One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them.But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
I have seen my fair share of shrinks in my lifetime. Years of shrinks. And they have all been very helpful. There’s a Dar Williams song that hits it just about right. She says, “And when I talk about therapy, I know what people think - that it only makes you selfish, and in love with your shrink, but oh how I loved everybody else, when I finally got to talk so much about myself.“ They’ve all been nice women with kind eyes and have mastered the “understanding” smile and nod. They’ve given me a safe place to be myself, to sit in an overstuffed chair, sip some chamomile tea, and tell the stories of my life, while they sit attentively in their straight-backed chair, steno pad and ball point pen in hand, probably scribbling their grocery list or their pro/con list for vacationing in Vale versus St. Pete’s this year. But she looks like she’s listening, and that’s all that I need. Psychologists rarely say much. But I’ll never forget one particular piece of advice from a woman named Celaine. She wore organic cotton, had greying cropped hair, and fixed me the most amazing mango tea every time I came to her home for a session.
On one particularly frazzled, particularly self-deprecating day, I rushed into her office, late for my appointment. I was apologizing up and down. Apologizing for being late, apologizing for not calling, apologizing for my B- in handwriting that I got in fifth grade, apologizing that I’d once broken all of my sister’s crayons into tiny little pieces, apologizing for my tendency to roll through stop signs and go five miles over the speed limit... Mid confessions, right when I was about to say that sometimes I pee in the shower, she interrupted me. She said, “It’s alright. You can never be late for swimming lessons.”
And I thought to myself, “I’m paying you, you rarely say anything, even when I’m practically begging you for advice, just a nugget of your calming, centered wisdom, and when I finally get it, all I get is ‘You can never be late for swimming lessons?’” What does that even mean?
And yet, here I am, standing before you all, after I’ve done hours of exegetical work on this passage. After I’ve parsed the Greek verbs. After I’ve done historical, critical and textual analyses, after I’ve checked dozens of commentaries and prayed and made theological and cultural connections. This is all I’ve got for ya. “You can never be late for swimming lessons.”
See, Jesus is constantly surrounded by people who are “late for swimming lessons.” Whether they’re his friends, or people who want to stone him, or people are just completely perplexed by him, they’re all theologically, morally, or emotionally, or physically a mess. They’re running down the side of the pool in their swimming trunks and goggles and floaties, slipping on the wet tile, late for swimming lessons. They’re out of breath. They’re flushed and worried. They’re counting how many kids are already in the pool practicing their scissor kicks and blowing bubbles. They’re blaming their soccer moms for stopping for that latte or blaming the cartoon channel for showing too many commercials before the end of their favorite show.
Just hang in here with me for a minute.
We’ve got these two stories in our reading today. Both are about the sabbath - that time each week that both Christians and Jews are supposed to step away from the craziness of our lives and do...what? Or not do...what? In our first story, the Pharisees have, for some reason, traipsed through muddy fields on the outskirts of town just to catch the disciples in the act of disobeying the Law on the sabbath. And what do they find, but a bunch of muddy hoodlums so hungry that they’re plucking the grains off the wheat stalks and chewing them raw, unprocessed, unmilled. So they’re standing there, caught in the act, cheeks full as chipmunks with a kind of flavorless paste. And the Pharisees call them out on it. It is not lawful to harvest grain on the Sabbath. They have been caught breaking the fifth commandment: You shall keep the sabbath holy. They are in big trouble now...
Or are they? Jesus jumps in to defend them. He says, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” In other words, you can never be late for swimming lessons.
The Pharisees leave, along with their muddy robes and righteous indignation, only to try to catch Jesus again, and this time, in public. On another sabbath, Jesus enters the synagogue, and starts teaching, and this time, there is a man there with a withered hand. It seems clear that the Pharisees and scribes are just using him as a pawn with which to trap Jesus. No matter the case, they’re definitely looking to catch Jesus, in the act, in public, doing something that no good Jew would do - disobey one of the sabbath laws.
And what’s crazy, is that they don’t really care whether or not this guy gets healed; they just want something with which to accuse Jesus. They want Jesus in trouble. Who cares about this poor guy with only one working hand? These guys are so, so late for swimming lessons...
And this poor man with the withered hand gets called out and pulled into the mess. Jesus tells him to “come and stand here.” He is getting dragged into this court scene whether he wants to be or not. So the man gets up, and stands there. And then he waits, looking awkward, probably ashamed that everyone is staring at his hand, while Jesus questions the Pharisees and the scribes. The tables have turned. Instead of Jesus being on the defense in a court of law, he becomes the lawyer for the prosecution, putting his own accusers on trial. “Is it better to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life, or destroy it?” He is asking: Is it better to be “right,” to believe all the right things and do the right rituals and expect the right liturgy, or is it better to come with your withered hand, and stand in front of everyone, just as you are? Is it better to come to the sabbath hungry, with mud still caked on your shoes from the fields, or to wear your Sunday best suit and tie in order to hide your judging and accusing, and frankly, insecure, heart? Is it better to slip and fall and crack your head open on the poolside tile, rushing to get to swimming lessons, flustered and frustrated and overwhelmed, or is it better to be a little bit late?
Getting no answer from his rhetorical question, Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand. And when he does, it is healed.
Jesus has taken one of the three pillars of Jewish identity - keeping the Sabbath holy - and redefined it, turned it on its head. The Pharisees and scribes are terrified because he is pulling everything they pride themselves in - out from under him. They are terrified because they might be wrong. Jesus is radically is adjusting what it means to be a child of God.
Jesus Christ is lord of the Sabbath. And in these two stories, he bids us to eat. He tells us to rise, to stand. He tells us to stretch out our withered hands. To be a child of God, to fully embrace the Sabbath, Jesus tells us to eat, to rise, to stretch out. As children of God, we are eaters. We are risers. We are ones who stretch out. And that means that we enter the sabbath hungry. We come a little bit low. We come a little bit withered.
On the Sabbath, we aren’t supposed to have it all together. We’re supposed to come together as the messes that we are. We are to come hungry. We are to come with muddy feet and wrinkled hearts. We are to bring our withered hands and our withered souls. And then we’re supposed to eat. We’re supposed to stand and stretch out and be healed. The Sabbath is not a day when we show each other how much we have figured out. The Sabbath is when we come, stripped of our robes and full of our doubts. We come, rejecting our week’s achievements and awards and raises and accomplishments. We come holding our failures and our weaknesses loosely, as an offering to God. The sabbath is when we come a little bit late for swimming lessons.
It’s when we take a step forward, amidst all the angry crowds and the scholars and the preachers and the people who have all the answers and seem to have it all together, and we proclaim that we don’t. We step forward with our cheeks full of unmilled grain, waving our withered hands in the air to say, Jesus is lord of the sabbath, so I don’t have to be. We can never be late for swimming lessons.
The lessons will start when we are ready. Ready to say we don’t know how to swim. Ready to say that we need someone to teach us. Ready when we strip ourselves of our pretensions, our expectations, our judgments. Ready to jump in to that pool of grace, just as we are.
Thanks be to God.