A reflection for the Sunday next to Lent 11th February 2024 by The Rev'd Russell Duncan

The sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath (Mark 2:27)

One of the courses which I am studying at New College  is entitled “Jesus and the Gospels”.  We are presently looking at what we can know about the historical Jesus. It will go on to analyse the ways in which we might approach the gospels and will end with looking at some of those books which didn’t make it into the New Testament (for example the Gospel of Thomas) and will ask what process led to their exclusion.  

Bart D Ehrman, an American New Testament scholar, comments that “the Pharisees represent probably the best-known and least-understood Jewish sect.  It appears that this sect began as a group of devout Jews intent above all on keeping the entire will of God. Rather than accepting and keeping the religion of the Greeks, they insisted on knowing and obeying the Law of their own God to the fullest extent possible”.

One difficulty is that in many places there is ambiguity. For example, Jews are told in the Ten Commandments to keep the Sabbath day holy, but nowhere does the Torah (the compilation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) indicate precisely how this is to be done. Pharisees devised rules and regulations to assist them in keeping this and all other Laws of Moses. These rules eventually formed a body of tradition, which to stay with our example, indicated what a person could and could not do on the Sabbath in order to keep it holy, or set apart from all other days. 

The rules and regulations that developed came to have a status of their own and were known in some circles as the “oral” Law, which was set alongside the “written” Law of Moses. It appears that Pharisees believed that anyone who kept the oral Law would be almost certain to keep the written Law as well. The intent was not to be legalistic but to be obedient to what God has commanded. 

In our first story Jesus and his disciples were going through the corn fields one Sabbath day; his disciples began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat them. On any ordinary day the disciples were doing what was freely permitted. But all work was forbidden on the Sabbath. By their actions the disciples had technically broken these rules and were classified as law-breakers. 

In our second story there was a man in the synagogue with a paralysed hand. The Greek word means that he had not been born that way but that some illness had taken the strength from him.  It was the Sabbath; all work was forbidden and to heal was to work. Medical attention could be given only if a life was in danger. Jesus knew that this man’s life was not in danger but he wanted to challenge the Pharisees and to show compassion to this man. 

Our two stories are fundamental because they show the clash of two ideals.  To the Pharisee, religion was ritual. To Jesus, it was service.  It was love of God and love of others. It was love in action. The most important thing in the world was not the correct performance of a ritual but the spontaneous answer to the cry of human need. 

Help us to be gentle towards every person we encounter today, in thought, word and deed. May we recognise that others are facing difficulties which we know nothing about. Still our thoughts, bridle our tongues and open our hearts.