One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’ (Mark 2:23-28)
I have a question. It’s a new one, which hadn’t occurred to me in quite this form before, though I suspect I’ve thought it unconsciously for a long time. It’s this: when Jesus said ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath’, was he only talking about the Sabbath? Or did it have a wider application, to the whole system of rules of purity, and actions we can perform or refrain from to make ourselves acceptable to God?
Here’s a story Jesus plucks from the Old Testament, of David and his men violating one of the most sacred rules of their religion. It’s the equivalent of a lay person breaking into a Catholic church, opening the cupboard that holds the Reserved Sacrament (I expect there’s some fancy name for the cupboard but I don’t know it) and scarfing the lot. Not only that, but sharing it amongst all their friends. If that seems too extreme, it isn’t – David’s action was scandalous, and if later generations had excused it on the grounds that David was the great anointed king and all that, I think they could do so only because it was in the ‘glorious’ past. Certainly Jesus doing something much less transgressive got their sacrificial goat.
Rather foolishly, I’ve recently let myself get caught in debates on Facebook and Twitter with Christians who oppose same sex marriage. It really is a hiding to nothing. (One of the more mind-boggling statements I read was that ‘sexuality is central to discipleship’. If only I’d known, all those years when I lamented my failure to feed the poor, visit the sick and generally be a better disciple, that I was already home free by virtue of being a virgin till I married.)
Then this passage came into my mind. In which Jesus does something deeply offensive to the religious, and compounds it by quoting something even more offensive that the great king David did. And I suddenly thought, what if Jesus isn’t just making a statement about the sabbath here, but about all the shibboleths we impose to check if people are in or out of the kingdom? All the statements that begin, ‘Christians don’t…’ or ‘Evangelicals don’t…’, all the safe boxes we put ourselves into to make sure we never make a single mistake or commit a single sin (yes, God forbid that those whose sins have been cancelled by the Cross should ever sin again – forgiveness is clearly a one-off, a loss leader to lure us into doing everything right). What if Jesus is saying that all God’s laws were made for human flourishing, and therefore that if a particular rule we follow doesn’t lead to human flourishing, then we’ve probably got it wrong? And it’s sure as heck obvious to me that forbidding two people to enter into a covenant of love and faithfulness – in effect, forcing them to ‘live in sin’ as we used to say – doesn’t lead to human flourishing. And nor does forcing those into celibacy who have no call to celibacy. Or indeed, preaching sacrifices to others, for instance a life unshared, that you are not prepared to make yourself. Or preaching against temptations you haven’t actually faced yourself. None of these do humans any good, neither the preacher nor the preached-at.
Yes, the Bible says – a very small number of times – that homosexual behaviour is a sin. It also says, many many more times, that breaking the Sabbath is a sin. Yet here is Jesus, breaking the Sabbath, and encouraging others to do so, using the example of his great ancestor, and all in order to feed the hungry. And I’m thinking about not just physical hunger, but emotional hunger and the drive to have someone we belong to. Go figure.