Tonight we reflect on a story in the gospel of Mark, when a man with a withered hand reaches out to Jesus and is healed. Yet it’s the Sabbath, and so the Pharisees go ballistic. But first … another story. A Catholic woman I know grew up in St Kilda, with a synagogue at the end of her street. One Friday night, when the Sabbath was already underway, there was a knock at the door. Her parents were sitting around in their dressing gowns, reading, but her mother got up, and answered the door anyway. There she found a few of their neighbours, Orthodox Jewish men. “The lights are out in the synagogue!” they said. “We can’t turn them on [it was something they were forbidden to do on the Sabbath] … so would you mind coming and switching them on?”
My friend’s mother said, “But I’m in my dressing gown!”
“Don’t worry,” they said. “It’s pitch black there. Nobody will see a thing.”
So she re-tied her dressing gown extra tight, and they all went down to the synagogue. When they went in, she found the congregation chanting and praying in the darkness. Very quietly, she and her companions fumbled their way to the switch. She reached up … then she stood on her tippy-toes and stretched even further … but she was very short: she couldn’t reach. There was some whispering. Then one of the men suggested she stand on a chair.
So my friend’s mother felt around in the dark and found a chair. Quietly, she carried it over, climbed up, and flicked the switch. Wow! All the lights came on! And she found herself at the front of a large congregation, in the blazing light, standing on a chair in her dressing gown.
This lovely story is a great illustration of what the Sabbath means for many people: no work at all, not even switching on a light or changing a fuse. Many Christians used to live like this, and my own mum told me that, when she was a girl, Sundays never, ever, ever seemed to end. In her Christian family, they could turn on a light switch, but not the oven or the stove. And so Sunday meant eating cold leftovers. It meant going to church twice, or even three times if there was a special prayer service or missionaries in town. And it meant no fun: no giggling, no loud playing, no getting silly, no cubbies, no roller skating. Instead, when they weren’t at church, they had stay quietly in their rooms, either resting or reading Christian literature. She couldn’t even catch up on her homework.
Many Christians now laugh at this way of life, and at Jewish people who won’t turn on a light switch, and at the Pharisees, who insist on the observance of the Sabbath. For tonight’s story is often read as Jesus getting rid of the Sabbath, a reading which means that most Christians nowadays have pretty much dispensed with the Sabbath altogether; and they feel free to go shopping, clean house, play sport, and even, like this pastor and like every pastor, work every Sunday.
But to think that Jesus is getting rid of the Sabbath is, I suggest, a misreading. Jesus is not throwing out God’s gift of a seven-day cycle of work and rest. The Sabbath is not a bad thing; in fact, it is a positive good. It is a gift of time with family, neighbour, and God; it’s a gift to workers, that for one day each week they do not need to produce or perform; it’s a gift to the good earth, that for one day nothing is taken, nothing consumed. It’s a gift which teaches all of us that we are unnecessary yet valued; it’s a gift of love; it’s a gift of joy.
The laws of Moses were good. Don’t make the mistake of dismissing them. They established a culture and formed a social contract which promised life even for the most vulnerable. They were a means of enacting love; and, at their heart, they were about cultivating neighbourliness. The neighbourliness which gave even the lowliest worker a day off every week. Sabbath was part of the glue which defined the group, and it was the mechanism which enabled all its members to gather at least once a week to sing, pray, listen to its sacred texts, talk, and eat together.
The problem arose not from the rule of Sabbath itself, but when it, and every other rule, became the point. For the point was never the rules, but always what they were cultivating. This doesn’t mean that we throw the rules out. It means that, in every situation, we consider whether established rules and culture build up or tear down neighbourly relationships. And this requires ongoing discernment.
Ironically, we can do this using another rule: but only one rule. When Jesus was asked which is the most important commandment, he replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40). In other words, love God, neighbour, and self: this is the one rule which runs rings around everything else; the one rule which undergirds the neighbourliness demanded by the law and the prophets; the one rule to ring them all, and in the darkness bind them—for this rule alone brings light.
I began with a story about Sabbath rest, and turning on the light. Did you notice it was also about neighbours? Jewish neighbours, who felt comfortable asking a Catholic woman to trot down the street in her dressing gown, and turn on the light; and a Catholic woman, who didn’t hesitate to serve her Jewish friends. One rule ran rings around other rules of purity, cross-cultural communication, and modesty, and it brought light.
In the last few weeks, I’ve had a bit of contact with some new people, and I’ve been invited to join a group: Pride and Diversity Warrnambool. Some members of the group are perceived by many Christians as breaking rules set down in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Bible. All the same, these people are also our neighbours. Yet several of them have described to me experiences of Christians and churches as being, shall we say, less than neighbourly. Some of them have been kicked out of their Christian families; some of them have experienced persecution from the pulpit; and while some of them are confident, others are fearful, especially around churches. And yet this group, this network, is seeking allies and spiritual care, and so it has reached out to us.
As a congregation, it would be easy for us to try and stay pure. To remind people of the rules; to turn away from the outstretched hand; and to turn our backs on relationship. We do not heal on the Sabbath.
But Jesus tells us that there is one rule to ring them all: the rule of love. The leadership team and I believe that this overrules any other consideration, and therefore we will choose for our neighbours, and choose for relationship. It’s the more difficult option, and it could cost us relationship with some other Christians. I hope not, but we don’t know.
Even so, we are prepared to risk this, because we believe that responding to our neighbours’ outstretched hand is faithful to the way of Jesus Christ. When he ate with sinners, he infuriated good religious people; and, as we heard tonight, when he turned to the man with the outstretched hand, the religious types were thrown into a frenzy and began to plot his downfall. This is all part of the story.
But let’s not forget the other bits of the story. The sinners he ate with turned to God, and there was great rejoicing in heaven. The man with the withered hand reached to Jesus, and in doing so experienced healing and restoration. And after persecution and downfall, there is new life, a new community, which is transformed by the power of love. So let’s lean into the best bits of the story, and love our neighbours as we love ourselves. One rule rings all the others: so let’s be good neighbours, and risk being exposed, as we reach and turn on the light. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Mark 2:23-3:6 given to Sanctuary on 3 June 2018 (BP04) © Alison Sampson, 2018.