The Defense Rests
A Christian lawyer wrote a book defending Christianity titled The Defense Never Rests. That may be a good title for a book defending the faith, but it's a lousy way to think about the Christian life. There is no way out of this text unless the defense rests.
People try to defend what's going on here on the basis of raw power. Former president Bill Clinton when asked why he violated his marriage vows at the risk of losing his wife and legacy answered, "Because I could." Is Jesus' answer to "Why are your disciples doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath," because I said they could?
You know that could have been His answer. As True God, Jesus is above all Law. By definition, whatever God does is good, right, fair. As true God, Jesus is King of kings. He's the king who owns the whole world. In America, our President is bound by the same laws we are. He can't legally drive 90 down I-35 anymore than you or I. He can't legally park in a handicap parking spot anymore than us. He can't legally shoot a deer this time of year anymore than I. That's not how it works with a king in his kingdom. He owns the roads, the parking spaces, and the game. He can do as he likes with what he owns. So it is for Jesus as true God. Since He made and gave the Law, He's above it and so is anyone He wants to be.
But note, that's not what Jesus says. He doesn't say in answer to the question of why His disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath, "because the Son of God is Lord even of the Sabbath." That would've been an appeal to raw power. Surprisingly, Jesus says the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath. That is, as True Man, Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. That's not only surprising; that's shocking.
Before we follow this lead, let's go to the way most people defend what's going on in this text. They say this is an example of situation ethics. This was a concept made popular in the 1966 book Situation Ethics. It simply says that right and wrong are determined by the circumstances of a situation. Rather than saying, "because I have the power I can do what is illegal or immoral," situation ethics say, "because of the situation I can." This view has Jesus appealing to David eating the special bread which under normal circumstances was not lawful for him. Jesus uses the similar circumstances He and David were in to justify doing what David did.
Ask yourself. When does Jesus need to be justified for anything? How could the Holy One of God appeal to the sinful man David for justification? When the Pharisees came asking: why He ate with sinners, by whose authority He cleansed the temple, why His disciples didn't fast, or why he didn't ritually wash before eating, Jesus didn't justify Himself. He instead put better questions before the ones questioning Him.
Aside from what a situation ethic view of this text does to Jesus, do you see what it will do you? I was in youth group when the book Situation Ethics came out. The standard fare of youth Bible classes then was looking at confusing moral situations. Your mom and your girlfriend are in a canoe. It capsizes; you can only save one. What do you do? You're in a 7-11; a robber comes in and shoots the clerk behind the counter. The other clerk is in the cooler. The robber asks, "Is there another clerk in the store?" Do you lie or not? You're in prison with your sick child who needs medicine. The guard will get the medicine if you sleep with him. Do you or don't you?
First, it's stupid to put such moral dilemmas before teens; they have plenty of their own without importing things into their lives that will probably never happen. Second and this is far worse, there's no end to situations, is there? If you are to be justified by the circumstances in a given situation, you'll always have to justify yourself in every new situation. The defense will never be able to rest. It's the Pharisees who are described as "seeking to justify themselves." It's David, a man who knew a thing or two about having the raw power of a king, the vagaries of situations, and about being justified who said in Psalm 143 that in the Lord's "sight shall no man living be justified." Only the dead can be done with justifying themselves. Only of the dead do we say they "rest in peace."
The only way to deal with this thorny text and the even thornier problem of how a sinner like you can be justified is to rest. The Hebrew word Sabbath means "rest." So Jesus, the Son of Man, is the Lord of rest. He is the answer to the Law accusing us.
When the Pharisees of the world, your own conscience, or the devil himself come at you bringing a law from God, the answer is not the excuses of situation ethics. "I did what I did because I had to choice." Nor is the answer the arrogant defense of raw power. "I did what I did because I could." Do notice that these are the only 2 choices the Pharisees in the text, and everywhere else, leave Christ and Christians. And Jesus could've answered either way. Jesus could've said, "Eating the grain is not unlawful for them because I am the Son of God." Or, He could've said, "It's not unlawful to them because they were in a situation similar to David."
Jesus does appeal to David but not to David's situation. David and His men in the example are the disciples. They were the ones who ate the special bread. Abiathar, the high priest, is Jesus. He eats no bread. He gives the bread to David and his men. Abiathar, as high priest, had a right to the bread. It was given to him by God for eating and feeding his family, but a priest who violated the ceremonial laws governing sacred food was subject to the death penalty. Not long after Abiathar gave the bread to David and his men, a soldier of Saul came and killed him for helping David. So at the cost of his own life Abiathar fed David.
Jesus is the great High Priest. As true God and true Man, He is the bridge that reaches both divinity and humanity. As a Man, Jesus kept the Sabbath perfectly. Note in the text, only the disciples eat the grain. He does not. Jesus kept all the Laws of God perfectly, not just the Third Commandment. Of course, we do not. We don't ever keep any of God's Laws perfectly. We don't fear, love and trust in God above all things. No, we fear disease more than God, love others more than God, and worry constantly rather than trust always. We misuse God's name as an exclamation of surprise or power of damnation rather than call upon it every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks. And we don't find our rest in the Word of God but in our excuses or our rights.
We have no right to be fed by God. We have no right to His blessings. Yet, we get them. The Lord's mercies are new every morning. He opens His hands and satisfies the desires of every living thing, ours included. He makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on miserable sinners like us. How can this be? We are mercied, fed, shined and rained upon at Jesus' expense. Like Abiathar the high priest before Him, Jesus pays for feeding us with His blood, sweat and tears.
The Sabbath was made for perfect man, not sinners like us. A Day of Rest was created in Paradise before the Fall. Exodus 20 says, "In 6 days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them and rested on the 7th day; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." Jesus, the perfect Man, has a right to a day of rest. We do not. In order to give us a day of rest, a place of rest, a rest in peace in our graves, Jesus gave up His life bitterly, harshly, brutally on the cross.
You will never find rest in your claims to rights, power, privilege. You will never find rest in asserting your freedom, your liberty, your individuality before God. When you say, "I'm sorry God that's just the way I am," God, says, "Go to hell." When you say, "I have a right to be happy, to live as I please, to express myself," God says, "The only rights sinners have are the rights to be judged, condemned, and damned."
Nor will you find rest in your excuses. You may indeed have had a harsh upbringing. You may indeed have had very bad things happen to you in life. You may indeed have genes that make you steal, lie, lust, and drink, but you will find no rest before God with any of that. The Law of God is absolute. It says perfect men, women and children go to heaven, not those with good excuses.
The Son of Man who is Lord over the Sabbath is the answer to the Law, to the accusations, to you having no rest from guilt, from fear, from worry. Jesus could've answered the Law's accusations in the mouths of the Pharisees by saying, "It wasn't unlawful for My disciples because of My power or their situation." But He would've doomed them and us to always having to justify ourselves. The devil, the world, and your conscience are not silenced by power or excuses, only by Jesus. His perfect life is the answer to the imperfections that are always in your life. His innocent death is the answer to the debt of guilt you know you owe for your sins.
Your defense can only rest in Jesus. You've never kept any of God's laws perfectly. Jesus kept them all. You're not able to suffer enough, bleed enough, die enough to pay for your sins. The suffering, bleeding and dying of God in flesh and blood are more than enough. Rest in the perfect things Jesus did not in your imperfect claims to right, power, or privilege. Rest in the perfect suffering of Jesus, not in your excuses or the situation. You toss and turn, your soul refuses to be comforted, you find no rest for your body or soul because you keep fighting to be not guilty by reason of being right or by being excused. No, the defense can only rest in Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday after Pentecost (20060618); Mark 2: 23-28