PIETY, REAL AND FALSE
One Sabbath day Jesus was going through the com fields. His disciples began to pluck the ears of corn as they made their way along. The Pharisees began to say to him, “Look! Why are they doing what is not allowed on the Sabbath?” “Have you never read,” he said, “what David did when he and his friends were in need and hungry? Have you never read how he went into the house of God, when Abiathar was High Priest, and ate the shewbread–which none is allowed to eat except the priests–and gave it to his friends as well?” “The Sabbath,” he said to them, “was made for the sake of man and not man for the sake of the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is lord also of the Sabbath.”
Once again Jesus cut right across the scribal rules and regulations. When he 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 (Deut. 23:25). So long as the traveller did not put a sickle into the field he was free to pluck the corn. But this was done on the Sabbath and the Sabbath was hedged around with literally thousands of petty rules and regulations. AH work was forbidden. Work had been classified under thirty-nine different heads and four of these heads were reaping, winnowing, threshing and preparing a meal. By their action the disciples had technically broken all these four rules and were to be classified as law-breakers. It seems fantastic to us; but to the Jewish rabbis it was a matter of deadly sin and of life and death.
The Pharisees immediately launched their accusation and pointed out that Jesus’ disciples were breaking the law. They obviously expected him to stop them on the spot. Jesus answered them in their own language. He cited the story which is told in 1Sam.21:1-6. David was fleeing for his life; he came to the tabernacle in Nob; he demanded food and there was none except the shewbread. Exo.25:23-30 tells of the shewbread. It consisted of twelve loaves placed on a golden table three feet long, one and a half feet wide, and one and a half feet high. The table stood in the tabernacle in front of the Holy of Holies and the bread was a kind of offering to God. It was changed once a week; when it was changed it became the property of the priests and of the priests alone and no one else might eat it (Lev.24:9.) Yet in his time of need David took and ate that bread. Jesus showed that scripture itself supplies a precedent in which human need took precedence of human and even divine law.
“The Sabbath,” he said, “was made for the sake of man and not man for the sake of the Sabbath.” That was self-evident. Man was created before ever the elaborate Sabbath law came into existence. Man was not created to be the victim and the slave of Sabbath rules and regulations which were in the beginning created to make life fuller and better for man. Man is not to be enslaved by the Sabbath; the Sabbath exists to make his life better.
This passage confronts us with certain essential truths which we forget at our peril.
(i) Religion does not consist in rules and regulations. To take the matter in question–Sunday observance is important but there is a great deal more to religion than Sunday observance. If a man might become a Christian simply by abstaining from work and pleasure on the Sunday, and by attending church on that day, and saying his prayers and reading his Bible, being a Christian would be a very easy thing. Whenever men forget the love and the forgiveness and the service and the mercy that are at the heart of religion and replace them by the performance of rules and regulations religion is in a decline. Christianity has at all times consisted far more in doing things than in refraining from doing things.
(ii) The first claim on any man is the claim of human need. Even the catechisms and the confessions admit that works of necessity and mercy are quite legal on the Sabbath. If ever the performance of a man’s religion stops him helping someone who is in need, his religion is not religion at all. People matter far more than systems. Persons are far more important than rituals. The best way to worship God is to help men.
(iii) The best way to use sacred things is to use them to help men. That, in fact, is the only way to give them to God. One of the loveliest of all stories is that of The Fourth Wise Man. His name was Artaban. He set out to follow the star and he took with him a sapphire, a ruby and a pearl beyond price as gifts for the King. He was riding hard to meet his three friends, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, at the agreed place. The time was short; they would leave if he was late. Suddenly he saw a dim figure on the ground before him. It was a traveller stricken with fever. If he stayed to help he would miss his friends. He did stay; he helped and healed the man. But now he was alone. He needed camels and bearers to help him across the desert because he had missed his friends and their caravan. He had to sell his sapphire to get them; and he was sad because the King would never have his gem.
He journeyed on and in due time came to Bethlehem, but again he was too late. Joseph and Mary and the baby had gone. Then there came the soldiers to carry out Herod’s command that the children should be slain. Artaban was in a house where there was a little child. The tramp of the soldiers came to the door; the weeping of stricken mothers could be heard. Artaban stood in the doorway, tall and dark, with the ruby in his hand and bribed the captain not to enter. The child was saved; the mother was overjoyed; but the ruby was gone; and Artaban was sad because the King would never have his ruby.
For years he wandered looking in vain for the King. More than thirty years afterwards he came to Jerusalem. There was a crucifixion that day. When Artaban heard of the Jesus being crucified, he sounded wondrous like the King and Artaban hurried towards Calvary. Maybe his pearl, the loveliest in all the world, could buy the life of the King. Down the street came a girl fleeing from a band of soldiers. “My father is in debt,” she cried, “and they are taking me to sell as a slave to pay the debt. Save me!” Artaban hesitated; then sadly he took out his pearl, gave it to the soldiers and bought the girl’s freedom.
On a sudden the skies were dark; there was an earthquake and a flying tile hit Artaban on the head. He sank half-conscious to the ground. The girl pillowed his head on her lap. Suddenly his lips began to move. “Not so, my Lord. For when saw I thee anhungered and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw I thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked and clothed thee? When saw I thee sick in prison, and came unto thee? Thirty and three years have I looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.” And then like a whisper from very far away, there came a voice. “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.” And Artaban smiled in death because he knew that the King had received his gifts.
The best way to use sacred things is to use them for men. It has been known for children to be barred from a church because that church was considered too ancient and sacred for such as they. It can be that a church is more concerned with the elaboration of its services than with the help of its simple folk and the relief of its poor. But the sacred things are only truly sacred when they are used for men. The shewbread was never so sacred as when it was used to feed a starving man. The Sabbath was never so sacred as when it was used to help those who needed help. The final arbiter in the use of all things is love and not law.
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