them and God, the Pharisees democratized religious experience.
Often described by Christian preachers as jot and tittles of rules and regulations of religious observance, the Pharisees offered to people modes and means of devotional practice that could be followed anywhere by anyone without direct oversight or mediation by religious leaders (clergy). This means that we can assume the challenges which the Gospel writers present them as having to Jesus’ actions are sincere concerns about the welfare of the people and the shared ritual practices available to them.
Preachers have also mischaracterized Jesus in these Sabbath controversies. We seem to forget that Jesus was a Jew. The conflicts between Jesus and religious leaders are not interfaith debates (Christian versus Jew), they are inner-faith arguments (Jews dialoging with Jews in a way often done in ancient Jewish circles).
Painting the characters in the text differently than congregations are used to hearing them characterized will begin to pique their interest in looking for a new interpretation of the passage.
Analogy with Contemporary Contexts
To move from the ancient to the contemporary and build on the interest created by reshaping a congregation’s view of the characters in the ancient text, preachers will do well to ask why the Gospel writers included these Sabbath controversies in their narratives in the first place. Luke did not include the two scenes in this lection in order to make Pharisees and their fellow religious leaders look bad. He included the story because Sabbath observance was an in issue for the early church.
As the church began to include more and more Gentiles, the question of the faith’s relation to its Jewish roots evolved. Clearly, the early church considered the Hebrew scriptures (which included the commandment to keep the Sabbath) to be its scriptures. What was less clear was how those scriptures (along with its commandment to keep the Sabbath) were to be interpreted in light of the Christ Event.
It is important to note that Luke does not present Jesus as claiming no importance of the Sabbath. Instead, each story makes a different but related claims concerning the importance of the Sabbath for the church. The first is that Christ is lord of the Sabbath (verse 5), not the other way around. This justifies that Sabbath observance be kept but also be modified. The second is an ethic that doing good on the Sabbath is lawful, that it is in accordance with scripture.
These two claims in and of themselves will likely still hold little interest for most people in a contemporary congregation. But what is at stake underneath them should. The question lying under the Pharisees challenge to Jesus, underneath Jesus’ answer to them, and underneath Luke’s decision to include these stories in his narrative concerns faithful identity to a community’s tradition in light of ever-changing circumstances.
While some feel that the fabric of our society is being ripped in two, it is perhaps more accurate to recognize that we live in a day when that fabric is being re-dyed. Some experience this with joy and hope and others with fear and pain. As part of this process, the church’s identity and mission is also in flux. Denominations battle and split over issues like homosexuality. Congregations watch their numbers dwindle. Worship leaders are challenged to embrace contemporary methods of entertainment and technology to reshape the liturgy.
What does remaining faithful to Christian tradition and practices mean in such a day? Maybe Sabbath controversies are not just an ancient concern after all.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Lord of the Sabbath,
Your followers were told not to work on the Sabbath, and yet they boldly plucked grain to show that you are Lord of all. The world tells us not to rest on the Sabbath. Show us how to rest boldly, rejecting conventions that go against your will, and instead praying and resting as you did up on the mountain, for the glory of your word and work, Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Now the silence now the peace, Gerald Near