This week’s lesson (Lesson 10 in the manual) presents several stories, each of which can be seen as variations of a theme contained in a scripture quoted by Jesus in Matthew 12:7:
“I will have mercy, and not sacrifice”
In each story, Jesus commands, expounds upon and demonstrates mercy in the face of Phariseeism which has replaced mercy with legalism, cold-heartedness and self-righteousness. The LDS Bible Dictionary says the following about Pharisees: “They prided themselves on their strict observance of the law, and on the care with which they avoided contact with things gentile ... They upheld the authority of oral tradition as of equal value with the written law. The tendency of their teaching was to reduce religion to the observance of a multiplicity of ceremonial rules, and to encourage self-sufficiency and spiritual pride.”
The gospels are replete with descriptions of Jesus’ many encounters with Pharisees. Today’s lesson focuses on conflicts involving the meaning of the Sabbath and on Pharisees’ treatment of societal outcasts. In each case, these conflicts were manifestations of much deeper theological differences between the “old skins” of the Pharisees and the “new wine” of the Gospel.
Lord of the Sabbath Day; Lord of Mercy
The first story involving the Sabbath is recorded in Matthew 12:1-8 (Amplified Bible):
“At that particular time Jesus went through the fields of standing grain on the Sabbath; and His disciples were hungry, and they began to pick off the spikes of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, See there! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful and not permitted on the Sabbath. [Jesus] said to them, Have you not even read what David did when he was hungry, and those who accompanied him -- How he went into the house of God and ate the loaves of the showbread -- which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for the men who accompanied him, but for the priests only? Or have you never read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple violate the sanctity of the Sabbath [breaking it] and yet are guiltless? But I tell you, Something greater and more exalted and more majestic than the temple is here! And if you had only known what this saying means, I desire mercy [readiness to help, to spare, to forgive] rather than sacrifice and sacrificial victims, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord [even] of the Sabbath.”
To the Pharisees, Jesus’ statement that He was Lord of the Sabbath was blasphemy because it was God who had created the Sabbath. “To claim then to be Lord of the Sabbath was essentially to claim to be God. When Jesus called Himself ‘Lord of the Sabbath,’ He struck the severest blow at the Pharisaic system because the Pharisaic system, the system of works, merit, self-righteousness, achievement, attainment, of spiritual relationship with God through ceremony and ritual and external law-keeping, found its focal point in the Sabbath.” [Source] Jesus, however, would have none of it. As He said in Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”
As the Bible Dictionary indicates, the essence of Phariseeism was reducing the worship of God and religion to adherence to an ever-increasing set of rules which bred self-righteousness, intolerance and spiritual self-reliance, turning the focus of its adherents away from God and others to themselves. As one commentator has written of the Pharisees, “they’re callous, they're compassionless, they are brutal, and they are merciless toward people suffering. They are fanatical about their self-righteous rules.” On top of everything else, they despised Gentiles and reveled in their “chosen” status.
In short, they were the exact opposite of everything Jesus stood for and was trying to teach the people. Through His rebuke of the Pharisees, Jesus pointed out that what He and His Father desired was not self-conceived and self-imposed adherence to a set of man-made rules that shut and his less desirable God out; but rather mercy – a readiness to help others, to spare others, to forgive others – all of which turned one toward others and toward God.
To drive this point home, Jesus then proceeded – on the same Sabbath day – to heal a man with a withered hand, which of course drove the Pharisees crazy. Not only that, but Matthew 12:15 tells us that “great multitudes” followed Jesus, and he healed them all.
Do you look around you and see those who derive a sense of their self-worth, of their “goodness,” of their “righteousness” by how well they execute or conform to a set of rules? Do you know of those whose commitment to doing a multitude of “things” makes them less tolerant of others, particularly those who are “different”, less willing to be compassionate, more self-absorbed and less other-directed? Those who put rules ahead of relationships, who equate love with obedience rather than giving? Who distance themselves from “gentiles” and who take pride in their “chosen” status?
If you see and know such people, know that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. The Lord of the Sabbath would have mercy, and not sacrifice. That Lord of the Sabbath would heal (and love) us all, despite any and all the Pharisaical rules to the contrary. And that this Lord of the Jewish Sabbath routinely reached out to the “unclean” – the “orphans of God.”
As you contemplate this, I invite you to listen to this song, Orphans of God, performed by Avalon and suggested by our unofficial class music director, musician Kevin Jacobson.
Your Faith Has Saved You
We next turn to an account set forth in the 7th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, a Gentile who was the only New Testament writer who was not a Jew. Luke intended his gospel for Gentile Christians, wanting to give an account of the gospel to a non-Jewish audience who were not accustomed to Jewish beliefs and practices and who lived in a society dominated by Greek culture and language.
The Jesus of Luke’s gospel is depicted as a humanitarian who sets out on a ministry to the poor and the excluded. To make this unmistakably clear he alone tells how Jesus goes to the synagogue at Nazareth and declares what his ministry is going to be about: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”.
Time and time again Luke works out the meaning of this in his gospel. Take women as an example. In Palestine the position of women was low. In the Jewish morning prayer, a man thanks God that God has not made him "a Gentile, a slave or a woman." But Luke in his gospel gives a very special place to women. It is Luke who makes vivid the picture of Martha and Mary, and the woman who anoints Jesus feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee. Luke gives us the Magnificat and the story of the widow of Nain. Women are more prominent in this gospel than in any other.
And it is to a story of a woman (found in Luke 7:36 – 50, New Living Translation) that we now turn:
“One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him, so Jesus went to his home and sat down to eat. When a certain immoral woman from that city heard he was eating there, she brought a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them.
“When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!” Then Jesus answered his thoughts. “Simon,” he said to the Pharisee, “I have something to say to you.” “Go ahead, Teacher,” Simon replied. Then Jesus told him this story: “A man loaned money to two people—500 pieces of silver to one and 50 pieces to the other. But neither of them could repay him, so he kindly forgave them both, canceling their debts. Who do you suppose loved him more after that?”
“Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the larger debt.” “ That’s right,” Jesus said. Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume.
“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” The men at the table said among themselves, “Who is this man, that he goes around forgiving sins?” And Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
“There's something,” a commentator has written, “that we can deduce about this woman -- that she has been battered down. Her self-image is tattered and ragged. She is the continual object of cutting criticism in insults by the wives of her customers. She has been spat upon. She is the example many mothers in town use to warn their daughters. She is brunt of nasty jokes. She is shunned by the best people and used and abused by the worst. Inwardly, she is broken and bleeding. Her spirit is wounded ...
“For her to come to the banquet at Simon the Pharisee's house is hard, too. She is viewed as a sinner, one who conveys uncleanness by her very touch, almost as if she has a communicable disease. She knows that Simon will not be happy to see her in his house. But the sinful woman has heard of Jesus. She has probably heard his teaching. She has heard his gracious words of God's love and forgiveness and healing and restoration. She has heard him speak of his Father's Kingdom in words so plain and compelling that she can see herself as a child of God once more …”
What impresses me about this story is that, once again, Jesus flouts Pharisaical rules and prescriptions, in this case, rules concerning contact with those who were “unclean.” Once again, Jesus emphasizes mercy and forgiveness over the “sacrifice” and legalism of Pharisaism. The “righteous” purported to decide who was clean and unclean, who was worthy to approach God; but Jesus simply swept away all these man-made rules and reached out and embraced those deemed unclean.
Similarly, though there are those who deem homosexuals unclean, God does not. Though we be spat upon – whether figuratively or literally – insulted, joked about, shunned, still God accepts us just as we are. Though there are those who are afraid of being “contaminated” through contact with gays and lesbians, Jesus is not.
His Yoke Is Easy
To conclude this lesson, we turn to Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
It has been pointed out that what Jesus was referring to in these verses was the burden of Pharisaism that so many Jews labored under – the impossibly strict code of commandments which never lifted up, but only wore down. To such, Jesus offered another way – His way – gentle, humble, loving, offering rest for the soul.
In his Messiah, Handel lovingly depicted this gentle way, combined with the tenderly beautiful verse from Isaiah 40:11: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry [them] in his bosom, [and] shall gently lead those that are with young.” I submit it is impossible to listen to this achingly tender air without feeling the gentle love and acceptance reflected in these verses: