The next in a series on the red letters of Jesus by Daniel Harrell
The price of gas has reached five dollars a gallon in California. It’s almost four and a quarter in Southie. As much as I complain about my dumpy Honda Civic, I’m glad now that I drive that car and that I live in the city. Those of you who have to drive everywhere must be getting killed. High gas prices has meant higher food prices too. Four dollars for cereal. Five dollars for blueberries. And that’s without milk. Forget about flying anywhere for summer vacation. $15 extra dollars to sit by the window? Granted, with all the job cuts, the word vacation has become meaningless for many. And this without even mentioning the housing slump, the falling dollar or the growling bear stock market—so much of it tied to rising oil prices. Do we have a prayer for relief? Turns out we do. I ran across a story this week about a church music director in Baltimore who’s organized a movement called “Pray at the Pump.” He gathers people at service stations around Maryland where holding hands, they encircle the gas pumps and pray for lower prices. Has it worked? The music director says that in Florida, gas prices fell for a bit after his radio appearance there. Some people, inspired by his example, have started praying at pumps in their own neighborhoods. If you’re interested in joining the Park Street effort, meet over the Exxon near Mass General after church.
Of course the fact that oil prices continue to climb does raise another question. What if high-priced gas is God’s will? Soaring transport costs are causing many businesses to bring formerly outsourced jobs back to the United States. Prices for locally grown produce and locally raised (usually grass-fed) meat are becoming more economically competitive with factory-farmed rivals. Home ownership has become more affordable. Human greed and love of money has been checked. Those excessive emission spewing SUVs and Hummers, so popular just a year ago, are being dramatically displaced by fuel efficient hybrids. Car dealers can’t keep up with hybrid demand. Research into alternative fuels has become more of a priority, as has the use of public transportation, not to mention more walking and biking. Everyone is rethinking their priorities in regard to consumption and waste. All of this has to be good for the environment and for offsetting our collective carbon footprints. Perhaps we should be praying for gas prices to rise even higher.
Would it matter? Can prayer have economic effects? Why not? In the epistle of James, Jesus’ brother scolds the church for praying so timidly. “You do not have because you do not ask God,” he writes. Consequently many a Christian, like the Baltimore church music director, advocates for bold prayers. Pound on the door of heaven and God will give you what you want, just like that man in Jesus’ parable whose neighbor in need of some bread kept knocking on his door all night long. “I tell you,” Jesus said, “he will not get up and give his neighbor bread because they are friends, yet because of his neighbor’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.” There is a down side, however. Many of us have prayed boldly only to experience Jesus’ promise as a fallacy. To manage any future disappointment, we’ve learned to tack on the proviso “if it be your will,” which causes some to accuse that our prayers are back to being timid again.
But isn’t that how Jesus taught his disciples to pray? “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s the way Jesus prayed himself. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus famously asked for a crucifixion workaround, the sweat of his earnestness dropping like blood to the ground. Yet despite possessing more confidence in prayer than any of the rest of us dare presume, Jesus likewise tacked on the proviso: “not my will but Thy will be done.” The same with James. Though the topic is not specifically prayer, it does apply. Taking issue with any who would too boldly presume upon God, James writes, “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life but a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”
There’s a certain paradoxicalness that goes with believing in Jesus, a certain irony and even ambiguity that we don’t want to accept. On the one hand, his death on the cross is horrific beyond measure. Yet on the other hand, it is our salvation. On the one hand it’s hard to imagine God ever willing hardship or suffering, yet on the other hand suffering is the path of spiritual growth. On the one hand Jesus says to ask and we’ll receive, yet on the other hand, we receive the very thing we didn’t ask for. Why can’t Jesus simply shoot straight? This is what the Pharisees wanted to know. Since Easter I’ve been walking us through Jesus’ sayings in Mark, those words that show up in red ink in you have a red-letter Bible. So far it’s mostly been the Pharisees who’ve seen red. Jesus has challenged just about everything sacred to their religious way of understanding life. Scholars have taken to calling these episodes “conflict narratives.” Each episode thus far incited an objection from the religious authorities. Jesus healed a paralytic as a sign of forgiveness of sin. Objection: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus had dinner with deliberate law-breakers and felons. Objection: “Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” Jesus’ disciples forgo ritual fasting. Objection: “Why is it that John’s disciples and the Pharisees fast but you don’t?” Jesus answered each objection by basically saying “it’s all God’s will,” which only further infuriated the Pharisees since none of it looked like God’s will. Who knew God’s will better than they did?
Tonight the Pharisees had to figure they had Jesus cold. They catch him and his disciples plucking grain to eat. No objection there. Deuteronomy allowed you to take a snack from any grain field as long as it was only a snack. At issue was not the act, but its timing. The Pharisees blew the whistle, “Hey,” they said, “why are they doing what is against the law on the Sabbath?” Having created the world in six days, God rested on the seventh and commanded that his people do likewise. To keep Sabbath was to stick your toe into eternity and enjoy a taste of heaven itself. The prohibition of work was not a denigration of labor, but a reminder that work is not all there is to life. To work is to participate in God’s creativity but to rest is to enjoy creativity’s fruits. So serious was God about Sabbath that Torah imposed serious penalties on its infringement. Work on the Sabbath once got you excommunicated. Do it again and you get executed. Naturally such seriousness instilled the fear of God in his people such that by the time we get to Jesus, the Pharisees had so painstakingly defined “not working” that it became work to not work.
Of the 39 categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath as interpreted by Jewish rabbis, the third is reaping. Plucking heads of grain is reaping. According to the Pharisees’ read of the Bible, the disciples were breaking Sabbath law. Jesus responds with his own read of the Bible. He has them turn to 1 Samuel 21. David (of Goliath fame) is fleeing King Saul and ends up in an ancient priestly town named Nob. The priest of Nob, named Abiathar, knows King Saul is after David. For Abiathar to aid and abet would bring royal fury down on his priestly head. Nevertheless, when David hungrily pounds on his door and asks for bread, Abiathar obliges, even though the only bread in the house is the communion bread which David, not being a priest himself, was forbidden to eat. David, loving God better than anybody, knew better than to break God’s law by eating this consecrated bread. But he did it anyway. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need?”
Now had the Pharisees been on their toes, they could have shot back by asking, “Have you never read what David did?” The priest in that story was named Ahimelech, not Abiathar. Moreover, the story never says that David was hungry or that he entered the house of God or that he could have since the house of God wasn’t at Nob. David’s companions weren’t with him either. As you can imagine, these discrepancies have kept Bible scholars busy for centuries. Most attribute them to an editor who copied wrong, but I wonder whether Jesus was intentionally trying to yank the Pharisee’s meticulosity-loving chains—if only to get them to get the point. It isn’t about the name of the high priest or who went where. But surprisingly, it isn’t about the Sabbath either. You’d think that if Jesus were looking for a passage to defend his disciples (and by extension himself), he would have picked one that had to do with Sabbath-breaking. But instead, Jesus chooses another breach of Torah, the inference being that since it was OK for David to break the law, it’s OK for Jesus to let his disciples break the law. That’s the point—which only ratchets the conflict up another notch. It’s one thing to break the law. It’s another thing to excuse it by comparing yourself to King David. Who does this Jesus think he is?
Hasn’t he already made that clear? “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus replied by healing the paralytic and saying, “Know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Nobody heals and forgives sins but God. “Why do you eat with tax-collectors and deliberate sinners?” Jesus replied, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Nobody can embrace deliberate sinners but God. “Why don’t your disciples fast?” Jesus replied, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” In the Bible only God gets described as the bridegroom of Israel. Now the Pharisees demand to know, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” To which Jesus replies, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Can’t shoot any straighter than that.
Nobody else but Jesus ever uses the designation “son of man” in reference to himself. In Hebrew, “son of man” is a basic way of saying “human being,” which Jesus is. However, by tacking on the definite article, Jesus asserts that he is not just any human being. Psalm 80 speaks of “the son of man” seated at God’s right hand. The prophet Daniel sees the son of man “who comes with the clouds of heaven and approaches the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.” In verse 27, Jesus says the Sabbath was made for man, by which he means it was made for him too. However, as the son of man, he is more than mere beneficiary of the Sabbath. He is also its Lord and thus he makes the Sabbath rules. It is good and right to keep Sabbath. But sometimes to keep Sabbath you have to break it. The will of God may not always look like the will of God.
If such paradoxicalness only messes with your head, you’re in good company. The Pharisees were certain Jesus had lost his mind. By chapter 3, they’re convinced he is Satan himself. This line of logic is where we get the “lunatic, liar or Lord” defense of Jesus. Since Jesus is obviously not a nut case or a fraud, he must be who he says he is. But is that so obvious? Jesus says “If you ask for anything in my name, I will do it.” But we all know how that goes. Which is why we tack on the proviso, “if it be your will,” as if we’re trying to save Jesus’ reputation. Except that this is Jesus’ reputation. We ask in Jesus’ name and often receive the very thing we didn’t want. Doesn’t that make him a fraud? Or at least a little nuts? Or maybe we’re the ones who are nuts to believe. Maybe the Pharisees were right. What kind of God would ever seemingly command one thing only to do another? Even when Jesus shoots straight we’re still not sure what he means. Do we keep the Sabbath or not? Do we fast or not? What are the guidelines? Where’s the life application? How do I pray when I don’t get what I pray for? How do I know what’s your will? What am I supposed to do?
As gas prices continue to rise, one of the surprising large number of reporters who covered this story from all over the world inevitably asked the pump-praying choir director what he thought the contrary answers to his prayers meant. He replied for all the world to read, “I think God is trying to make us depend on him more.” This is always the lesson. Simple yet so hard. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus said, “trust in God, trust also in me.”
Our own prayers of late have been full of concern for Bridget Slotemaker, a former member of our church diagnosed with stage four cancer. Pregnant at the time of her diagnosis, Bridget, her husband Steve and daughter Grace welcomed another daughter into the world last week. Chloe came in weighing a little over one pound, her delivery made necessary by the chemotherapy being pumped through Bridget’s body. The prognosis for Bridget is not good, and for so many of her dear friends here it is horrific beyond measure. And yet, paradoxically, you gathered with hundreds more this past Thursday night to praise God. This makes no sense. Unless you trust Jesus.
Bridget wrote this in a letter read on Thursday: “I have felt God with me this entire journey like I never have before. I have felt scared and I have felt lots of sadness. But surprisingly to myself, I have never felt angry or forsaken. …[God] has given me a peace that keeps me going and He has wiped away every fear. Since my diagnosis, I have noticed the verse from Isaiah 41:10 (Be not afraid, for I am with you) on plaques in obscure hospital hallways and in one of my rooms, that has been present during my darkest times. …between the way God has carried me through this and the outpouring of love that you all have shown to me and my family, I feel almost equally blessed as I do diseased. It has certainly changed my life and the way I want to live. I want to live a life of love for Christ and love for others. You all have shown me what this looks like over the last couple months. And while at times I really struggle, I am also grateful for this experience.”
As Christians, we can affirm that is the Lord’s will for Bridget’s cancer to disappear. At issue is not the act, but its timing. As it is for us all. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus said, “Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” As Lord of the Sabbath, Christ is Lord of all to which Sabbath points. “There remains a Sabbath-rest for the people of God,” the book of Hebrews declares speaking of heaven. “I heard a voice from heaven,” Revelation concurs, “‘Blessed are those who die in the Lord.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors.’”
I’ll admit that I don’t always like this set-up. How can a woman as faithful as Bridget ever get cancer to begin with? How can suffering be the way of salvation? Why can’t a God who raises the dead work around my dying? How can I trust a God who doesn’t play by the rules? Or perhaps more honestly, how can I trust a God who doesn’t play by my rules? There is a certain paradoxicalness that goes with believing in Jesus, a certain paradoxicalness woven into the fabric of life, a cross-shaped irony and ambiguity that we don’t want to accept. The challenge is this: Can you accept it anyway? This was Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees. It’s his challenge to us.