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Picky Pharisees

"One Sabbath, Jesus was walking through some cornfields. His disciples were plucking and eating the ears of grain, rubbing them with their hands. "Why," asked some of the Pharisees, "are you doing what isn't permitted on the Sabbath?" Luke 6:1-2

The Disciples picking ears of corn

If I were Jesus being asked this question, I would be highly tempted to say "Why don't you have anything better to do on your day off than to watch my disciples walk through a cornfield?!" But Jesus doesn't succumb to this temptation if He was in fact tempted. This is probably because Jesus already knows why the Pharisees are there. The Pharisees have come out to evaluate Jesus and His movement. Jesus is particularly threatening to the Pharisees because He did not submit His Messianic candidacy to the Pharisees nor sought their particular support. Jesus was defining Messiahship and what it means to be Israel in His own terms and what is worse, He was doing it in a way that the crowds perceived as powerful, authoritative and compelling. The Jesus movement was quickly gaining momentum and the Pharisees had nothing to do with it. They have come out seemingly to evaluate Jesus but most likely to condemn it since its foundation was all wrong in their eyes. Jesus' usurpation of their authority killed His movement in the eyes of many of the Pharisees from day one. And that is why they have come out to observe Jesus' behavior on the Sabbath. The Pharisees want to be able to build an argument against Jesus to demonstrate in the eyes of the crowd that Jesus was a disloyal Jew who was a threat to the national purity and identity (thus possibly drawing the wrath of God upon Israel). They wanted to demonstrate that Jesus was leading the people astray. Observing the Sabbath was a major part of national identity and ritual holiness. If the Pharisees could prove that Jesus is holding fast and lose to the national identity markers, they might be able to turn the crowds against Him. These confrontations with the Pharisees is a vital part of Jesus' ministry. The Pharisees were the self-appointed but powerful guardians of the national identity of Israel but Jesus fully intended to redraw the lines around what it meant to be Israel through His own work and movement. Jesus' choice of twelve particular followers who would be his inner-circle of co-workers was a direct claim to be reconstituting Israel around Himself. If the Pharisees were currently the ones drawing the lines around Israel, it would be absolutely necessary to have open confrontations with them. Jesus didn't spend long days in the wilderness wrestling and praying about His vocation because He knew it would be easy but because He knew it would not be. Pharisees spying on the actions of Jesus associates in a corn field shows just how intense the scrutiny would be. But as the text bears out, Jesus was ready for it. We should note that Jesus is not arguing for a less rigid devotion to Israel's God or to His Law (Torah). On the contrary, part of Jesus' argument is that the rigid nature of the application of the purity Laws was actually missing the point of the Sabbath as far as Israel's God is concerned and thus, observing the Sabbath in the way the Pharisees were advocating, was not necessarily being as loyal a Jew as the Pharisees imagined. The effect of Jesus' teaching resulted in not only redrawing the lines around what it meant to be Israel, but was also redrawing the lines around the answer to the question "Who is God?". With these kind of stakes in play, maybe we should watch Jesus more closely ourselves?

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