The Spirit vs. the Letter…

June 3, 2018 (Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

Mark 2:23-3:6

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine


2:23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 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.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 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. 5 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. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 2:23-3:6, NRSV)


Let us pray: Holy God, the earth is full of your glory.  Make us attentive to your word, that we may accept your sovereignty and serve you alone.  May we your children, born of the Spirit, so bear witness to your Son Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, that all the world may believe and have eternal life through the One who saves, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.


I am the oldest of three boys and we did not always get along, not anything serious, just normal sibling stuff.  When we were young we fought, I imagine like all siblings but in particular I was provoked by my youngest brother.  My parents used to pull me aside, and lecture me about why I let him under my skin…they called him the agitator, why did I let him agitate me so much?  Some forty years later, he can still push my buttons…what my parents called an agitator, theologians call a “provocateur.”  It sounds more positive and intellectual, but the outcome is the same.


The Mariam Webster Dictionary defines a “provocateur” as a person who “provokes trouble, causes dissension, or the like; in short: an agitator.”[1]  In our Gospel reading from Mark, it appears that Jesus is acting like a provocateur.  He is agitating the Pharisees.  The Pharisee’s were a Jewish sect noted for their strict observance of the law.  The Pharisees are watching as Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field.  It is the Sabbath.  As Jesus and his disciples walked along they picked the heads of grain off the wheat stalks and we assume they ate them.  Which makes me wonder if Jesus and the disciples were plucking these heads of grain on purpose, trying to provoke a response from the Pharisees.   Jesus and his disciples certainly knew that doing any kind of work on the Sabbath was a direct violation of the Ten Commandments, specifically the 4th Commandment, to remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.  Clearly, plucking or picking grain for a meal is classified as work, a direct violation of the law.  So, no matter if Jesus instructed his disciples to do this, or at the very least if he failed to stop them from doing it, he must have known it would lead to a confrontation.[2]


Observant believers during this time would have known numerous commandments, laws, rules, customs and traditions to follow.  There were wise rabbis, teachers and judges who spent their lifetimes considering every imaginable situation and they provided guidance as to the most faithful response might be into keeping the law.  They answered such conundrums as; was it lawful to get your ox out of the ditch on the Sabbath?  Can one draw water on the sabbath?  These rulers set down specific responses so people could honor the law to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.  Faithfulness was all about honoring the law.


Jesus doesn’t seem especially concerned, with either the disciples picking grain or with the Pharisees indignation.  Instead, he seems concerned about the very meaning of Sabbath.  Which leads to our second controversial scene – this time in a synagogue.  Again, the Pharisees were watching Jesus.  This time there was a man with a withered hand in worship that day.  This unnamed man would have kept a low profile – keeping his deformed hand safely hidden.  Withered implies some long-standing insult, possibly a congenital malformation, perhaps an accident of birthing, or a terrible trauma which he somehow survived without succumbing to secondary infection.[3]  He had a hard life.  It was difficult for him to find employment and tough to support himself and his family.  His healing encounter with Jesus in the presence of the Pharisees only escalates the conflict between Jesus and them.  It is as if the Pharisees are lying in wait, watching, knowing full well that Jesus could not pass up the opportunity to help someone in need.  They were right.  Jesus could not not help, even on the sabbath.  By being kind, compassionate and doing the right thing, Jesus demonstrates, in the eyes of the Pharisees, a willful disregard for the law of God.


Now, the challenge is set, is it the Letter of the Law or the Spirit of the Law that is most important?  The letter of the law versus the spirit of the law is a battle of opposites.  When one obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is obeying the literal interpretation of the words (the “letter”) of the law, but not necessarily the intent of those who wrote the law.   Conversely, when one obeys the spirit of the law but not the letter, one is doing what the authors of the law intended, though not necessarily adhering to the literal wording.  I am of course no lawyer and I am not giving sound legal advice. So, when you get a speeding ticket don’t tell the officer, you preacher told you it was okay because you were obeying the spirit of the law!  Or those of you who are real life lawyers don’t tell the judge that your client was upholding the spirit of the law.


The Pharisees understood the sabbath.  They did not, appreciate Jesus, this new rabbi whom they perceived as an uppity teacher and threat, dispensing his version of legal insights.  To the Pharisees Jesus crossed the line when he compared himself and his calling to David and David’s calling.   Then when he doubled down, declaring himself the “lord” or “master” of the sabbath itself could be tantamount to claiming that the law’s ultimate purpose is to serve (him) Jesus.[4]   So, the Pharisees, want to catch Jesus breaking the literal law so they can discredit him.  In their desire to destroy him, they lose sight of the real meaning of the sabbath.


Please understand, Jesus is not railing against Judaism, nor is he rejecting the law.  He is not doing away with the importance of the sabbath.  And finally, he does not even call out the Pharisees.  Instead, he challenges our understanding of laws, rules and traditions.


So, what does this challenge have to do with us, enlightened, post Christian, post blue laws, modern day folks?  We like to drink a cold beer after cutting the grass on Sunday afternoon, at least I do!   Most Sundays, we enjoy a spirited round of golf with our buddies, we love a hike with the family through the woods at the Nature Center, we might even sneak into the office and do a few things in preparation for the big week ahead…we know that we are remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy because we have put in our hour of church today.  We still maintain the spirit of the law, if you will, besides God understands.


Notice that Jesus repeatedly says to the Pharisees and us, that “Humans are not made for the sabbath but the sabbath was made for us.”  So, let us pay attention to this statement.  We can look at this story of two levels: the first is the purpose and meaning of the law in general.  We can lose sight of the true purpose of rules, laws and traditions and make them oppressive boundaries to life that remove all the joy from living.   Just like the Pharisees’ who were so bent on keeping the particularity of the law that they missed out on the extraordinary joy of a man’s withered hand being restored.   Even in Scripture the Law is “broken,” Jesus says, because the law is made for us, not the other way around.


The other level that we should take very seriously God’s gift of sabbath.  This is especially true for us here in this room.  God gave us this gift of rest to get away from the toil of work and the stress of our labors exactly so we will not miss out on the boundless joy of a miraculous healing that takes place in our midst.   This is the sabbath day let us rest and be glad in it.  The sabbath is God’s gift to us, so we may live better lives.  This day is a gift from God to you and to me for us to rest, relax and enjoy God.  May we find great joy in this gift.


Let us pray:


[1] Reverend David J. Risendal, Pastor, Saint Peter Lutheran Church, 9300 East Belleview Ave, Greenwood Village, CO 80111-3403

[2] Ibid

[3]The Rev. Dr. Ellen Richardson is the priest in charge of the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Williamston, NC

[4] Reverend Dr. Matt Skinner,