February 24, 2019
Question tradition – but do it with your eyes on Jesus.
I. Devotion which centers on Jesus (Luke 5:33-39)
II. Freedom which makes him Lord (Luke 6:1-5)
III. Mercy which follows his example (Luke 6:6-11)
The book I read in Children’s Corner is from a genre I call “The King at the Door,” in which the king comes in disguise and is treated poorly by those who should be revering him. “Tales of the Kingdom” has “The Baker who Loved Bread Too Much,” and there are others. Jesus started the genre Matthew 25 when he told those he welcomed into his kingdom that when they’d served the hungry, the thirsty, the immigrant, the homeless, the sick, or the prisoners, they had unknowingly served him. But “Once in Blueberry Dell” fits well with today’s text. The High Prince comes as milkweed miller, obviously a low-end job that is not respected by the respectable. Happy Mole wants to serve him, but Lady Mole and Blacksmith Mole and Printer Mole and especially Proper Mole see him as a disrupter of what’s right and proper, a threat to tradition. His wagon will disturb the street and clutter it, his crickets will eat things, he’ll get dust on everything we’ve worked so hard to make clean. He must move on.
It’s this clinging to tradition that links Blueberry Dell to today’s text. We’ll be looking at three separate incidents united by the fact that the Pharisees and leaders of the people are threatened by Jesus, or at least suspicious of Jesus, because he doesn’t follow their traditions. The teachers and religious leaders focused on behavior issues. They had made the law, and their own extensions of the law into the standard by which they judged righteousness and religious sincerity. And they were fully prepared to judge Jesus not by what he did or what he taught, but solely on the basis of his conformity to their traditions.
As we read these passages we’ll be inclined, of course, to side with Jesus, to question tradition and even our own traditions. We know we’re guilty at times of saying “we’ve never done it that way before.” But the other side is to recognize that we don’t question tradition just for the sake of being different or innovative or revolutionary. The point of these stories is not that tradition is bad, but that Jesus is good. We should question tradition, but we should do it with our eyes on Jesus, because he himself and his example are the central focus of these incidents. Question tradition, but do it with your eyes on Jesus
Let’s begin with Luke 5:33-39 And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” 34And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.”
36He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”
In this first section the issue is devotion, how we worship, the spiritual disciplines we value and practice. And it is appropriate for us to question tradition, and then resolve those questions by embracing a devotion which centers on Jesus.
The context here is a continuation of last week. The Pharisees there criticized Jesus for eating with tax collectors and other sinners. But Jesus said it was not the healthy who needed a doctor, but the sick. He had not come to call righteous, but sinners to repentance. Now they turn their criticism from the company he keeps to the feasting itself. “John’s followers often fast and pray, and so do the followers of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.” The Pharisees couldn’t see why Jesus and his followers didn’t fast. They saw it as a key spiritual discipline. They valued it so much that in addition to the one fast day prescribed by Old Testament law, they’d added 100 more each year. You remember the Pharisee who in his pride said “I fast twice a week.”
This is what they valued - and in one sense they were right. They were fasting in preparation and longing for Israel’s deliverance, her Messiah. Yet it in this same sense fasting was not the right discipline for the moment. They were like a woman with her eyes closed, praying for daylight, when the sun had already risen. They were like a man praying for rain while the floods rose around his feet. Jesus answers them: Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? Open your eyes folks: I’m the bridegroom. I’m here. Your prayers have been answered. Don’t continue fasting - it’s the time for a feast! Jesus uses the bridegroom and the feast imagery often. It’s a picture of his love, a picture of his beauty, a picture of his centrality. It’s about him.
John the Baptist said it well: “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.” Jesus will later say to these Pharisees that “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, 3and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come.” This wedding feast is all about the bridegroom, who goes away, but returns. “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” Only half of them were ready when the bridegroom returned and they went in to the wedding feast.
That’s the same image that we see lived out in Revelation. “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb [that’s the bridegroom] has come, and his Bride has made herself ready. . . . Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” Jesus is to be the center of our devotion, whether we’re celebrating his presence or longing for his return.
This is what Jesus amplifies in the next few verses: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old.” You get the picture: You buy a new pair of jeans, cut ‘em apart, and sew patches into the worn out knees and pockets of your old jeans. That may make a fashion statement, but it’s a waste of your new jeans, and probably doesn’t help your old ones either. What does the metaphor mean? You can’t take the new reality of Jesus and his saving work and patch it into the old Law. You can’t take the new celebration of Jesus’ presence, and patch it into your tradition of fasting and prayer.
Next image, verse 37: “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39And no one after drinking old wine desires new for he says, ‘The old is good.’” Wineskins, made typically from the skins of goats or other animals, are flexible when new, and strong enough to handle the pressure of fermentation. Old wineskins are brittle, and if you put new wine in them, they will burst. You may like the old, he’s saying, “the old is good.” But that’s just familiarity. You need to try the new. The legalistic forms of worship and spiritual disciplines that had come to characterize Judaism, were not flexible enough for the new wine of Jesus’ presence. Jesus himself, and the Kingdom he proclaimed, went beyond the boundaries of the Judaism to ferment the whole world. But many in Israel would not taste Jesus. They wanted to remain in the old ways and the old law.
Jesus is teaching that tradition itself must give way to a living relationship with him through the Spirit. We pursue him even if it means questioning how we’ve always done things. At the same time we need to question any tradition that insists on leaving all tradition behind. We don’t question just from skepticism, nor for the sake of change or even success. We single-mindedly seek any means that cultivates a vital, ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ. Worship without Jesus is empty performance. A quiet time without Jesus is a nap. The Bible without Jesus is a dusty textbook. Prayer without Jesus is talking to the ceiling. Fellowship without Jesus is a social club. Outreach without Jesus is the offer of an empty cup. In every discipline of the spiritual life we need to be sensitive and measure the appropriateness of that discipline by the degree to which Jesus and Holy Spirit are its center and its goal.
This focus keeps us from the rut of tradition. We embrace routine, or change within the bounds of Biblical principles, with the goal of embracing the reality of Jesus Christ. But does this mean we should fast now, or should we feast now? Jesus says the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them: in those days they will fast. It that this time? Because Jesus is gone, should we fast? Well, yes and no. We can fast, but we can also celebrate, because though Jesus has been taken into heaven in bodily form, yet the bridegroom is with us through the Holy Spirit. He promised to be with us always, to not leave us as orphans. So we can and should celebrate the joy of his presence.
But there are also reasons to fast. One is the anticipation of his physical return. We long for him to come back and restore all things. Further, we might fast as we seek to experience his presence now in a fuller way. We put aside everything to be with him though the Word, prayer and the Spirit. Finally, we can fast to focus our petition. It’s hard to concentrate on a particular prayer need or situation in the midst of everyday life. But fasting, a meal, two meals, five meals or more, allows hunger to bring those needs to mind and heart. I’ve been doing way more fasting the last few years for this reason, for prayer. But whether we fast or feast, our spiritual discipline is focused on Jesus himself. That’s what he was asking these Pharisees to be flexible enough to do. Put aside the forms so that they could experience the reality of the bridegroom.
The next section talks about the freedom we find with Christ as our Lord. Luke 6:1-5 On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. 2But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” 3And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” 5And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
This is one of several incidents in which Jesus and the Pharisees get into a conflict over Sabbath behavior. The Pharisees regarded as work, and therefore a violation of Sabbath rest, many things which we would consider just a normal living. Jesus and the disciples are going through a wheat or barley field, and the disciples began to pluck some grain, rub off the chaff, and eat the kernels. Now you and I might think it was against the law to take grain from someone else’s field. But in fact, Deuteronomy 23:25 said this: If you enter your neighbor's grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his grain.” So what they were doing was in keeping with God’s law, which he had made to provide for the hungry and the needy in Israel.
No, the problem was not picking the grain - the problem was doing it on the Sabbath. God had said: don’t do any work on the Sabbath. The Pharisees had refined the prohibition to an extreme, not even allowing for the actions of a hungry man in a grain field, or a woman in her kitchen. In the Talmud, the Jewish explanation of the law, the rabbis found 39 main kinds of work: Sowing, ploughing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, and on and on. Each category has amplifications and subsets. Sewing one stich was ok, but sewing two stiches was a no-no.
So the Pharisees said the disciples had broken the Sabbath law. But Jesus doesn’t focus on their narrowing of the Law. He focuses on his authority. “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” The rabbis agreed it was justified for David to give those with him the consecrated bread, which had been removed from the table in the holy place, since he was acting as God’s anointed. But if that was justified, how much more was Jesus justified to allow those with him to glean? He too was God’s anointed. In this incident David was a king with followers but no throne. So was Jesus. David’s followers were hungry. Matthew tells us that the disciples were hungry, and in Matthew’s account Jesus focuses on the need for mercy. He quotes Hosea “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
Moreover, Jesus’ authority is even greater than was David’s, for as the Son of Man, Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus is Lord. He gets to say how the law should be applied in his kingdom. The Pharisees don’t. This doesn’t mean he’s going to wholesale break the Law. No, he’s going to fulfill it, live it out in its fullest humanity. But Jesus is Lord, to us, and that means we obey not tradition or license but his will, which he has revealed in Scripture and which he applies to our lives through the Holy Spirit. It is a living relationship with the one we have given permission to tell us what to do, day by day, year by year.
The question we need to ask over and over is this: Knowing Jesus as we do from Scripture, would he rejoice in this behavior? For example, many Christians today don’t approve of alcohol in any form. But it’s clear that Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners. He made wine at a wedding. He offered it at the Lord’s supper. Yet the Old Testament and his disciples both taught that drunkenness was a sin. So would Jesus allow a glass of wine? Probably. Drunkenness? Almost certainly not. As we study the New Testament we have to conclude that there are many areas of life where we are free to live according to our consciences, but also many other areas of life in which the Spirit himself constrains us to obey the moral law and the law of love.
So far we’ve said two things about transforming tradition. First, question tradition in your worship and spiritual disciplines, but do it in order to focus on Jesus. Second, question tradition in the area of rules and law, but do it by making Jesus Lord over your behavior. The third thing is to question tradition in the area of mercy and compassion, and to do it by following His example. Luke 6:6 On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. 7And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. 8But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. 9And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” 10And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. 11But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
This is another Sabbath encounter. Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, to teach, and there is a man there with a withered hand. This might be a birth defect, it might be the result of an accident. It might be muscular dystrophy or paralysis. In any event the man is there, and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law are there. It may be they caused the man to come to that day, set up this encounter. They’re looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, and they think they’ll find one in his healing ministry, if they catch him doing it on Sabbath. Now there is nothing in the Mosaic law about healing on the Sabbath. But the Pharisees interpreted healing as work, and they made rules which said that only life-threatening emergencies could be addressed.
Now Jesus, as we’ve seen before, knows what the Pharisees are thinking. I don’t know whether this was due to omniscience, or just something he could deduce from their presence and the way they watched. In any event, Jesus chooses to make a bit of a confrontation out of this, and calls the man with the withered hand forward to stand in front of everyone. And we can assume that he looks these leaders and Pharisees right in the eye when he says: “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or destroy it?”
Now remember their own interpretation allowed saving a life on the Sabbath. Jesus is telling them to extend that interpretation, and recognize that saving a life is only a special case of doing good on the Sabbath. and if you don’t show mercy it’s as evil as if letting someone die. Given the question in this form there is nothing they can say: Their own rules allowed for saving a life. They would appear totally unfeeling if they didn’t allow Jesus to show mercy to this man.
Luke tells us that as they sat there, Jesus looked around at them all. Mark, in his Gospel, adds that as he looked at them, he was feeling anger and distress at their stubborn hearts. He saw their pride and hypocrisy. It made no sense that the Pharisees would be so devoted to their legal interpretations, that they would prevent doing good or showing mercy. So he says to the man “stretch out your hand,” and as he does, it is healed. Jesus is quite willing and quite able to trash their tradition, not for no reason, but to show them and teach them the value of mercy and compassion. All the Pharisees can do is mutter to one another about how they have got to get this guy. They can see Jesus’ power, they hear of his popularity, but he has, in their eyes, no respect for piety, for the fence that they have quite consciously set up around the Torah.
Jesus quite consciously tears down that fence and raises up a new standard. Compassion. He touches lepers to heal them. He touches the dead to raise them. He eats with tax collectors and sinners to save them. He heals on the Sabbath. He cultivates compassion and puts it into action in order to bless those who are hurting and needy, and he makes it a priority.
One of my favorite books is “The Philippian Fragment” by Calvin Miller. It’s a series of letters from Eusebius, the pastor at Philippi, to Clement, his fellow pastor and friend. One chapter is called “The Acting of Compassion.” Clement, I committed an unpardonable sin. I have angered the Constable Coriolanus. My struggle with Coriolanus came to an apex this past Lord’s Day. Publius the Paralytic had such a high fever that it seemed he could not live through the morning. Publius asked to see me at the hour of his death, and I felt it was my obligation. I prayed for him as I rarely prayed. God was gracious! Publius was completely healed. How shall I say complete? He is still a paralytic, but his fever is gone. Back at the church there was consternation that the pastor wasn’t there. While waiting for me, they sang 31 hymns before they pronounced the benediction and left the service. Naturally I felt badly, but my emotions were mixed, having seen Publius the Paralytic gloriously healed of a fever.
Coriolanus asked me to stay after all of the others had left the church: “In my thirty years as a member of this church, it is the first time that the blessed, holy Word of God has not been preached,” he thundered. “What do you have to say for yourself, Reverend Eusebius?” “Well,” I replied, “I felt that the ninety and nine were safe in the fold. Publius was about to die.” “Reverend Eusebius, do you feel called to shepherd this flock?” “I do.” “Yet you let the sheep come and go without fodder. A good shepherd would love and feed the sheep. You have sent them away empty.” I can assure you, Clement, that while Publius will live, I am not sure that I can survive the new hostility I have engendered by missing church merely to pray for a dying man.
I was foolish to assume that the church would see the glory of my ministry to Publius, and excuse the absence of my sermon. Through pain I have learned that it is still wrong to heal on the Sabbath, at least during the eleventh hour. Is the yet-paralyzed Publius worth the cancellation of my morning sermon? I have betrayed a tradition to furnish forth a single act of compassion.
It is time for the evening vigil now, and I have just received word that one of the lepers is at death’s door and has called for me to come. Shall I go and tend the dying, or shall I go to church and keep my place? I had planned to talk tonight about how we must minister to our world before we seek each other’s consolation. I am still unforgiven by most for healing the paralytic. Now I must go to the leper and seal my fate. Grief is seldom convenient to our scheduled worship, but ministry must ever be willing to confront tradition. Somewhere a leper is dying. Tonight I shall act out a sermon. I can preach next week, when human suffering is more remote.
Jesus challenges us. We need to question tradition: but we do it with our eyes on Jesus. We live out our worship and spiritual lives, our devotion, by focusing on him and making him the center. We set aside well-accepted standards of behavior because we have made Jesus the Lord of our actions. And we give higher priority to compassion because that is the example Jesus set for us.