My first narrative sermon – based (loosely, but hopefully faithfully!) on Luke 6:1-11.
SCENE ONE – Against the Grain
We were hungry. I was hungry. Very hungry.
You know the feeling. Rubbing your stomach with your hands, doesn’t make it go away.
The grainfields we were walking through were lush and beautiful just to look at. The owner, John, son of Jacob, whom we all knew, was set to have a bountiful harvest this season. That ‘grainy’ smell was familiar and inviting. It was the smell of abundance and blessing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a small child, or well advanced in years – you just can’t walk through a ripe, ready-to-be-picked grainfield without letting your fingers lightly sweep over the tops of the grain stalks. Each hand created by God with five fingers each to soak in the simple yet eternal sensation…
The Law of Moses allowed us to use our hands to pick the grain heads off the stalks and eat them. After all, that’s a far cry from charging into someone else’s grain field with your sickle and baskets and robbing the man of a noticable portion of his crop. These mere handfuls were just enough for a small bite.
All the less for me. While all the others could hold a handful of grain heads in one hand, and rub off the chaff and eat them with the other hand, I had to pluck, rub and eat with only my left hand as my right hand had been shrunken and shriveled since as long as I had memory of anything. But I thanked God for both the grain and for my good left hand – even if it was twice as hard to rub the husk off. Thankfully, it doesn’t take much grain to put pack the sharp hunger for a good little while. Grain is filling like that. And it was all the more tasty when you’re extra hungry!
So, it didn’t take any deep meditation or soul-searching for us that day to eat a few bits of grain. You don’t have to pray about such things. If you’re hungry and you’re in a grain field, you pick off a few heads of grain and eat them. It’s just as simple and natural as that. And even though there were quite a few of us, our hand-pickings of grain would leave no discernable mark on the fields.
Not everyone was eating. Some of ‘those’ kind of Pharisees were also among us. Of course they weren’t eating. They were pedantic about Sabbath observance, and didn’t want to do the slightest thing that could even possibly be seen as work.
Now, the Sabbath was important to all Jews. Whether you were following John the Baptist out in the desert, a member of the Pharisees or Sadducees or with us following Jesus, we all took seriously God’s command to do no work on the Seventh Day of the Week – the rest Day. But the Pharisees took it incredibly seriously. Especially some of the more extreme Pharisees that had been, shall I say, ‘accompanying’ us for the last few weeks. The Sabbath was one of the things that distinguished us from the pagans, those who were not Jewish; but these extreme Pharisees that were spying on… I mean… ‘journeying with’ us; they made special effort to ensure that they did absolutely no work at all. As if to drive home the difference with additional force.
Jesus was walking out front, leading the way, we were following (as you did with a Rabbi), and these Pharisees were at the back of our group. Though I honestly had not considered what they would think of our grain-picking, in a sense, I wasn’t surprised when they complained. Their leader, Jacimus, did not hesitate in bringing the charge against us.
“What are you doing!!??”, he said, shaking his clenched fist at us. “How can you profane the Rest Day of the Lord like this! With every head of grain you pluck, you profane God’s Holy Sabbath! You call yourselves Jews? The chosen of the Lord? Why do you then do this as though you were a pagan who did not know the instruction of the Law of Moses!
And you add insult to injury by thoroughly working the grains over in your hands, rubbing off the chaff. You might as well go the whole way and get out the sickles and baskets, then take the heads to the threshing floor and purge the grain properly as one would after the Sabbath is finished!!!”
We said nothing – not knowing what to say…
Some of us still had grain heads in our hands…
None of us dared rub them any longer with our fingers.
The calm, yet clear voice of Jesus broke the silence. He had walked back toward the back of the group, where Jacimus was rebuking us.
“You rebuke us for not knowing the Law of Moses, but you seem to have not read this Scripture about David: when he was hungry, he entered God’s house, he took and he ate the showbread, the Bread of the Presence, and gave it to those who were with him; and all that when it was only lawful for the priests to eat it! Doing an unlawful action, yet doing what was right!”
They said absolutely nothing, but their faces were screaming.
Jesus went on… his hand gestures moving at the same slow deliberate pace as his speech…
“Man was not created to be a slave to the Day of Rest. The Sabbath was made to serve and refresh Man.”
“And one more thing…”, he said as he placed His right hand on his chest, “The Son of Man is also the Lord of the Sabbath!”
Jesus walked away.
Jacimus, the leading Pharisee there, put his finger to his lips, silencing the others who were no doubt on the verge of accusing Jesus of Blasphemy. He gave the signal, and the incensed Pharisees stormed off in the other direction.
SCENE TWO – A Hand Up In Life
Sabbath time again. That particular group of Pharisees had kept their distance a bit more all week. They were up to something. They were too incenced last Sabbath, and too quiet all week.
I left my home for the Synagogue – just barely within the Sabbath walking-distance limit, of course. Many of the Pharisees had built extra dwellings very close to the Synagogue, so that they could be sure not to break the Sabbath.
Each week, I would arrive early to Synagogue. I loved being there. But I didn’t get there early to sit up front, of course. Let’s just say people with withered hands don’t take the best seats in synagogue… I’d learned that it was the least disruptive for me to arrive early and quietly take a seat on a bench in one of the corners.
That Sabbath, after the usual prayers and recitation of the Psalms, Jesus began to teach. My goodness, He was captivating! But He never relied on shouting his message home or using the polished rhetoric that the Greek sophists used – though He could have if he wanted to…
Now, those certain Pharisees were in their usual seats near the center where things happened. Although they weren’t talking or even whispering to each other, anyone with eyes to see could tell they were waiting for Jesus to bring up the Sabbath issue again. And He must have known it too, because that is precisely what He did…
What took me completely by surprise, however, is when He looked directly at me, and said, in an authoritative yet kind tone;
“Nathan. Get up. Come and stand here near Me.”
He knew my name.
I did exactly as he said, without hesitating.
My right hand – that hand that people use to do most things with – but my bad hand – was tucked away, hidden in the folds of my well-worn tunic. With my left hand – my perfect, flawless left hand – I lifted it just enough so that I wouldn’t trip over it…
Jesus looked warmly at me. His manner was serious, but peaceful.
I nodded – as one nods when saying thank you.
All this took mere moments.
Jesus then addressed the synagogue. Not so much looking at the Pharisees, as looking past them;
“You have all heard it said in the Law, ‘In six days shall you do your labour, but the seventh is Holy to the Lord.’ But I say to you that there are weightier matters of the Law – justice and mercy; Truly I say to you, the Spirit of the Law brings life, but the Letter kills.
Therefore, I ask you: Which of these two is more truly lawful on the Sabbath – to do good, or to do evil? Which is done more justly on the Day of Rest – to save life or to destroy it?”
Though we all knew the answer, nobody could say even a word.
He patiently waited. His firm gaze slowly panned around over the whole synagogue…
His eyes stopped on me…
So did the eyes of everyone else…
I did not know what was about to happen, yet I think my hand knew in some way…
His words were calm and direct;
“Stretch out your hand.”
He was not talking about my good hand.
Before he had even finished the words, I had already felt it.
Words are only so good at describing such a sensation. It was like the surge of warmth one feels when talking with an old friend, yet at the same time like a refreshing dip in a cool stream on a hot day. It was in one sense very much like the feeling you get reading the Scriptures about the song-filled return of Israel from captivity – our glorious return from Babylon. And remarkably similar to the feeling my heart felt when Jesus had said my name earlier. All these feelings and a thousand more, except in my right hand.
It was not a strange, interrupting or intrusive feeling, but a more welcoming one – something like arriving home after a long, long voyage – only more familiar. Even though it was of course a totally new feeling.
That’s perhaps the best way to describe the feeling.
These moments blurred together. I don’t clearly remember the actual motion of un-covering or extending my hand, but I clearly remember standing there with a new right hand – every bit as good as my left – and the amazed look on everyone’s faces.
I turned to look at Jesus – whose firm gaze had melted into a warm smile.
The Pharisees were aflame with rage. Like mad dogs, they scurried out of the Synagogue, shaking their fists at Jesus. One of them turning as he left, saying;
“You will reap the wages of what you have sown here! You shall surely pay the price for this!”
That was as close to a verbal death threat as it gets.
The irony hit me. Jesus healing my hand had demonstrated the creative power that the Spirit of the Law has to bring life. And, unknowingly, the reaction of the Pharisees had demonstrated that the Letter of the Law kills…
I looked back at Jesus – his expression now a mixture of joy and sorrow.
He lifted His head, and our eyes met once more.
He smiled and nodded in the direction of the grainfields outside of town.
I laughed, nodded again in sincere gratitude, and then – not caring at all if I looked like a young child – ran out the door.
From now on, I would pluck, rub and eat grain with both hands.