Two summers ago while visiting Italy we decided to see the leaning Tower of Pisa—we and about 5,000 other people. It was hot and crowded. In front of the Tower stretching maybe three football fields long and twice as wide there was this really luscious grass—it looked like a commercial for Scott’s Lawn products. It was perfect. And all over that field of green were posted signs that said, “Keep off the grass.” And there were guards all around whose job it was to keep people off that grass. But neither the signs nor the guards were enough to prevent people from climbing over the small fence to get onto that lush green lawn. Guards would chase people back over the fence, but within seconds of the guards’ turning away, the same folks were back on the grass. There is no doubt that they people understood the signs. They probably even understood that the point was to preserve the grass. But they disobeyed anyway. So why did they do it?
I don’t think it was that, in general, they just got a kick out of breaking rules. Mostly people wanted get away from the crowd so they could get a better photo of themselves in front of the Tower. And the grass was lovely and irresistible. And the rule seemed ridiculous. And there were no real consequences for breaking it. A better rule would have been one which both preserved the grass and allowed people to go on it. Something like: one hundred people at a time may be on the grass for up to five minutes every half hour. But this kind of a rule would be impossible to enforce, so, instead, the signs went up: “Keep off the grass,” which means, everybody, all the time.
If we ask why Jesus and his disciples break the Sabbath rules, I think it is safe to say they find some of the rules ridiculous. Probably somewhere in early adolescence, like a normal kid, Jesus began to feel the pinch. But now, at the beginning of his ministry, I don’t think Jesus sets out to deliberately break all the annoying Sabbath rules. Having received the Holy Spirit at his baptism, Jesus is just living his life with a God consciousness and connection, with a care-freeness and compassion that ignores some of the religious rules. While walking through that grainfield, Jesus and his disciples are completely absorbed in conversation, delighting in each other’s company. The sky is a lovely blue above them. The earth is spongey and soothing beneath their feet. They have let the day take them where it will. Lost track of time. Missed lunch and their stomachs are growling. So the disciples pick some grain and eat it. God provides, like manna in the wilderness.
I don’t think what they do is calculated. It isn’t meant to provoke anybody. They are intensely engaged in real life. They are hungry, so they eat. There is a Jewish law that allows them to eat grain from another’s field. But the Pharisees call Jesus out because his disciples have harvested grain—they have technically worked on the Sabbath—which is supposed to be a day of complete rest. And the rule is hard and fast. No graining picking by anybody on the Sabbath, ever. This is the kind of rule that authorities can easily monitor and enforce.
Even though I don’t think the disciples set out to provoke the Pharisees, Jesus’ response to them is hugely provocative. Jesus baits them. Suggests that maybe these experts in the Jewish Scriptures don’t remember the story about David, then proceeds to tell it. And the weird thing is that this particular story isn’t a good argument for breaking Sabbath laws at all. Sabbath is about holy time. Time set apart by God. Consecrated, dedicated time for rest. The story of David is about holy space, holy people, and holy things. Although he is not a priest, David enters the most holy space in the Temple, and with his companions takes and eats the Bread of Presence. This is holy, set apart, consecrated Bread that is offered to God once a week, on the Sabbath. It stays on the altar as a perpetual offering and reminder of God’s presence. When it gets stale, it is replaced with new Bread of Presence, and this old bread may then be eaten only by the priests. (Ah, the perks of being the minister). But David, doesn’t eat the old Bread. He and his companions march straight into the holiest space and eat the holiest food.
This is the story Jesus tells to justify his disciples’ “harvesting” of grain on the Sabbath. And in the process, Jesus is hugely provocative. He sanctions the abolishment of all the religious rules about holy time, holy space, holy people, holy things—when these rules and commitments make us indifferent to true community, to human suffering, and to the presence and power of the Spirit. The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees contrasts religious commitments that harden hearts, with good news that opens hearts to the unbridled, everywhere present Spirit of God who blesses and makes holy.
In the end, the Pharisees are plotting with the government authorities to destroy Jesus, and they do manage to kill him. And this morning these stories invite us again into the kind of wild and risky faith we see in Jesus, where long-held, limiting religious practices and commitments are abandoned for the sake of authentic community, healing love, and joy in all God’s gifts. There are consequences for this wild and risky openness to the Spirit. You will likely experience conflict with others, and even conflict within your own self. You will likely end up in places you didn’t intend to go. Walking with people you hadn’t planned to walk with. Doing things you hadn’t thought to do. You will share in a holy feast where Jesus offers his own life and Spirit. With this bread and cup, the Spirit confirms that we are holy—each and all—in body, mind and spirit. From this Table we go out in holy, healing, communion-creating love that climbs over all the barriers, not because we just want to break the rules, but because we just can’t resist Holy Spirit.