Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked
“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 28, 2020
4th Sunday after Pentecost
During seminary I attended a lecture series given by Bonnie Thurston. Her theme was Paul as a mystic—a man of fervent prayer, a man through whom the Holy Spirit works mightily. In the academic realm, Dr. Thurston is an interesting blend of the head and heart. While she is a New Testament professor, author, and accomplished speaker, she is also a contemplative who is drawn to the holiness of the everyday. She is a spiritual teacher and a wise soul.
Although it is not easy to define wisdom, people generally recognize it when they see it. The information hub, Wikipedia, defines wisdom in the following terms: It is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight. To act wisely requires an understanding of people, things, events, situation, and the willingness as well as the ability to apply perception and good judgment.
Pondering the topic of wisdom makes me exceedingly grateful for the wise individuals God has placed in my life. I am also thankful for the wisdom I have found in books written by deep spiritual thinkers—from the works of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, to monastics across the ages, to more modern-day writers. Brother Lawrence comes to mind. He was a 17th Century French monk who, by grace alone, learned to practice the presence of God at all times. Listen to these wise words he shared with someone in his community:
Let us think often that our only business in this life is to please God, and that all besides is but folly and vanity… I am filled with shame and confusion when I reflect, on one hand, upon the great favors which God has done, and incessantly continues to do me; and on the other upon the ill-use I have made of them, and my small advancement in the way of perfection.[i]
In No Man Is an Island, Thomas Merton wrote:
If we have no silence, God is not heard in our music. If we have no rest, God does not bless our work. If we twist our lives out of shape in order to fill every corner with action and experience, God will silently withdraw from our hearts and leave us empty.[ii]
Concerning the ministry of listening, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,
The first service that one owes to others…consists in listening to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear…Christians…so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others… They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.[iii]
In these challenging times in which we live, times that beckon us to be a part of the change we want to see, listening may be our most important work—that is, if we intend to act wisely.
Another author that graces the shelves of my study is Cynthia Bourgeault. An Episcopal priest, she has written several books but the one that fascinates me most is The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message. It was through her eyes that I first began to see Jesus as a wisdom teacher, as a sage. In her words:
There has always been a strong tendency among Christians to turn [Jesus] into a priest….but Jesus was not a priest. He had nothing to do with the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem, and he kept a respectful distance from most ritual observances. Nor was he a prophet in the usual sense of the term: a messenger sent to the people of Israel to warn them of impending political catastrophe in an attempt to redirect their hearts to God. Jesus was not interested in the political fate of Israel, nor would he accept the role of Messiah continuously being thrust upon him. His message was not [about returning] to the covenant. Rather he stayed close to the perennial ground of wisdom: the transformation of human consciousness. He asked those timeless and deeply personal questions: What does it mean to die before you die? How do you go about losing your little life to find the bigger one? Is it possible to live on this planet with a generosity, abundance, fearlessness, and beauty that mirror Divine Being itself? These are the wisdom questions and they are the entire field of Jesus’ concern.
Today marks the beginning of a sermon series entitled: Questions Jesus Asked. Jesus, who asks eight times more questions than he answers, is the master of asking good questions that challenge cultural norms and lead to a place where transformation can occur. He refuses to accept the status quo. Instead, he fearlessly walks into potential conflict with the intention of turning people’s world view upside down.
In our gospel reading, for example, Jesus is in trouble with the Pharisees because his disciples have walked through a field and plucked some grain to eat on the Sabbath. It seems simple enough—they are hungry, and they eat what is available. But the Pharisees interpret their act as work. Jesus tries to help them reinterpret the meaning of Sabbath by pointing out that the Sabbath was made for humankind—not humankind for the Sabbath. But they miss the point.
Afterward Jesus enters the synagogue where there is a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees watch closely. Unimpressed with Jesus’ power to cure, they are concerned with whether or not he will heal someone on the Sabbath. So, Jesus poses a question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?” Then, without performing any physical action, without even touching the man, he instructs him to come forward and stretch out his hand. The man does so and is healed. Jesus speaks words of healing on the Sabbath and for that the Pharisees plan to destroy him.
Ultimately, Jesus will challenge every legalism that makes of the Sabbath a burden to bear rather than renewal for the road ahead. But nowhere in Scripture does he dishonor the Sabbath. Addressing the holiness of the day, Bonnie Thurston’s writes,
I think a mark of our distance from God and God’s image is that we often do not know when to stop. We keep working until it is counterproductive. In fact, we have found it hard to take seriously God’s command to rest. And it is a command, not a polite request…God is so gracious to us that God has commanded us to rest. The Hebrew word for ‘rest’ literally means ‘to catch your breath.’ God has commanded us to take time to catch our breath…[Quoting Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Thurston continues:] ‘Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.’[iv]
Jesus is interested in “the seed of eternity planted in our soul.” He is not interested in religious leaders who habitually choose the letter of the law rather than God’s love within the law.
In 2009 I had the privilege of walking the streets of Galilee and Jerusalem with a group of 23 pastors. Throughout this sermon series, our bulletin cover art will be photographs taken by a clergy friend on that pilgrimage. It is my hope that they will help us get a lay of the land, the Holy Land from which Jesus poses many questions—questions that are harder to answer than one might imagine. For instance, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?” But wait a minute Jesus, on which day of the week is it lawful to do harm?
(Let us keep silence.)
[i] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, 50.
[ii] Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, 134.
[iii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classis Exploration of Faith in Community, 97.
[iv] Bonnie Thurston, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time, 68-73.
*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a
Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009