Chapter 5:17 introduced the Pharisees as if they just stumbled upon Jesus (they were sitting nearby). He is healing a paralytic but boldly forgiving his sins. More than the miracle, it was this statement that got the ears of the Pharisees, all puckered up. To compound matters, Jesus then calls a tax collector to be a disciple and much to the horror of the Pharisees now dines with them. At first the Pharisees merely questioned the actions of this rabbi but then begin to ‘complain’ to his disciples. Finally, they take their ire and irritation to the door step of Jesus in order to chastise him for being a bad example to his disciples.
So, who appointed the Pharisees as the guardians of the Jewish law? The Pharisees can best be described as men who began with good intentions and then who lost the plot and that’s what happens to ‘good people’ when they forget the plot. Ironically, the Pharisees began as liberals and were a reformist movement. Greek influence or Hellenization had become the order of the day and had threatened the Jewish way of life and so to preserve and promote their way of life, the ‘separated ones’ emerged.
Unlike the Sadducees or the priestly class, this group simply wanted to be faithful yet liberal. While their counterparts held on strictly to the Torah or the written law, the Pharisees warmly embraced the oral traditions linked to the law like the Mishna and finally the Talmud. The Mishna and the Talmud could loosely be described as interpretations on interpretations, leaving the Pharisees in a dilemma; which interpretation is correct? In such a scenario it seemed better to hold on to every interpretation rigidly rather than mistaking break one which might have been the correct one. And so, they became slaves to the law.
St Luke has several narrations linked to the Sabbath. The text of today tells us of one such sabbath incident. Interestingly, Jesus was followed by not only his disciples but now a bunch of Pharisees who having had the knives drawn out were not ready to let their well-preserved teaching be trifled around by this itinerant preacher called Jesus. It became obvious that at this stage they could start an argument in an empty room for they were following him to find fault with him. We know that eleven verses down the line they were “filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (6:11)
Who knew that a Sabbath snack would kick up such a ruckus? The disciples are hungry and walking through the grainfields now perform three actions which for the Pharisees constituted work on the Sabbath; the plucked, they threshed or rubbed it in their hands and they ate (the entire process cumulatively seems like they baked some bread). The Pharisees now have their cause to pick to a fight with Jesus.
Ironically, these self-appointed guardians of the religious law needed a reminder of the law itself. Feeding the hungry was exempt from sabbath regulations and as if to remind them Jesus jostles their memory a bit. Have you forgotten David who in 1 Samuel 21:1-7 actually asked (he did not take it) for the show bread from Ahimelech, bread meant for the priest only, to feed his starving men because no ordinary bread was available? Shocking as this might sound to the Jews (loosely compare this with some one opening the tabernacle to eat the sacred hosts because they were hungry) the priests consented.
But this text was meant to cover more than just a matter of legal requirements of the Sabbath for Luke adds the line, “the son of man is the Lord of the Sabbath”. Luke wants to make a point that Jesus has dominion over the third commandment and that he is God and not just some messenger of universal love and forgiveness. It is this claim that gets the Pharisees all riled up. While they complained of his unorthodox behaviour his claim of Godhead was for them blasphemy.
There is a point of reflection for all of us here lest we too loose the plot. That Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath does not negate the sabbath, on the contrary it reiterates it. This is not a passage that calls for a loose understanding of our conduct on the sabbath. While the day must be governed by love, that love must be shown to God and to man. The Sabbath was meant to be life giving not life draining and the worship of God and the service of mankind brings life on the Sabbath. These still need to be observed. They are not mere empty rituals but a relationship that we share with God and his people.
Fr Warner D’Souza
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