Never on a Sunday
Some of you have confessed to me that many years ago you stole tumshies from fields nearby. Some also took potatoes and other vegetables. Occasionally if fruit was available some went missing. No-one has confessed to taking ears of corn or wheat from farmers' fields however. But that is what Jesus' disciples did in the Bible passage we heard read earlier. In Palestine at that time cornfields were not fenced or hedged. The crops were sown on strips of land rather like crofts in the highlands. There were paths between the various strips of land. People walked down these and in between the crops. It was not illegal to pluck some grains, roll them in the hands and eat them. Deuteronomy 23: 25 reads 'If you enter your neighbour’s grain field, you may pick ears with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to their standing grain'. Travellers were allowed to take a little as they passed by. You may remember the story of Ruth when she returned to Bethlehem with her mother in law Naomi. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, 'Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour'. The owner Boaz was very taken with Ruth – a much younger woman - and ordered his workers to leave corn stalks standing for her. Maybe he was a bit like Sir Lester Deadlock in Dickensian who was much taken with Honoria. Though Ruth was virtuous and became Boaz's wife and the Covenant went with her and her children. She was the great grand-mother of King David.
Free samples are part of the commerce of our land. Giveaways are means of promoting goods for sale. It is not the same idea exactly but neither is the Biblical custom completely estranged from our own. Especially on market stalls food samples are freely offered. In shops buy one get one free, two for one and three for two have the same psychology. The appearance of getting something for nothing or at least a good deal or a bargain. Actually much advertising is along these lines. I remember Jeremy Clarkson's description of The Stig. 'Some say that he actually bought a three piece suite that was not in a sale'. We find that at our Christmas Fayre people want good things for pennies. I remember when we used to hold a Fayre at the Trindley Knowe many years ago, an irate women accosted me saying 'Dae you take a dae wi 'a this?' 'I suppose I do' I replied. And then she complained angrily that she had had to pay £1 for an item she wanted. Then there is the mythical RRP – Recommended Retail Price. Nobody expects and wants to pay that. Traders can only sell things if they indicate how much lower the cost of the item is. Bartering is a way of life throughout the world. We Scots are not that good at it however. Have you actually ever complained about the food you have been served in a restaurant? Have you just been moaning that it is poor quality, not properly cooked and cold when the waiter or waitress comes over and asks 'Is everything all right?' and you instantly reply 'Yes – very nice thank you'.
The Biblical ideal of allowing people freely to take small amounts of produce was an indication of humanity and of the goodness of God. It was faith in action because it said 'I trust God – I can give a little of my crop to those in need passing by. It is not God's nature or will that I take every last shilling's worth of grain for myself'. Our weekly Church offerings reflect our faith that we can give to God and God will supply our every need. We will not miss what we give to God and indeed we will be blessed in that giving. It is a spiritual way of life. It engenders peace and happiness within. It works.
The Pharisees found fault with Jesus' disciples not because they had plucked ears of corm but because they had done so on the Sabbath. Sabbath laws were detailed and extensive. Reaping, winnowing and threshing were forbidden. So was preparing a meal. You could not carry anything which weighed more than two dried figs. The Pharisees could argue that Jesus' disciples hand plucking of corn was reaping, their rubbing it in their hands was threshing and their throwing away the chaff was winnowing. They had also just prepared a meal. Orthodox Jews did not buy or sell on the Sabbath, they did not travel, they did not draw water. Even to fast was considered work and Jews could not go to war or fight battles on the Sabbath.
You know how strictly some people used to observe the Sabbath in this country. Some of you will remember being kept in on Sundays, not allowed to play outside. Margaret Ramage used to describe what happened to her and her brother John 'We were thrown oot tae the Sunday School in the morning and tae the Brethren in the afternoon'. Maybe some people here prepared the Sunday meal on the Saturday evening. In the West Highlands, especially on Lewis, most shops still remain closed on Sundays but things are changing. There is the 'Keep Sunday Special' campaign and The Lord's Day Observance Society. It is an example of the Calvinistic principle of the equality of the Old and New Testaments and of the harsh aspect of Scottish personality and culture. On mainland central Scotland we have destroyed Sunday as a day of rest and as a day of worship. The churches have lost out. It is no longer a sacred day, a spiritual day, God centred and different from the other six days of the week.
Jesus always had an answer for his critics. Few ever got the better of him in an argument and he usually had the last word. Except at the end of his life when he was silent in the face of his accusers. Here he spoke about King David who had taken the consecrated bread from the Temple to eat when he and his soldiers were starving. They were not blamed for doing so. He also pointed out the continuing Sabbath day work in the Temple. Kindling fires, killing animals and all that. This was permitted to the priests to do. He then said obliquely that they did not see or understand that he was greater than the Temple. This was near blasphemy but it proved in later history to be true. He then quoted the prophet Hosea (6:6) 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice'. God says Jesus is more interested in kindness and humanity and recognition of human need than ritual and legalism. This is Lent though the newspapers have not so far as I have noticed made their annual announcement that Susan Boyle has given up chocolate. Giving up something indulgent for Lent is a good idea. Doing something positive for the Lord or other people is a better idea. I desire mercy not sacrifice. Christianity enlarges the human spirit. In Scotland's artistic community Christianity has most often been portrayed as a restricting and suffocating influence. If the media portray Christians and Christianity as being against things, it is not good publicity. Nor is it fair. The power of the resurrection of Jesus is greater than any human accomplishment however great.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice, Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings Have such kindly judgment given.
There is welcome for the sinner, And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Saviour; There is healing in His blood.
For the love of God is broader Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal Is most wonderfully kind.
But we make His love too narrow By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness With a zeal He will not own.
These words may be the hymn and anthem of the liberal Church. We should remember that the standard Jesus set for his disciples was very high. Perfection no less. An impossibility as we have all found. But we can hold up Jesus as our example and we can hope and aspire. We cannot be critical of those who sins are just the same as our own. We need always to keep an open channel for those who fail to find their way back. The Church of England has been praying for Richard Dawkins after he had a stroke.
The parables of Jesus have shown us how critical Jesus was of the Temple establishment and the national leadership. Though from the Pharisaical strand of Judaism Himself – his family did not belong to the priestly set – he also criticised the negativities and mean spiritedness of Pharisees. They stalked him looking for evidence against him. They did not like his free thinking ways, his reinterpretation of things, his seeming lawlessness. He in turn stood up to them, provoked them and wound them up seriously. 'Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath'? He asks them. Y'ou know that you are allowed to lift a sheep fallen into a hole on the Sabbath. Are you going to criticise me for helping a man with a lifelong withered hand? You can't. It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath'. The law actually forbade a work of medical healing on the Sabbath, You could put a bandage on a wound but you could not medicate it. You could protect the wound but not heal it until the next day. Strangely enough our hospitals have worked this way for many years. Little surgery is done at the weekend. Support staff do not work Saturdays or Sundays. This is what the UK Government want to change. To heal on Saturdays and Sundays as well as on week days. And so Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath. But the Pharisees were enraged by this humiliation. To them Jesus had just broken the Sabbath Law. Worse, he had performed a healing miracle to which they had no answer. It is hard for us to understand their hostile attitude. Why could they not recognise that Jesus was doing good and that God was with him? Why did they hate him so much – with a deadly hatred? But we see things through Jesus himself and through 2000 years of Christianity with its humane influence on the world.
And we should remember also that Christianity has had its times of hatred and vengeance, cruelty and misery. The Inquisition in Spain, the torture and burning of Christians at the time of the Reformation, some murderous warfare. The Covenanters for all the justice of their cause shouting in battle 'Jesus and no quarter'. That is 'Jesus and no mercy'. Compassion, humanity, forgiveness – these are what God asks of us towards one another because that is what God give to us through Jesus Christ our Lord. We can keep Sunday special by worshipping and by being especially kind to others throughout the rest of the day.