Texts: 1 Samuel 21:1-6; Mark 2:23-3:6
Let’s take a field trip in our imaginations.
On this field trip, we’re heading out of the city. We’re going away from dense populations of people are toward dense populations of corn and beans. On this trip we’re traveling not just through space, but also through time. This is a magic school bus kind of field trip – if anyone’s familiar with those children’s books. We’re traveling back a couple thousand years to 1st century Palestine. As we get closer to our destination we notice that the agricultural fields and the places where people live aren’t as segregated as they are now. There are small fields at the edges of villages and towns, with public paths running through them. We get out of the bus and start walking. We find one of these paths and notice that we’ve left behind the crops of the new world and are surrounded by barley and wheat – crops first domesticated in the Ancient Near East. The wheat is fully mature. The head of grain is heavy enough that the top of the stalk is bending under its weight. It’s harvest season. We veer off the path and head into the field. We put our arms to our sides, open our hands, and feel the brush of the grains as we walk through them.
This, of all places, will be the site of an important dialogue about ethics, law, and theology.
These first three weeks of October have turned into a sanctuary trilogy. In my own study I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how common a practice sanctuary has been, dating all the way back to Ancient Greece and Egypt and Israel, and likely before that into pre-history. The first week focused on what sanctuary looked like before the church, and last week focused on the 1000+ year practice of sanctuary throughout medieval Christian Europe.
Sanctuary in the churches began largely as a form of penance and reconciliation. The bishops protected and interceded on behalf of the wrong-doer as they sought to make things right with God and the one they harmed. But it eventually lost its theological grounding. It became domesticated, a routine function of the legal system. It still protected one from the death penalty of royal justice, but in its later versions it typically involved a felon reporting in to a church, acknowledging their crime, and agreeing to leave the kingdom. In England, after a traveling judge would visit the church and hear the case, the felon would be given safe passage to a port and sent on their way, never to return. In other words, in a tremendous irony alongside what sanctuary in its present form is trying to protect from, sanctuary at the end of the medieval period involved the church serving as a holding cell for someone awaiting deportation.
As church and secular laws changed, sanctuary became more and more restricted until it was essentially outlawed. Focus on the well-being of the soul, and repair of harm faded. Focus on punishment as a form of deterrence, for the public good, became prominent. Restorative justice was swallowed up by punitive justice. In 1623, King James 1, passed this definitive legislation: “And be it so enacted by the authority of this present parliament, That no sanctuary or privilege of sanctuary shall be hereafter admitted or allowed in any case.” If you’re looking for more irony, this is the same King James who commissioned the King James Bible.
Since then sanctuary has again shifted in its function. It has become a minority practice, sometimes done in the shadows, which puts a new twist on the image from Psalm 91 from last week “In the shadow of the Almighty.” Sometimes done in the open. Sometimes done as an act of civil disobedience. Some of the more prominent and heroic examples include the Underground Railroad, and villages like Le Chambon in southern France that sheltered over 5000 Jews from the Holocaust. And of course the Sanctuary movement of the 1980’s that gave protection to Central Americans fleeing the violence of civil wars.
The scriptures for this week aren’t concerned with heroics. We’re in the middle of a wheat field, remember. But this is a site for a dialogue about the purpose of laws, and the site for Jesus staking out his approach to this.
So we’re in this wheat field, which gives us a front row seat to what’s happening in Mark chapter 2. Jesus and his newly called disciples are walking through this very field, and they begin to pluck the heads of grain. They’re spotted by Pharisees, who come over and challenge the lawfulness of this act.
What they don’t challenge might surprise us private property minded folks. They don’t charge Jesus and his crew with trespassing, and they don’t charge him with stealing.
The Torah was clear that grain fields existed not just for personal profit, but for the public good. They were part of the social safety net for the poor and the landless, resident aliens. Landowners were actually restricted from harvesting all of their fields. They weren’t even allowed to go back and pick up the grain they missed on the first round. These were known as the gleaning laws.
Leviticus 19:9-10 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” Eight verses later there’s a little saying that may be more familiar to us: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Give it up for Leviticus!
It was not a problem for Jesus and his new friends to be exercising their gleaning rights in someone else’s field, but it was a potential problem that they were doing this on the Sabbath. This event is contained within sacred time. And in sacred time, according the Exodus 34:21, “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day, you shall rest (you shall Sabbath). Even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest.”
So the question is, Is this a violation of Sabbath law? What to think of this micro-harvest by Jesus and the gleaners – which is probably what they were planning on calling their new band. Jesus and the gleaners.
Before we get any further down this path let’s abolish any thought of this being a case of Christian freedom and liberty versus Jewish legalism. Jesus was a Jew. Jesus was a Jew. The Pharisees, as portrayed within the New Testament, are often caricatured to represent an extreme branch of the Jewish family tree. The Pharisees were the forerunners of rabbinical Judaism which emerged later, and would come to teach unequivocally that “The Sabbath is given to you, but you are not slaves of the Sabbath. We should disregard one Sabbath for the sake of saving the life of a person, so that person may observe many Sabbaths.” (Mechilta Shabbata 1, in Sabbath and Jubilee, by Richard Lowery, p. 124)
What was and wasn’t permitted on the Sabbath was a lively topic of discussion within first century Judaism, so when Jesus responds to the Pharisees, he stays within the tradition. He anchors his response within the scriptures in order to claim that what he’s doing is within, rather than outside, their common tradition.
The Pharisees implicitly cite Exodus 34 about keeping Sabbath even during the harvest, and Jesus cites another passage.
If you’ve ever been in one of these scripture-versus-scripture conversations, you know they can be exhausting and not a little bit frustrating. Sometimes they’re important, sometimes it’s better to just let go, or walk away.
Of all the angles Jesus could have taken in the wheat field on the Sabbath, he does some creative interpretation of a story about David and the priest of Nob found in 1 Samuel 21. “Have you not read…?” Jesus begins. Well, of course they’d read the story. They probably had it memorized. But they probably had never seen it with the spin Jesus puts on it.
We have received overwhelming support for our decision to be a sanctuary church, but within the first couple days, we did get several emails and a voicemail into the office that had a similar message. Each time the person said they were a Christian, but thought what we were doing was wrong because Romans 13 says we are to obey the governing authorities. So who’s within the tradition and who isn’t? Or, to ask it a different way, which part of the tradition are we using to interpret that part of the tradition? Have you not read… How would you fill in the blank to respond? “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Or the command throughout the Torah to provide for the resident alien? Or Jesus’ practice of aligning himself with outcasts?
Jesus references the story of David and the priest at Nob. Rather than being about sacred time, Sabbath, it’s a story about sacred space and sacred objects. It takes place in a temple rather than a field, and involves wheat in its value-added form, a loaf of bread. And not just any loaf of bread, but the Bread of the Presence, which was set on the table in the temple and replaced every week, a sign of Divine hospitality. But here’s the catch: according to the Torah, the Bread of the Presence that was replaced with a fresh loaf, was only to be eaten by the priest – also in Leviticus (Leviticus 24:5-9).
In this story, David comes into the temple and meets the priest Ahimelech. David is not yet king, but has made quite a name for himself as a warrior. He’s so popular, that King Saul is consumed with jealousy and has been trying to kill him. David is now on the run, which explains why the text says Ahimelech is trembling when he speaks to David. The priest is aware that if he gives aid to this upstart former-shepherd, he could be charged with harboring a fugitive. This, too, is a story of sanctuary. His fears come true in the following chapter. A loyal follower of Saul – who had been in the temple during David’s stay – becomes an informer. And Saul comes to Nob and kills the priests, including Ahimelech, for giving assistance to his enemy.
But Jesus doesn’t get that deep into the story. He zeroes in on the fact that David is hungry, there is a pressing human need, and there’s no other bread in the temple except the Bread of the Presence, the holy bread. Hunger, urgency, and mercy, take precedent over the Levitical holiness code, and priest Ahimelech gives the bread to David to eat.
Quoting from Mark: “’Have you not read,’” Jesus said to the Pharisees, “’what David and his companions did when (they) were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God…and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, the Sabbath is made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”
Jesus and his companions continue through that wheat field and walk right into a synagogue where Jesus heals a man with a withered hand. Before he does this, he poses this question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?” In this context, doing harm means doing nothing. Which is more lawful? To do good, or to do nothing, and thus do harm?
Maybe these are examples of civil disobedience. Or maybe these are examples of Jesus claiming the compassionate stream of his tradition and inviting others to step into the stream with him. Whatever it is, it’s an example within our tradition that poses important questions about the hierarchy of values that we live out. Especially in an age in which sanctuary is in friction with the law of the land.
What is especially beautiful about these stories of Jesus and the gleaners and David and the holy bread eaters is that they affirm something that the Christian tradition has too easily discounted. Rather than doing away with the Sabbath, and rather than doing away with the idea of holy space and holy bread, they affirm and expand holiness. To offer bread to a hungry person is what makes bread holy. To do good and heal and protect makes the Sabbath and all days holy. It’s not that Sabbath disappears into the ordinariness of the rest of the week. It’s that the holiness of Sabbath infiltrates the rest of the week. The holiness of the house of God infiltrates ordinary space.
As we keep working at this thing called Sanctuary, my prayer for us is that we not view it merely as an exception for exceptional times. Sanctuary is the norm that filters its way out into other parts of our lives, and transform us into the likeness of Christ.