Archives For February 2006

Obedience, Not Avoidence

February 19, 2006 — Leave a comment

Matthew 12:1-14; Luke 2:41-51
Olivet-Covenant Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA
© Andy Campbell, 2/19/2006

When people think of the Ten Commandments, three words come to their minds: “Thou Shalt Not”. It’s true that eight out of the Ten Commandments are prohibitive in nature, that is detailing things that we are to avoid doing. However, two of the commandments speak directly to things we are supposed to do. They are found right smack in the middle of the list, commandments four and five. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” and “Honor your father and your mother”.

These two commandments also serve another purpose. They mark a shift in the relationship to which the commandments preceding and following them refer. The first four commandments instruct us in how we are to relate to God. We are to have no other gods before Him. We are to make no idols to bow down and worship. We are not to misuse His name. We are to remember His Sabbath.

This is where the transition occurs. Beginning with the fifth commandment the focus shifts from man-to-God to man-to-man. Honor your father and mother. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not covet. Today we’re going to focus in on commandments four and five and seek to understand them in their context, look for them in the life of Jesus, and apply them to our lives as Christians today.

The first of these is the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Six days are to be allotted to work and the seventh is a day of rest. We are told in the commandment that this is because when God created the heavens, earth, sea, and all that is in them, He did so in six days and on the seventh he rested and he blessed that day. As His image bearers, we are instructed to do the same. To rest. The prophet Isaiah says that by keeping the Sabbath, we find joy and delight in the Lord and in His works. The Sabbath is designed, in part, to turn our attention outward and upward, away from our toil and towards our Creator and Sustainer, lest we think that we are able to sustain ourselves without His provision.

As the Jewish culture developed, as the law developed, keeping the Sabbath became a high priority. It was a capital offense to work on the Sabbath. In the Book of Numbers there is an account of a man who was observed gathering wood on the Sabbath. He was brought before the assembly because Aaron and the priests were not quite sure what his punishment should be. The Lord instructed Moses that he should be stoned. He was.

Rabbis began to develop a “hedge” around the law in order to help people keep it. The hedge around keeping the Sabbath evolved into 39 things one could not do on the Sabbath because they were considered work, and therefore violated Sabbath law. Among them are such things as plowing, reaping, baking, separating two threads, tying or untying, lighting a fire, walking more than a mile.

Such a view of the Sabbath is still held by many Orthodox Jews today. Some of the prohibitions have been updated, for instance the prohibition against lighting or extinguishing a fire now extends to turning on or off a light. There are also some Christian groups who observe a strict Sabbath. A good friend of mine, a relatively new Christian, is taking a Christian worldview class in her undergraduate program at a Christian college. In her reading she came across the doctrines of the Seventh Day Adventists. She wrote me an email, concerned that, if their interpretation is correct, she has been sinning by going to church on Sunday rather than Saturday.

Now, according to semantics, sunset Friday until sunset Saturday is still the Sabbath. Sunday is The Lord’s Day. It is the day that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ and set aside to worship God. The concept of the Sabbath is an early foreshadowing of the grace that became available through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. In Genesis, when God is pronouncing His curse upon Adam for his sin, He tells Adam that because of his sin he will have to work and toil for food all the days of his life. Yet God, in His grace and love, later amends that to include a regular day of rest in observance of the Creation.

By the time Jesus began his ministry, the Jewish culture had developed, in addition to the Ten Commandments, referred to as the “Written Law”, an additional 600 orders called the “Oral Law” later to be referred to as the Mishnah or Rabbinical law. Also, by this time, the Pharisees had started to find ways to get around the Rabbinical laws. For instance, since one was forbidden to walk more than 2,000 paces from his residence on the Sabbath, people started constructing huts called ‘erub. In these huts one could place a staff or a cloak or some other possession and call it a “residence”. Not surprisingly, these ‘erub were never more than 2,000 paces apart, allowing one to move quite freely in the city without technically ever being more than 2,000 paces from one of their “residences”. Another example has to do with lifting an object. A man was not allowed to employ the assistance of another man to lift a heavy object, for this constituted work on both their parts and both would be guilty of breaking the Sabbath. However, he could employ help in lifting an object he was capable of lifting alone, because then both men would be splitting the task, with each one exerting less effort than if either one had tried to lift the object alone. Does this sound like they kind of “delight” on the Sabbath day to which Isaiah referred?

In the first reading today, from the Book of Matthew, we hear how the Pharisees were angered because Jesus didn’t rebuke his hungry disciples for picking and eating some heads of grain as they walked through the fields on the Sabbath. They saw this as a violation of the “do not reap” order in the Rabbinical interpretation of the Sabbath law.

Jesus was annoyed. He reminded them of the time David ate the consecrated bread in the temple when he was hungry and fleeing for his life, but was not guilty of a Sabbath violation. He also pointed out that the priests, in discharging their duties in the temple on the Sabbath are working, which would constitute a violation of their laws, yet they are not guilty of breaking the Sabbath law. Then Jesus says that he is Lord of the Sabbath and that the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around.

But he doesn’t stop there. He goes into a synagogue and finds a man with a deformed hand. He asks the Pharisees if they would pull their sheep out of a ditch on the Sabbath. He says that men are so much more valuable than sheep and proceeds to heal the man’s hand. So angry were the Pharisees that they began to plot to kill Jesus.

When Jesus, the new Adam, was resurrected the day after the Sabbath, the first day of the week, the act that brings redemption to Creation was completed. As Christians, we rest on Sunday, The Lord’s Day, in observance of this redemption and grace. The focus is supposed to be on God on that day of rest, not on people. When we get bogged down with what does and doesn’t constitute work on that day, our focus is on ourselves.

Similarly, the fifth commandment has us focusing outward. We are told to honor our parents. This is that transition from God to man that I was referring to before. This commandment is also the first commandment that has a promise attached to it. If we follow this commandment, then we will live long.

The word translated “honor” here literally means “to give weight to”. Today the word carries with it the idea of paying respect to or deference to a person. We think oftentimes of the way that royalty is supposed to be treated. There is a sense of awe and obedience given them purely because of their position.

In the ideal human experience, parents are the first authority figures that a person has. They give of themselves to help their child grow from complete dependence to independence safely. Part of that relationship entails parents enforcing boundaries and correcting behavior with or without an explanation that placates the child.

This relationship can only work if the child heeds the parent. The child must pay the parent honor because the parent is the parent. This also teaches the child how to relate to God. The parental figure offers a tangible relationship with a figure of authority that also teaches proper submission and obedience to the Divine Parent.

However, many of us have come from families where our parents fall well short of ideal. More and more often, parents care less about transitioning their children from dependence to independence safely than they do about their own gratification. Then they wonder why their children won’t listen to them or don’t respect them. Compounded with this is an even more sinister trend of parents being intentionally abusive to their children, misusing their authority to inflict harm on the child, physical and emotional. Is it any wonder why so many people don’t want to have a relationship with a God that we call “Father”?

Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians saw this beginning to happen in his lifetime. Immediately after reinforcing the commandment for children to obey their parents, he tells fathers not to provoke their children to anger, but to raise them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

Jesus was obedient to his parents. Our second reading was one example. Jesus was twelve and stayed in the temple after his parents had departed Jerusalem for home. When his worried mother finally found him, she did what any other mother would have done. She chastised him for being lost and then told him that they were going straight home. And Luke writes that Jesus “went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them.”

In another example, Jesus is at a wedding in Cana with his disciples. His mother was also there. At the reception, the host ran out of wine. Quite an embarrassing predicament. Mary told Jesus that they didn’t have any more wine. (I imagine a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge might be missing from the original text!) To which Jesus replied that it was not yet time for him to reveal who he was. Yet, in obedience to his mother, he changed the remaining water into wine, thereby revealing his glory to his disciples, who then put their faith in him.

Jesus also foresaw the effect that sin would have on the parent-child relationship. That is why he said that one of the results of his coming would be that children would turn against their parents. Those parents who engage in sinful acts against their children are exposed in the light of Christ, which exposes all manipulation for the sin that it is. In turning from their sinful parents to God the Father, these children will be honoring God.

Jesus’ obedience translated into the way he honored his Father, God, in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the evening of his arrest and trial. Though he knew that his obedience to God’s will would mean his own death, he remained obedient and honored his Father.

In our time on earth we are being molded. We have a hand in the shape that we take. As sinful creatures, we must strive against the pull to gratify only ourselves and we must look outward. Much of the time this involves avoiding sinful activities and attitudes. But it is more than avoiding doing things. It also entails active obedience. In observing a day of rest, we recognize both the original act of Creation and delight in that as well as the anticipation of the eternal rest we will have when that Creation is again perfected, restored to what it was intended to be. Similarly, when we give honor to our parents, when we respect them, we are giving honor to God through our obedience.