Two weeks ago, a six year old girl who lives a few doors away was outside, swinging in her backyard. She was playing a popular children's game of swinging until she gained sufficient momentum, and then jumped off the swing as it swing forward, sending her up and out, higher and farther than the swing itself could provide. I had seen her perform the feat hundreds of times. She loved playing the game. She loved the feeling of soaring free. Two weeks ago, she flew off the swing and couldn't quite get her feet under her in time, and landed partially on her right hand. The force of the fall cracked the bone near her elbow.
I sat with her and her parents in the emergency room, she was in great pain. Her arm was very tender. She cried, then stopped, then cried some more. One time when she stopped, she said that she would never fly in the air off the swing again.
Another family in our neighborhood had planned a "dream vacation" last summer. They had always heard of this certain resort, with dozens of activities and amenities available. They saved up some money and happily drove away for weeks of blissful vacation. They came home four days later angry and embarrassed. The "dream" had turned into a nightmare. The lodge was rundown. The beds infested with fleas. The swimming pool drained except for a foot and a half of scum water. The boats leaked and the tennis court was veined with earthquake-sized cracks. They never took another vacation, without thorough investigation. They began researching vacation spots in January for an early August vacation.
In 1947, a new nation called "The State of Israel" was formed with the support of the United States and many other countries. The European Holocaust, the mass murder of six million Jews, (and on a lesser scale, other groups of undesirables such as Bohemians and gays) was such a devastatingly dark period in the history of humankind that no sane and caring person would ever want to see it repeated. And so, Israel was created so that every Jew would have a safe place, a refugee, a homeland, in the event the insanity and the killing started again.
What all three of these vignettes illustrate is that since we have known painful, horrible, and devastating experiences, we take steps to avoid ever having to face them again. We will take extreme measures and we will make great sacrifices to insure our safety, security, and survivability.
One of the darkest periods for the ancient Israelites was the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon in 586 B.C.E., by the Babylonians. In addition, the skilled laborers were sent into exile and enslaved in Babylon. The unskilled and therefore "useless" citizens were put to death. After roughly 75 years of exile, Cyrus, the Persian, defeated the Babylonians, releasing the Israelite slaves who began trickling back to their ancestral homeland. Eventually, the Temple was rebuilt, and the Torah (the Law) was reclaimed.
The Israelite scholars and leaders believed that the Exile and destruction was sent to them by God as a punishment for abandoning the lifestyle outlined in the Torah. The only way to insure that such a horrible tragedy would never happen again was for every faithful Jew to adhere strictly to every one of God's laws and ordinances.
Israel was not a strong and powerful nation. Their best and only hope was to please God, who would then protect them. And what pleased God more than anything was when the faithful community kept the Law.
So one Sabbath day, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field of wheat. They're hungry, so they pull a few wheat stalks and do what is still done today during the wheat harvest: place the head of a stalk between one's palms, roll the head back and forth until the casing and the chaff fall off, leaving seven or eight wheat berries, which can then be chewed like gun for a few minutes until it dissolves.
Some Pharisees who witness this blatant disregard of the Law are irate. The observance of the Sabbath is not being kept. The security of the nation is being placed in jeopardy. At the time of Jesus, Israel was under Roman occupation. It was like exile without leaving home. The Pharisees knew that they were no match against the Roman army. They wanted to avoid mass destruction of the city, Temple, and population (It had happened before.) Their only hope was the power and protection of God. They could not afford to get on God's bad side.
Jesus answered their concern with a question, "Don't you remember when David and his men were fleeing the wrath of King Saul, and coming upon the priests who tended the tent and ark of the covenant, asked them to share the ritual bread, reserved only for the priests, with his tried and hungry men?"
There is more to Jesus' response than, "Rules can be broken." The response is meant to challenge the Pharisees to see what is of greatest importance. David had been anointed by Samuel, but not yet on the throne. Jesus had been anointed by John at baptism but not yet on his throne. They both represented the ways of a loving, caring, compassionate God, a God of justice and a God of mercy. Their ways are higher than the ways of Law or Temple, than the ways of kings and emperors. If people are hungry - they must be fed, Sabbath or not. If people are diseased - they must be healed, Sabbath or not. If people are oppressed - they must be liberated, Caesar or not.
In our own day, the church is going through dark times. Numbers are down, money is scarce. Confession, disagreement and hostility abound. Our safety, security, and survival as a church is on the line. It is tempting to hold onto a single object or vision and claim it as savior.
It would be too simple to conclude from this story that the followers of Jesus are to disregard tradition and just do whatever they want. Jesus responds to the Pharisee's concern for the tradition of the Law with an equally valid tradition established by a hero of the faith, King David. Nor are we to pick and choose from the varieties of traditions until we find one that suits us.
Instead, Jesus is challenging the values and priorities of the Pharisees. The historical context suggest that their zeal of following the Law was not in the service of God's people, not in compassionate response to the hungry, the sick, the oppressed, or the imprisoned, not for holiness but rather, as a strategy to keep Caesar and his forces - military (and maybe economic) - in check. Jesus favors neither the ways of Caesar, not the ways of the Pharisees. He carefully avoids being drawn into that struggle. Instead, he seeks to demonstrate to all, that the reign of God is near.
The Son of Man, a biblical figure often associated with the coming of the reign of God, is Lord, even of the Sabbath.
The Son of Man will not come down on the side of the Pharisees. But neither will he come down on the side of Caesar. Institutions may not survive. But feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Visit the lonely. Liberate the oppressed. The reign of God is very near.