This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Mark 2:23-3:6.
“How to destroy him.” That is what Mark tells us the Pharisees wanted to do after their disagreement with Jesus about the Sabbath. It’s a very strong response, isn’t it? I might disagree with someone about all sorts of things, but it doesn’t usually leave me wanting to destroy them. It’s a bit over the top, don’t you think?
It probably helps to realise that Sabbath, for the Pharisees, wasn’t just a point of legal detail, but was a fundamental question of their identity and place in the world. The idea of a shared day of rest – a time for worship and recreation and freedom from the anxieties of work, for their whole community together – was part of what it meant to be Jewish, and part of what it meant to be in relationship with God. They felt threatened that if they lost the Sabbath, they would lose a key part of who they were, and a key part of their connection with God. It was a very, very big deal.
But the problem was that in trying to preserve that, they were insisting on doing it in a way which became oppressive. When you couldn’t pick food if you were hungry, or heal someone who could wait for medical treatment until tomorrow, because those things were too much like “work”… well, Jesus thought they’d missed the point.
And the key to this really comes in him saying, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” His point is that the rules about not working for one day a week are not meant to oppress us, they’re meant to do us good.
It’s a principle I think we need to hear so badly today. So often Christians take some commandment, or idea from the Bible, and they think that because God said it, that that is – without question and without exception – God’s will for us today, and that we must follow it no matter what the consequences, because that’s what it means to be a good person and to have a relationship with God.
The classic example of this happens with the question of divorce. We know that the ideal for human relationships is one of lifelong faithfulness in marriage. But we also know that sometimes that’s not what happens, that there’s violence or abuse or some other violation of what marriage should be. And yet the folks who think that what the Bible says can’t possibly ever be gone against are the people who’ll urge an abused person to stay because, after all, we know God hates divorce.
This illustrates so clearly one of the central questions we have to bring to reading the Bible; are these texts, and whatever commands we find in them, something which we are obliged to obey, no matter what? Are they our masters? Or is the situation a bit more complicated than that?
Paul gives us a clue in his letter to the Galatians; he wrote that “the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” The word here that we’ve translated as disciplinarian is a tricky one; it’s referring to a social role in the ancient world that really has no equivalent today, but I think the closest idea might actually be something like a governess. “The law was our governess until Christ came…”
There are three key things about a governess:
- She is a servant
- She is a teacher
- She is concerned with the welfare of her charges.
All three of those things were also true of the role Paul described in his letter. So we could draw from that the principle that the law is there to teach us, to foster our welfare, and – ultimately – exercises authority over us in only a provisional way. The law serves us, not the other way around.
So if obedience to some principle we find in Scripture is actually resulting in human harm – like the person staying in a violent marriage, or the person not being healed on the Sabbath, and so on – then we can be reasonably confident that we’ve reached the limit of application of that rule. Because none of the rules are meant to result in harm. That’s a distortion – a bending out of shape – of what they’re meant to be about.
Now here’s the thing. That doesn’t mean we can just do whatever we feel like or whatever we want. It doesn’t mean that the commandments and principles in the Bible don’t matter at all any more. That doesn’t leave us in a healthy place either, when we give ourselves permission to indulge every whim and impulse, or to ignore the rules we don’t like.
It means we need a bigger-picture principle to apply when deciding whether a rule applies just now. We know that what God wants for us is our absolute good. We know that we were created good; that our lives are – at their best – supposed to be filled with purposeful relationships and characterised by love, joy and peace; that God’s desire for the world is justice and reconciliation. So when we’re not sure whether a rule ought to apply in any particular situation, we need to weigh up the outcome and ask ourselves, “Which course of action will lead to the best outcome for the people concerned? Which will best respond to real human needs? Which will most adequately further the mission God’s given us?”
Sometimes we won’t like the answers to those questions, personally. They might ask a lot of us, emotionally or materially. They don’t give us free rein for self-gratification. But they do give us a better approach than rigidly holding to a rule or commandment even when it doesn’t serve us, because we have the idea that “God said” that’s what we must do.
So whenever we read the Bible, or interpret the Bible, in ways which damage people, in ways which limit human flourishing, which limit our trust in God or our ability to relate healthily with one another, we’re on very dangerous ground indeed. Because that’s not the purpose of the Bible. It’s not why those words were inspired, written, passed down, collected and recognised as sacred for thousands of years.
Instead the call to wholeness, personal, communal and cosmic – the wholeness and joy and peace which the Bible tells us is God’s good purpose for everything that exists – is the vision which should underpin how we read the Bible, and how we use what we read. Because the Bible is there to serve us, and not the other way around.