Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 3, 2018
“The Criminalization of Compassion and Survival”
Mark 2:23-3:6 – New Revised Standard Version
One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
3 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
The arrests of nine members of No More Deaths raises the question: Is it wrong to do good?
Today’s short readings on plucking grain and healing a man’s withered hand can be found not only in Mark but Matthew and Luke as well. Which means, this is an important story. Mark was the first gospel written. Scholars believe Matthew and Luke both had access to Mark when they wrote their gospels, so it’s always interesting to see which stories they picked to repeat, as well as, how those later writers interpreted the same story. In this case, all three are remarkably similar, except a few details and one very important addition in Matthew, which I’ll talk about later.
So, the first issue is about the disciples walking through a field plucking grain to eat. The Law says no work is to be done on the sabbath, including cooking. Anything you ate that day had to be prepared the day before. You’d think that rubbing some grain between your hands wouldn’t quite be “work,” but it drew the attention of the Pharisees who were looking for a way to engage – and discredit – this upstart preacher and healer.
Jesus had been drawing attention around the whole region. His fame was spreading as quickly as wildfire, creating concern among the authorities. But if the Pharisees could prove he was promoting blasphemy, Jesus would be discredited and like all the many preachers and healers before, he would simply disappear. Problem solved.
But Jesus proved adept. He knew the Law and the scripture better than they expected and was able to refute the accusations against his disciples by citing how David ate the Bread of the Presence, which was unlawful because it was reserved for priests. Clearly there were exceptions to preserve life, and as Jesus noted, “The sabbath was made for humankind; not humankind for the sabbath.”
Jesus’ saying was in line with other Rabbinic traditions. We may be more familiar with the origins of sabbath related to creation – “And on the seventh day God rested.” But among other origin stories, in Deuteronomy, God “instituted a sabbath so that a people who once toiled every day in slavery could forever enjoy at least a modicum of rest.” Another rabbinic saying: “Profane one sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many sabbaths.” In other words, it would be better if someone didn’t die of hunger before making it to the next sabbath. Life is more important. Which would have applied to David fleeing persecution. That’s why it was OK that they stopped to eat.
Taking note of all these traditions and sayings is important because too many preachers use this text, like many others, to falsely assert that Judaism is about law and Christianity is about grace. Legalism vs. love. This is not true. As Matt Skinner notes here, “Jesus is not assailing Judaism. He is not rejecting the law. He is not saying the sabbath is obsolete. In this case, he’s not even insulting the Pharisees. Jesus is simply illustrating that any religious value, in the wrong hands, can become oppressive.”
Speaking of that, did you hear earlier this week about the evangelist who claimed that he needed a $54 million-dollar jet, his fourth, to help him “efficiently spread the gospel to as many people as possible.” In fact, he further claimed that if Jesus were alive today, he wouldn’t go around on a donkey but would have a jet of his own to take the gospel into all the world. Now, Jesus did say, God wants us to have life, and have it abundantly. But that doesn’t mean God wants us to have a jet. Obviously! But, as you know, religion in the wrong hands can be… ridiculous.
Speaking of ridiculous, the idea of a jet-setting preacher is just as absurd as claiming that killing the Affordable Care Act was an act of “mercy.” “Mercy?! Joe Kennedy responded back brilliantly, “With all due respect to Speaker Ryan, he and I must have read different Scripture. The one I read calls on us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and comfort the sick. It reminds us that we are judged not by how we treat the powerful, but by how we care for the least among us. There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill. This is not an act of mercy. It is an act of malice.”
If I may add, you are free to be cruel, just don’t act as though Jesus thinks your cruelty is a good thing. Notably, to Jesus’ comment about the sabbath, the Pharisees had nothing to say in return. Neither did Speaker Ryan.
Back to our reading, in the second half, Jesus had another encounter with the Pharisees. There was a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees watched to see whether Jesus would heal him on the Sabbath. I love how their assumption is “He won’t be able to control himself.” And sure enough, filled with his loathsome compassion, Jesus asked the man to come forward and asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath; to save life or to kill?” But no one said anything. So, he simply told the man to stretch out his hand and it was restored.
So, here is where the Gospel of Matthew, as I mentioned earlier, differs slightly from Mark. Not, maybe, “differ” so much as it adds more material to make it more abundantly clear. After Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath,” Matthew adds a very helpful example: “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you just let it be or will you lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being, or human life, than a sheep” (no disrespect meant). Jesus then asserts: “So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Matthew makes crystal clear what Mark only implies. It is lawful to do good on the sabbath.
Once again, Jesus is not denigrating Judaism. He’s not rejecting the law. Once again, he is following a rabbinic tradition that includes: “Saving life overrules the sabbath.” Critics might argue that a withered hand is certainly not life-threatening, but the life-affirming Jesus returns the man to fullness, restores his dignity, his place in the community, and allows him to provide for his family.
The issue of these two stories – plucking grain and the restoration of a withered hand, both on the Sabbath – is about what is a lawful activity. But I believe the intent is larger than that. I contend Jesus is asserting: It is lawful to do good. Period.
That has all kinds of implications, including, for example, those members of No More Deaths arrested on the US/Mexico border. What do you do for people who are literally dying of thirst? Should it be illegal to give them something to drink? According to some, the answer is yes.
Scott Warren is among a group of volunteers arrested in January who disagree. Scott is a professor of geography at Arizona State University and on weekends (notably, on the sabbath) his group puts out jugs of water for migrants crossing 100 miles of the Sonoran Desert. One of the areas is a 20 mile stretch in the Growler Valley, a “death trap,” where summer temps soar to 115 degrees and in the winter, you can die of hypothermia. A place where, last year alone, members of the group discovered the human remains of 32 people. Scott said it’s not unusual to come across scattered rib bones. He even found a skull resting beneath a mesquite tree.
He was charged with a felony for “harboring migrants” after he was allegedly witnessed giving food and water to two people in the desert. A felony. The timing of his arrest was suspicious, however, coming just hours after a report documented the systematic destruction of their water deliveries. 3,856 gallons of water – some by pouring the contents on the ground, some cut by knives, some punctured with bullet holes. Some of it done by hunters, some by right-wing militia members who “patrol” with their rifles, but much of it by border patrol agents, though, to be fair, this is not a new development. Pictures of children in cages dates back to 2014. Yet, as we know, this has been much more enthusiastically embraced and enhanced. After all, in the past year, calling undocumented migrants “illegal aliens” is no longer sufficiently derogatory. Now they are “criminal illegals.” Or as the president has taken to insist: they’re animals.
Arresting Scott for leaving water in the desert is another in a movement toward criminalization. For example, we’ve criminalized mental illness. Where do people go for treatment? Prison. We’ve criminalized homelessness. As long as you’re moving, it’s not a crime to be homeless. But if you sit down, if you lie down, if you spend too much time in one place, it’s a crime. Denver Homeless Outloud offers a listing of Colorado Laws Against Surviving in Public. That’s descriptive! Among other things it suggests that instead of arresting people for bathing in streams, why not provide hygiene centers where people can clean up. Arresting people for being homeless is expensive.
Naturally, I guess, if these are criminal activities, why not criminalize compassion too? Remember when 90-year-old Arnold Albert was arrested for distributing sandwiches in Fort Lauderdale. Three years later he’s still doing it because people are still hungry. In January, 14-year-old Ever Parmley learned a valuable lesson when he and 12 others faced misdemeanor charges for giving away food, clothes, and toiletries in El Cajon, California. Adele MacLean was ticketed for handing out sandwiches in Atlanta. The day of her court hearing, the group Food Not Bombs planned to protest by handing out sandwiches on the court house steps, but the charges were dropped. Cities across the country are making compassion a crime and punishing do-gooders.
But the criminalization of compassion is one thing. It is a choice among people who often have the privilege to do so. It’s the criminalization of poverty, the criminalization of survival, that should concern us more. It’s simply wrong. God’s concern for such people was to “institute a sabbath so that a people who once toiled every day in slavery could forever enjoy at least a modicum of rest.” But saving life overrules sabbath, especially in situations like David who was fleeing death and persecution.
Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2009, “The use of the criminal justice system to punish those whose only crime is being poor and without housing is not worthy of our great nation. It is unconstitutional and only reinforces and strengthens the vicious cycle that entrap too many of our fellow citizens in poverty and homelessness. It is time – indeed, it is past time – for this to end.” His comments were in a report entitled Housing Not Handcuffs.
An instruction letter was issued in March 2016, urging chief judges and court administrators in states to abandon policies that could trap poor people in cycles of fines, debt and prison. It included examples of how police and courts in Ferguson, Missouri, used the legal system as a moneymaking venture preying on poor and minority residents. But, surprise, surprise, five days before Christmas, Jeff Sessions reversed the sentiment.
Plenty of things should be against the law, such as withholding wages owed to employees. Lying and obstructing justice. Selling guns to minors. Hunting elephants for trophies. But doing good or being poor should not be a crime.
As I’ve tried to figure out, what is it with the divisions in our country, I’ve come to wonder if there aren’t two kinds of people. Ones who think we’re in this alone, and want to be left alone, and ones who think we’re in this together, and that we need each other. Are we only individuals or are we a community? I don’t know. Maybe that’s not it. It’s more than that. And, of course, trying to divide people into two groups, only serves to divide us into two groups.
But as I try to find meaning in the Gospel today, the Good News of the Gospel, two other categories come to mind. If it’s a crime to do good, call me a Christian. And if you want to make doing good a crime, at least leave Jesus out of it.
Friends, should we go do some good in the world?
 Matthew 12: 1-14, Luke 6: 1-11
 Sabbath is sometimes capitalized, other times not. I have chosen to keep it consistent and follow the NRSV
 Skinner quoting Amy Jill Levine and Joel Marcus
 We must be careful not to make this “ableist,” against persons with disabilities
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world