Pick Up Sticks, Pluck Off Grain

“Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?‘ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you.'”

John 8:10-11 (NRSV)

In continuing the conversation about the trustworthiness of Scripture in terms of its accuracy in portraying what God has said and done, and how He thinks and feels, a troubling legal case comes to mind, found in Numbers 15:32-36, which seems to compare with a similar situation in Jesus’ own life, found in Mark 2:23-28.

At first blush, this example of seeming inconsistency is sobering, at the very least.

The stories do seem uncomfortably similar, and therefore comparable. In the first story, taking place during Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, a man is caught picking up sticks on the Sabbath. Evidently, he is brought before Moses and Aaron, with the full assembly of tribes gathered round. God Himself informs Moses the man is to be stoned outside the camp, and the entire nation promptly complies (we are going to allow a sense of hyperbole, here).

In the second story, Jesus is caught with His disciples plucking heads of grain in a field and eating them. The Pharisees understandably are in high dudgeon, pointing out the unlawfulness of Jesus’ actions. Even more alarming, at the end of the story Jesus announces He is Lord of the Sabbath. Has God so evolved in His thinking on the Sabbath as to do a complete about-face? Before, picking up sticks was a death penalty offense. Now, it seems, God Himself is wandering about plucking grain on the Sabbath He used to stentoriously defend.

Once again, to get a handle on this disquieting story in Numbers, we need to pull back and take in the context by reading verses 30-31, But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or an alien, affronts the Lord, and shall be cut off from among the people. Because of having despised the word of the Lord and broken his commandment, such a person shall be utterly cut off and bear the guilt.

We discover this story is actually an illustration of the above principle. We can infer this man was being presumptuous, deliberately disobeying God, knowing full-well the penalty, and deciding he would take his chances. This is an example of a profoundly self-centered, self-absorbed person with a wildly inflated view of their own importance and power. The man had experienced the plagues, the miraculous defeat of Egypt’s armies, the miracles of the Re(e)d Sea, the manna, the quail, the water from rock….He had been read the Law and Covenant, and agreed to it, along with the rest of Israel. Yet, he super-imposed his own ego and will over and above God’s, dishonoring God by his arrogance and presumption.

The example from Jesus’ life has an entirely different tenor. We learn the context for Mark 2 begins with Jesus being so pressed in on all sides by people who wanted to be with Him there was no room to move. Yet, some friends managed to bring their paralyzed friend near to Jesus Who forgave the man’s sins and healed him. Naturally, this caused an uproar, for it was a direct claim to divinity. Who can forgive sins but God alone? The Pharisees demanded, aghast.

Each episode in this chapter reflects another aspect of Jesus upsetting the Pharisees by doing and saying scandalizing things. He consorted with publicans and prostitutes (Mark 2:13-17), He and His disciples did not fast (2:18-20), He declared His teaching to be so new, and so powerful, that old concepts and worldviews would be burst (2:21-22)

And then, Jesus tackled the Sabbath.

His defense of gathering and eating grain actually stemmed from two important Old Testament passages. The first came from an incident in King David’s account, anointed of God, who was desperate, running for his life, and in need of food for himself and his crew. A priest friendly to his cause allowed him to eat the Bread of the Presence otherwise set aside to be eaten only by Levitical priests. This exception was permitted because of David’s great need, and that his men had remained holy. (See all four explanatory texts.)

The second came from God’s stated intent for the Sabbath. After creating the entire cosmos in six spans of time (called “days”), God devoted a seventh span of time within which to rest and enjoy all that He had done. This became the foundation for His Law that all shall rest on the seventh day, to be spiritually refreshed and physically renewed. God was so committed to this concept, He specified that even animals and enslaved peoples were to be given their rest. God’s command extended to Sabbath years for the land itself to have its rest, and Sabbath Jubilees in which all debts were forgiven, all inheritances reverted to their ancestral families, all indentured peoples released, and all land given a Jubilee as well. (See passages.)

With this in view, it becomes clear God intended the Sabbath to be something for creation, for created beings which have finite energy and resources, to be regularly replenished. Rather than a deliberately defiant and presumptuous disobedience of God and His intent, Jesus was providing that physical replenishment, in the spirit of King David, and in God’s Spirit, by gathering grain.

Now, Jesus’ final statement makes better sense. Throughout Mark Jesus referred to Himself as Son of Man, a technical term applied to the Messiah with a deeper meaning unique to Jesus signifying His humanity. Because God intended the Sabbath as a gift to creation, and specifically to humankind, then people would know what they needed for rest and refreshment. Jesus, as the representative of humankind, yet also fully divine, knew even better how best to use the Sabbath. The Son of Man was indeed Lord of the Sabbath.

I see here a beautiful consistency in God’s heart and character, and a continuing understanding of God’s protective love for His people as well as His consistent application of both gracious mercy and gracious justice in every situation.

I also see the implications and repercussions of Genesis 3 as far more complex than the typical Sunday sermon makes them out to be.

[Picking Corn on the Sabbath | the LUMO Project http://www.freebibleimages.org/photos/lumo-corn-sabbath/%5D

Published by Joanne Guarnieri Hagemeyer

Bible Teacher and partner with Ancient Voices, Sacred Stories

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: