The Letter is not Greater than the Spirit

“Have you not read what David did when he was hungry…how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the presence which is not lawful for any but the priest to eat?” – Luke 6:3-4

This always gives me pause. What exactly is Jesus up to here? Is he condoning what David did in 1 Samuel 21 or is he kind of pushing it in the Pharisees’ faces? I’ve gone back and forth on this. This morning I’m “forth”. This confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees comes in the middle of a string of controversies about obedience to commandments. At the end of chapter 5, the issue is fasting, then comes our current story about “harvesting” on the Sabbath, then the appropriateness of Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath. Given this kind of context, I don’t think the issue is so much David’s breaking the law as it is the appropriate place of obedience to the law. That’s kind of vague. Hopefully I can clarify some.

David was not a sinless man. God remembers and scripture reminds us about his sin with Bathsheba and at the end of 2 Samuel we hear of his sinful presumption in numbering Israel. However, the story in 1 Samuel 21 that Jesus cites is not mentioned again except here and Jesus doesn’t seem to condemn David as much as confront the Pharisees. So I’m back to thinking that Jesus isn’t holding up David’s “sin” in a manner aimed at embarrassing the Pharisees. Besides, the Pharisees’ hope was more in Moses than in David. (John 5:45)

Let’s return to the context of this story. Luke, of all the Gospel writers, seems to me to be thing one who tried to bring together all of the events of Jesus’ life in an orderly fashion, paying attention to this timing of the events. (Luke 1:1-4) However, biography as we’re used to it is a fairly recent literary invention. Luke was an excellent historian but he wasn’t writing a research paper or a detailed biography. He was writing an accurate account of Jesus’ ministry for the purpose of discipling Theophilus which is a purpose more than mere historical accuracy. With that in mind, I think that Luke picked these stories to place together on purpose. The theme running between the issues of fasting and picking grain and healing on the Sabbath have to do with ceremonial observance. The issues faced in these stories are a bit complex but important. Why did the Pharisees expect Jesus’ disciples to fast? That isn’t addressed so Jesus addresses it for them. Would it be better for Jesus’ disciples to observe the Sabbath (as the Pharisees define it) and grow weak and hungry as they followed their Master or to snatch a few handfuls of grain to eat? Could that really be considered working on the Sabbath?

The last one of the series gets me the most. Jesus healed a man and the Pharisees figure they have to “do something” about him! This kind of healing was clearly a work of God; it wasn’t something a man could fake or the result of a psychological condition. The power of God was at work in making a shriveled hand whole. This isn’t Bruce Almighty! God didn’t abdicate his power to a man and then allow the man to use it any way he wanted. This is God at work through the man Jesus Christ and the Pharisees decide that something must be done about it?! What they’re really saying is that God Himself has violated the Sabbath and that they’re in the position to correct him. Amazing hubris.

So draw all of these together for a moment. Is the law, primarily the Sabbath, meant to be observed above need or mercy? Obviously not. Eating some grain from the field you’re walking through isn’t the same as harvesting. It is meeting you basic human need of the moment. It isn’t building wealth or storing up for the future. Is there any way that healing a person on the Sabbath can be considered as a sinful Sabbath violation? Isn’t mercy actually in keeping with the Sabbath principle? So now to the verses at hand. Would God be pleased for Ahimeleck to see David starving as he fled for his life from Saul and deny him the only bread available? Really, that would have cost David his life. He couldn’t have continued to flee Saul without something to sustain him.

The Law is good but a strict, wooden application of the Law is not. Had Jesus’ disciples been walking through the field with sickle and scythe in hand I’m sure he himself would have corrected them. There is wisdom needed here. It isn’t like we always take an easy breezy approach to God’s commands any more than we should take a rigid, inflexible stance either. The disciples (and me with them) thought they had gotten Jesus’ emphasis on acts of mercy and kindness when a woman poured out over $1,000 worth of expensive, scented oil on his feet. Surely a better use of this would have been to sell it and provide for the poor, right? Isn’t that what Jesus had been preaching and teaching? 1So Judas was the exception here. He just wanted to cash in the group purse so he could snag some for himself. Not really. Not exactly. The more important, needful thing was that Jesus be prepared for burial since his death would come so quickly that there wouldn’t be time.
In the end, Jesus’ explanation of which is the greatest commandment is still the guiding rule. Love God. That means to obey him and to love the things he loves. Love fellow human being. That means to provide and care for them. It does not give us permission to bludgeon them with the first. And together the first and the second remind us that it isn’t loving to tolerate and condone sin.

1 So Judas was the exception here. He just wanted to cash in the group purse so he could snag some for himself.
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