Pushing Back Against Legalism

Jesus and his disciples lived out before others a liberating walk with God. They were observed by legalists, in Mark’s account of their journey, walking through some grain fields and later encountering a man needing healing.

Each ‘faith’ has its extremists, who take the normal practices of participants and ramp them up to excess.  The Jews of this time were no different.  The LORD had clearly commanded, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the se, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11) 

Clear enough, but what is work? Does the Old Testament law say anything about eating? Is it considered ‘work’ or is only the preparation of the meal a violation of the standard?

It is always fascinating that some parts of the Bible are better known than others.  Do you know what Deuteronomy 23:25 permits regarding eating hand-picked kernels from a neighbour’s grain field?

“If you enter your neighbour’s grain field, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain.” Here is the specific standard which the ‘knowledgable’ Pharisees should have remembered. No Sabbath ‘extra’ requirements, simply a wise, God-crafted standard for reasonable behaviour.

So what do the Pharisees ‘catch’ the disciples of Jesus doing as they walk through the fields of grain? And if Jesus permitted them to do this, what does his permission reflect about his view of the law? In my understanding, legalists have no shortage of questions, about exceptions, violations, and their measure of ‘perfect obedience!’

“…as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain.”  – exactly what Deuteronomy 23:25 permits.  They weren’t pulling out sickles and cutting down stalks to take with them for the journey.  They were simply eating a few kernels, some heads of grain, which many a farmer and farm kids have probably likewise done, not only in Israel, but around the world.

The Pharisees had their ‘spiritual binoculars’ poised for action. “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” Legalists are quick to report violators and to spread the news about such violations.

How does Jesus respond to their misguided observation? He cites the conduct of David, hero of the Old Testament, who with his companions entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which the law clearly restricted for the use of the priests. David was not charged with guilt. He was not struck down dead.  He was not spoken of as a lawbreaker.  There were plenty of other MAJOR issues in David’s life for which he was held accountable.

Jesus summarizes the issue with a clarified statement about the Sabbath.  As he did throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presses home the heart of the law, and clarifies its intent.

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Ponder that, you legalists! 

This post is not intended to be an in-depth study of the Sabbath, but a wake-up call for those, like the Pharisees, who sit with their ‘spiritual binoculars’ awaiting violators to point out.  Instead of living in LEGALISM, or LICENSE, let’s find the balance of LIBERTY – the kind of liberty that reflects the life change Christ brings to those who follow Him.

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