Telling Stories on the Sabbath
St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church, New Orleans, Louisiana
A few weeks ago, I read a fantastic article about the importance of story by Johanna Shapiro, a nurse, written from her medical perspective. The article stresses that doctors must pay attention to stories told to them by their patients, even though they may often be unreliable, meaning, they are not entirely true. Sometimes, people tell their doctors that they are doing much better than they really are doing because they want the doctor to be happy and successful or because they fear disappointing the doctor if they aren’t doing well. Sometimes, they talk about other nagging issues, insignificant to something they are really facing, because they cannot handle what might be grim news.
This article caused me to take pause. I spend most of my daily life as a hospice chaplain listening to people’s stories. Sometimes the stories are medical, sometimes they are not. Sometimes the stories are spiritual, sometimes they are not. But the article reminded me that regardless of their topic, regardless of their being entirely truthful or not, and regardless of who might be telling the stories—sometimes I hear from family members and friends and not patients directly—the stories need to be told and need to be heard.
Another reason the article interested me was because of the natural bridge its topic held to the studies my husband is engaged in at the Baptist seminary. To greatly simplify what he is studying—for me, not for you—he looks very closely at stories behind the New Testament texts. He studies the language, the history, and how variations, both intentionally and unintentionally occurring, might or might not change the way we interpret certain texts. If you would like to know more, please ask him, that’s as deep as I’m willing to dig.
So, I am excited about the new part of our church service where we are hearing the stories of one another. We need to hear from each other. We need to hear the collective story of our church. We need to hear the stories of faith, of heartbreak, of perseverance. We need to hear the stories of hope, of struggle, of homecoming.
And so, as we think about story today, let me share this passage from Mark. While I usually follow the lectionary, I am straying today. These verses caught my eye a couple of weeks ago and “got under my skin,” as they say. My husband just happens to be studying Mark this semester, too. Between the concept of story and this sermon preparation from Mark, he and I have had more to talk about these past few days than we have had in several months. Luckily, at other times, we have a two-year-old who keeps us on our toes and in common conversation with each other.
Introduction over, here are the words from Mark:
Again Jesus [he] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, 'Come forward.' Then he said to them, 'Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?' But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, 'Stretch out your hand.' He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
The Lord be with you...Let us pray.
Dear Lord, the holder, hearer, and creator of all stories, guide us through these words from Mark. Open our hearts so that we might consider; open our ears so that we might be inspired; open our hands so that we might be healed.
In your name we pray, Amen.
What is it about this story from Mark? The gospels of Luke and Matthew also include the story, but there is something about Mark’s words that are captivating.
It’s a story of healing, but it’s not really a happy story, is it? How do you feel after hearing the verses? Sad? Confused? Angry? Disheartened? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. We can feel all of those emotions; they translate easily to our lives and to our own stories.
We feel saddened for the man who came into the temple, maybe to pray, maybe to learn, maybe to be healed, who instead found himself in the middle of an impromptu trial of Jesus by the Pharisees.
How must the man have felt when leaving the synagogue? Surely he felt great joy at the restoration of his hand; but I wonder if he wonders—as he gazes at his hand, newly filled with life and color—I wonder if he wonders whether any cost has been incurred with his healing.
Many of us have needed restoration, but the healing has been delayed due to circumstances beyond our control. Many of us have needed restoration, but are overwhelmed by the burdens we might place on those who will aid us in the process.
And what of any onlookers who witnessed this scene? Were the disciples there with any others, watching together, confused as to why traditional rabbinic law was seemingly being interpreted anew? Who was this man calling into question the role of the Sabbath? Didn’t he understand that the wrath of God would be felt if the Sabbath was not kept? Yes, we can understand the confusion of any onlookers.
There are times in our lives when change becomes personified and in its new form, refuses to be ignored. The things that we thought we knew and understood suddenly appear differently to us. Occasionally, people come into our lives to show us that something needs to change. Yes, we can understand what was probably a bulk of emotions on their part—confusion, compounded with fear and shock.
Certainly we have no trouble feeling the anger and grief of Jesus, though we may have a little trouble allowing Jesus the emotion of anger. The Pharisees seem to sit sinisterly in the corner, like evil storybook characters, waiting for their chance to come out of the shadows and pounce on Jesus, the protagonist. A man, needing to be healed was standing in front of the one who could offer healing, and instead of cheering on the process and throwing a celebration party, the Pharisees are taking notes, building their case against Jesus, ignoring his good works.
Why all the conversation surrounding Sabbath law? What is it about the Sabbath that causes so much controversy among the characters in our story?
The interpretation of Sabbath law is one part of the discussion from this text. And even though I believe that the discussion is a veil for struggle of power, the discussion is still important.
In her book, The Misunderstood Jew, Amy-Jill Levine sorts out some of the questions about the importance of keeping the Sabbath for the Israelites. By honoring the day, the guarantee of the Israelites being free is both practical and mandated. By designating a day to take delight in both God and Creation, the Israelites’ schedule is their own—no one is telling them what to do on that day. But the mandate is clear too: the Lord commands the observance—you will delight in me, in my Creation and in the Sabbath. It’s hard to imagine that joy could come from a mandate, and there are many occurrences in the Old Testament where the Israelites did not keep the Sabbath. Still, when they chose to be obedient, there was the element of delight, of joy, in observing the day of rest.
Levine also says that Christians read verses, such as these from Mark, and think that the Sabbath had been changed from a day of rest and celebration to a day of constraint—don’t do this/don’t do that. But the picture is bigger than that; there is more to the Sabbath than just taking the day off.
In the previous chapter of Mark, chapter 2, verses 27 and 28, Jesus makes the statement, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” With the questions he asks in chapter 3, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill,” Jesus is making some bold claims about the way the current culture is observing the Sabbath. On a day that was interpreted in that time (and is maybe still interpreted) to be a day of rest, Jesus is giving a call to action.
The Sabbath—made for humans, made for all humans, those well and those ailing, those who are wealthy and those in great need. Jesus is warning against passivity, and evoking memories of verses from the Hebrew Scriptures to help with this needed re-interpretation.
There are several passages in Deuteronomy to which Jesus could be referring. Take note of the images in these verses. Starting with the list of the Ten Commandments in chapter 5, the 12th verse instructs about the Sabbath: “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God…Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”
Then, in chapter 15, beginning with verse 7, “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”
And finally, in chapter 30, verses 12-14, concerning the keeping of the commandments: “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
The parallelism or echo between the imagery in Deuteronomy and the passage in Mark is set out for us. The imagery of an open hand, even a mighty hand, is clear. The hand is an active one that gives, without thought to the correctness of time or rule. These hands are not withered and lifeless. There are other images, too: the mouths are not silent, as are the mouths of the Pharisees; they are open, saying the words of the Lord. The hearts in the passages from Deuteronomy are without hardness and are instead giving freely, along with the open hands.
As I stated before, though the Sabbath is important, and its meaning is important to discover in our own lives today, the new interpretation of Sabbath law is just an example of Jesus’ larger message. Read the verses in Mark for Jesus’ actions. Jesus enters the synagogue, but that is where his action stops. He bids the man with the withered hand to come forward and stretch out his arm, but Jesus does not touch him, spit on him, or perform any other physical ritual of healing. Healing takes place on a divine level—Jesus does not act—he does not break the Sabbath. This story is not solely about the keeping of the Sabbath.
For onlookers, and even for the Pharisees, their confusion must have been palpable. Jesus’ anger was there, but not the anger of the God they knew, residing in heaven. Jesus was the source of healing, but the healing was not visible; like the anger, the healing came from heaven.
Change is personified, newly alive in Jesus, and is refusing to be ignored. It is no wonder that any onlookers were dazed. It is no wonder that the Pharisees were dazed—but they could not come out of their daze with celebratory efforts. They could only react to their fear of the changing power by plotting against the Change.
With his actions, Jesus is maintaining the current understanding of the law. He understands the people’s feelings about the Sabbath. But with his words, Jesus is urging those around him to consider what the full intentions of the law originally were.
It is in this consideration that we must insert ourselves into the story by becoming the characters in the shadows, the Pharisees. For the hardest part of this passage is not identifying with the ailing man, with Jesus, or with any onlookers. The hardest part of this passage comes in the confrontation of the Pharisees, but to fully gain the message of this passage, we must confront the Pharisee in us.
I believe, though, as messy as the confrontation may be, true healing can begin to take place once the discourse starts.
Let me tell you a story.
In second grade, when I was probably supposed to be completing an assignment, I instead was making a “T” and a “J” out of Popsicle sticks for my good friends Travis and Jay. I remember directing them to hold the joints tightly together until the glue dried. There, in the corner of a mobile classroom, dusty from a game of kickball, we sat together at huddled desks, three friends content with the presence of one another. Elementary school was generally a nice time for me, though surely a naïve time, of no make-up and no hair-bows, of skinned knees and pony-tails.
My friendships with Travis and Jay grew out of natural affinity for each other. As long as they were near, I would never be picked last for kickball teams and would never be picked on and teased. In fact, I can only remember one threat of trouble in elementary school. In the first grade, our teacher went out of the room for a minute and a note was passed around the class. I was tricked into reading the word on the paper out-loud, having no idea what the word was or that it was classified in the “bad” file. The word is in the Bible, so it is okay to say, even from the pulpit, but I will refrain; I don’t want to offend any tender ears. After I said the word in my schoolroom, the class let out an initial low murmur of “ooh” and it grew and grew, and my fear of getting into trouble grew alongside the rumble. Travis came over, put his arm around me, patted my shoulder, looked into my teary eyes and said, “Don’t worry. I have the paper. It’ll be okay.” In an amazing turn of events, another boy, the instigator of the whole scenario, sat in the corner after our teacher returned to the room.
At the end of each school day, I walked home to my neighborhood. Travis and Jay took the bus home to their neighborhood.
As time went by, and as my naivety wore off, I tried to find my old friend Travis, but knew that I might not find him in the best of situations. By high school, our paths ventured different ways already. While I walked averagely through high school and then wandered more through college, Travis was serving time in the county prison.
I thought about visiting him—“What would I say? Could I offer anything? How could I help the friend who helped me so many times?”
But, I did not visit and I did not help.
Tragically, he ended his life just a couple of weeks ago in a violent encounter with police. In that situation, he was an adult, making his own decisions, and through his actions, he no doubt hurt others. Picturing him as an adult doing these things is hard for me and saddening to me. But I really can’t picture him as an adult. I picture him as the child and friend I knew, who could not have the path I had, who couldn’t see an alternative path, who could not see any way out of this life but to just have it come to an end. And that makes me cry. And hurt. And long for a different ending.
I think that the passage from Mark spoke to me because of the raw emotions that I have felt since the death of my friend. Jesus’ words felt true to me and as I read the verses, I could identify with Jesus’ anger and grief. I see the man in Mark’s story, coming forward, looking into the face of Jesus, and reaching out to him. And Jesus heals him.
I think that part of Jesus’ grief on that Sabbath day is on behalf of the man’s physical and visible ailment. I do believe that Jesus grieves with us when we have hurts that are not visible and that he grieves for us when we are not able to come forward into his presence. I so wish that Travis had been able to step forward. I wish that I had helped him step forward.
I think that I have struggled with the passage because of the confronting I must do of and for myself. There is culpability in in-action, in passivity. While I do not believe that my in-action was the reason for my friend’s tragic ending, I do believe that I had an option to help. But there is still another level of confrontation to assess.
Jesus’ anger and grief is not limited to the Pharisee’s inaction in the story. They are missing the good, they are missing the chance to be a part of something beautiful, and they are missing the chance to see restoration—new life formed, in vibrant color—all because of their hate. This, for me, is the origination of the verse, “he was grieved at their hardness of heart.”
The questions of our internal confrontation become two: How have we impeded healing and restoration and what good have we missed because of our hardness of heart?
Does good exist in places we would rather not find it? Do other religions, some more liberal, some more conservative, do good works, even though we do not identify with their beliefs? Do other people do good works, even though they do not talk like we talk, wear what we wear, sin like we sin?
Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Surely we are missing some celebrations.
A film from the 1990s, “The Ghosts in the Darkness,” is about an effort of the English to build a railroad in Africa. Large numbers of workers live together in a pseudo-village, made up of many tribes and religions. As the railroad tracks come to a river, a bridge must be constructed, but lions, the “ghosts,” start attacking the village. In an effort to keep the lions out, the workers shift one day from bridge construction to fence construction, building a wall of spiky, thorny branches, around the camp.
At the end of the day, the missionary of the village is washing his hands which are bloody from the day’s work. He talks about how his first goal was to convert everyone to Christianity. But he looks at his hands he says, “I like the blood. We all worked together. Worthy deeds were accomplished.”
Just as we are called to share the message of God with our words, so too are we called to share the message with our hands.
The Lord of the Sabbath has given us the opportunity for rest and restoration. But God has also given us this day to do good, to see good, and to celebrate when good shines through.