Jesus and his friends were taking a shortcut through a wheat field one Saturday, and as they walked they pulled some of the ripe grain off the stalks to munch on.
We wouldn’t think twice about it – unless we think it was stealing, since they didn’t own that particular field and hadn’t planted that wheat (which should tell us something about our values).
But it wasn’t stealing that concerned the religious leaders who called them out – it was working on the Sabbath.
The Sabbath. Honoring the Sabbath is right up there towards the top of the Ten Commandments. This wasn’t just a technicality; it’s a central piece of what it meant for a Jew to be faithful.
But Jesus didn’t see it that way.
“The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”[i]
I always wondered what that meant (though I wasn’t sure how relevant it was, since no one I knew actually “kept the Sabbath”).
What does it mean to be “made for”? One way of putting that would be, “The Sabbath was made to serve people, not people to serve the Sabbath.”
But still, how does (did) the Sabbath serve people? We can try to break that down (rest; time for family; time to worship, to focus on God), but I think Jesus is applying a larger principle to the Sabbath. That principle is about the law, all of it – the law was made for people, not people for the law. So how is the law supposed to serve us?
When he was asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[ii]
It’s that last sentence that tells us what it’s all about – relationships. The law serves people by helping us have loving relationships with God and each other.
And when the law hinders rather than promotes loving relationships, it is no longer serving us, we are serving it.
It is love that fulfills the purpose of the law. It is love that sees when the principles of a loving relationship the law is based on are not being served by following it. It is love that covers a multitude of sins. And it is God’s love we are called to imitate – to be perfect in as he is perfect.
As surely as the finger of God wrote the Ten Commandments – the very foundation of the law, the finger of Jesus overwrote them with the law of love in the dirt beside a woman caught in adultery.
Jesus didn’t limit himself to the law as it had been handed down, and I have a hard time believing he intended us to limit ourselves (his body) to his words as they have been handed down. He gave us the Spirit to guide us into “greater things” than what he did. He taught us how to dance with Scripture, not to serve it. It is living, and living means growing. Nothing that’s alive stays the same.
And yet we define the limits of the Spirit’s work by the law. We define the limits of what God will do by what is recorded in Scripture. We say scripture doesn’t change. And while that may be true in some sense of the words we’ve been given, that’s not how Jesus used Scripture. He overwrote the words with deeper meaning. (“You have heard it said…but I say.”[iii]) He pushed for a standard both higher and more rooted in the realities of life and relationships.
It’s easier to follow clear rules. It’s much harder to discern loving well. We know how far we are from loving, and it’s much safer to follow straightforward guidelines that always apply in every circumstance.
Serving the law of love means knowing you’re going to mess up, knowing you’re going to get it wrong. And still serving love anyway. It takes trusting grace, and trusting grace can feel like living without a net. It can take the breath out of you.
The question confronts us every day – will we serve love, or something else? Will we lean out into the wind of the Spirit of love, or stay safely back from the edge?
[i] Mark 2:27
[ii] Matthew 22:27-40
[iii] Matthew 5