9th Sunday of the Year Deuteronomy 5:12–15; 2 Corinthians 4:6–11; Mark 2:23–28
Lili Like the Jews of Jesus’ time, we often get the cart before the horse.
Years ago there was a delightful movie called Lili. You can still see it on television occasionally.
Lili was a young girl in France who traveled about with a circus. Since there were few girls her age in the circus, her closest friends became three puppets in one of the sideshows.
Every time Lili got bored or lonely, she’d visit the puppets. They’d cheer her up, and she’d leave feeling better.
But, as Lili grew older, she grew more lonely. It became harder and harder to cheer her up. Finally, her loneliness got so bad that she decided to leave the circus.
Before leaving, however, she went to say good-bye to her old friends, the puppets. When she told them what she was going to do, they hugged her tightly and tried to persuade her not to go. As they did, she noticed they were trembling.
Suddenly the truth dawned on her. It was the handsome young man who operated the puppets. He was really the one who was trembling and pleading with her to stay.
All along, he had used his puppets to tell her what he wanted to say to her but was afraid to say face to face.
Now Lili realized that the puppets were merely the mouthpiece of the handsome young man. Now Lili realized what she had failed to realize before. The one who loved her was not the puppets but the handsome puppeteer.
He was the one who had befriended her and cheered her up when she had felt lonely.
Now Lili realized that she had been making a serious mistake. She had mistaken the gift for the giver. She had mistake the treasure chest for the treasure.
Or, to use an old-fashioned expression, she had gotten the card before the horse.
The story of Lili helps us understand the point Jesus makes in today’s reading. He says to the Jewish leaders, “The Sabbath was made for the good of man; man was not made for the Sabbath.”
These Jewish leaders had put so much emphasis on observing the Sabbath that they forgot the purpose of the Sabbath. It was to help people.
The Sabbath was not the people’s master; it was their servant. The Sabbath was not an end in itself; it was a means to an end.
The Sabbath existed to help people serve God better. It existed for their benefit, not the other way around.
In other words, the Jews had done what Lili did. She had gotten so preoccupied with the puppets that she lost sight of the puppeteer.
She had gotten so preoccupied with the vehicle that she lost sight of the handsome young man who was driving the vehicle.
The Jews had done the same thing. They had gotten so preoccupied with the Law that they forgot about the people for whom the Law existed.
The mistake Lili made in the movie, and the mistake the Jews made in the gospel, is the same mistake that many people still make today.
Take a father who has a job.
In most cases, the main reason why the average father works is to earn a living for the family he loves and wants to support.
Or take a mother who has to work.
In most cases, the main reason why the average mother works is to earn a living for her family. Or she works to supplement her husband’s income, which doesn’t stretch far enough to pay all of their bills.
Unfortunately, however, many of these working fathers and mothers end up getting the cart before the horse.
They end up with their job taking over first place in their lives. Suddenly the job begins to occupy most of their time and to sap mot of their energy. They families end up in second place.
Worse yet, the very children they sought to help often end up being hurt.
What started out to benefit the family now puts itself in first place ahead of the family. The card ends up before the horse.
As a result, many people today find themselves in the very situation that Jesus talks about in today’s gospel reading.
What should be in first place has suddenly ended up in second place. And what should be in second place has suddenly ended up in first place.
What should be the master has suddenly ended up the servant. And what should be the servant has suddenly ended up the master.
Today’s gospel invites us to ask ourselves some serious questions.
If we are a father are we doing what the Jewish leaders did in today’s gospel?
Are we giving first priority to something that should have second priority? Are we putting our job ahead of our family?
If we are a working mother, are we doing what the Jewish leaders did in today’s gospel?
Are we giving first priority to something that should have second priority? Are we putting our job ahead of our family?
If we are a young person, are we doing what the Jewish leaders did in today’s gospel?
Are we giving first priority to our personal growth and education? Are we putting our own physical and spiritual development in first place in our lives? Or are we putting them in second place and giving first place to other things?
These are questions that we must face with honesty and answer with equal honesty.
Let us close with these words that form a part of the closing prayer in today’s Mass:
“Lord . . . guide us with your Spirit that we may honor you not only with our lips, but also with the lives we lead. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord.
Series II 9th Sunday of the Year Deuteronomy 5:12–15; 2 Corinthians 4:6–11; Mark 2:23–3:6
Letter vs. Spirit Like many Jews in Jesus’ time, we need to beware of putting the letter of the law before the spirit of the law.
The great Scottish theologian William Barclay tells an incredible story in his book The Gospel of Mark.
He introduces the story by recalling the third commandment, which reads: You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work . . .” Exodus 20:9–10
Barclay goes on to point out that good Jews interpreted this law to mean that they couldn’t engage in battle on the Sabbath, even at the risk of their lives. It was considered to be work. This is why the Romans never conscripted Jews for military service. For when the Sabbath came, the Jews laid down their arms and would not fight.
Barclay then tells this story. On one occasion some Jewish soldiers were engaged in battle. When the Sabbath came, they hid themselves in a cave, planning to resume battle after the Sabbath.
Before the Sabbath ended, however, enemy soldiers discovered their hiding place. The enemy soldiers entered the cave and killed the Jews without opposition. The Jewish soldiers died without lifting a hand to defend themselves, lest they break the Sabbath by fighting.
This remarkable story illustrates the incredible respect that good Jews had for God’s law. They respected it so much that they would give up their very lives rather than break it.
This respect for the law, however, has a flip side. Some Jews, like the Pharisees, became so dedicated to the law that, in time, they let keeping the letter of the law get in the way of keeping the spirit of the law.
For example, at one point in Jewish history a question arose as to what things constituted work. In answer to this question, Jewish rabbis listed 39 different categories of activities that constituted work and were forbidden on the Sabbath.
For instance, you couldn’t “pull off heads of grain’’ and shell them in your hands so that you could eat them, because this fell under the heading of harvesting, which was an activity categorized as work.
You also couldn’t give medical attention to someone unless the person was in danger of dying.
One rabbi went so far as to give this unbelievable example. If a wall toppled over on a person, it was permissible to clear away the rubble to check if the person was dead or alive.
If the person was alive, you could give the person medical attention only if his or her life was in danger. If the person was dead, you couldn’t move the body until the next day, because moving it entailed work.
It was this kind of preoccupation with keeping the letter of the law that Jesus challenged in today’s gospel.
He challenged the attitude of those Jews who gave a higher priority to keeping laws than to caring for people.
He challenged the attitude that had turned religion from an exercise of loving service to an exercise of keeping hundreds of laws.
He challenged the attitude that had turned God into a finicky old man who was more interested in laws than in love.
And so when the Pharisees provoked a showdown with Jesus by having a man with a shriveled hand show up in the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus welcomed their challenge.
Calling the man to the front of the synagogue, Jesus asked the Pharisees and everyone present, “What does our Law allow us to do on the Sabbath? To help or to harm? To save someone’s life or to destroy it?” Mark 3:4
Jesus’ question caught the Pharisees off guard. There was only one answer to it, and they knew it. And so they remained silent.
With that, Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.’’ Mark 3:5 The man did, and Jesus healed it.
Mark concludes the episode by saying that from that moment on, the Pharisees plotted to put Jesus to death. They plotted such drastic action because their legalistic view of religion made Jesus a grave sinner in their eyes. Therefore he deserved death.
And this brings us to the practical application of this story to our lives. How does it apply to us today?
Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, most of us are people of the law. We respect the law and keep it. And that is good and praiseworthy.
The danger in being people of the law, however, is that our strength can become our weakness, as it did in the case of the Pharisees.
In other words, the Pharisees got so involved in keeping the letter of the law that they forgot about the spirit of the law.
Thus, in the case of keeping the Sabbath, they forgot that the Sabbath was made for people, and not people for the Sabbath.
In other words, God didn’t make the Sabbath first and then say, “Hmm, now I’d better make some people to keep it and observe it.’’
Rather, God created people first. Then God made the Sabbath to help people better achieve the purpose for which they had been created, namely, to love God and one another and, thereby, to enter into eternal life and eternal joy.
Applying this to our own lives, this means that being a good Christian involves more than keeping certain laws, like keeping holy the Sabbath, praying daily, not using drugs and not getting drunk. Being a good Christian involves these things, all right. But it also involves much more. It involves being sensitive to people’s needs and feeding them when they are hungry, as David did in the case of his men, and as Jesus did in the case of his disciples.
Being a good Christian also involves helping those who have special need of our help, as Jesus helped the man in today’s gospel, who had special need of his help.
In short, being a good Christian involves imitating Jesus and his sensitive concern for people.
It is not just a question of keeping laws; above all, it’s a question of loving people.
Let’s close with a prayer, asking Jesus to help us become the kind of loving, sensitive person that he was.
Lord, teach us to be generous. Teach us to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labor and not to ask for reward, except to know that we are doing your will. Prayer of Saint Ignatius (slightly adapted)
Series III 9th Sunday of the Year Deuteronomy 5:12–15, 2 Corinthians 4:6–11, Mark 2:23–28
Priorities Like the Pharisees, we can get the cart before the horse.
The Sabbath was made for the good of human beings; they were not made for the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27
Paul Stookey was a member of the singing group “Peter, Paul, and Mary.” He and the group began their careers singing in the coffee houses of New York’s Greenwich Village.
Paul is, perhaps, best remembered today for writing “The Wedding Song,” a perennial favorite at weddings.
A highpoint in Paul’s career was the day the group performed before almost half a million people at the Washington Monument.
It was before the same audience that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
A low point came when the excitement of being a celebrity began to fade for Paul. It happened like this:
One night the group was giving a concert before an audience of some 10,000 people in Kansas. At one point in the concert, Paul was doing what he called “Paul talk.”
This was a one-way conversation with the audience to give Peter time to repair a broken string on his guitar. In the middle of his “Paul talk,” it suddenly dawned upon him that he was using his musical talent mostly for selfish purposes.
He was using it to advance his own career and to enjoy celebrity status and the perks that accompanied it. Suddenly he found himself confronted with the two big questions that any person who takes life seriously must answer.
First, for what purpose were we created? Second, to what extent are we using our talents for this purpose?
Sometime later, Paul was discussing these two questions with singer Bob Dylan.
At the end of their conversation, Dylan suggested that Paul begin reading the New Testament. Paul took his advice. Later Paul said in an interview:
I started reading the New Testament. Dylan was right, because I began discovering that all the truths I sought were contained in the life of this Man who was being described in the New Testament.
It was fantastic . . .he set a good example, but it never occurred to me that he could be the Son of God. . . . I started to carry the Scriptures around with me. It was almost like having a brother with you.
To make a long story short, that experience changed Paul’s life.
Before the experience, Paul had everything backward.
He had become so preoccupied with using his musical talents selfishly that he had forgotten that God gave him his talents for a much nobler purpose. That brings us to today’s Gospel. There we find the Pharisees making a mistake similar to the one Stookey made.
They had become so preoccupied with observance of Jewish laws that they forgot the purpose of the laws.
For example, they became so intent on observing the Sabbath that they forgot the purpose of the Sabbath. It was made for people, not people for it.
In other words, God did not make the Sabbath first and then say, “Now I will create people to keep it.”
And this brings us to the practical application of all this to our own lives.
Take the fathers among us. Every father in this church today works hard to support his family. That is noble! But now comes the rub. A father can become so preoccupied with earning a living to support his family that his job ends up getting more attention than his family.
In other words, we can lose sight of why we work. When this happens our job takes first place in our lives and our family takes second place.
Our job begins to occupy all of our time and to sap all of our energy. We can even come to regard our family as interfering with our job. The result?
The very loved ones we sought to help end up being short-changed and hurt.
What we intend to be a blessing for them ends up being just another cross for them to carry.
Our job, which was meant primarily to be a means to an end, becomes an end in itself.
In other words, the talents God gave us to share with others and to build up the Body of Christ end up doing neither.
And that brings us back to Paul Stookey and our opening story.
I’m sure there are moments when, like Paul Stookey, we begin to lose the zip and excitement of everyday life.
Even success no longer excites us. When this happens, we have two routes open to us.
We can try to distract ourselves in ways that will eventually prove destructive not only to our own lives but also to the lives of our loved ones, and, above all, to our relationship with God.
Or we can do what Paul Stookey did. We can take inventory of our lives to see if, perhaps, we have lost sight of the purpose of life.
To put it in another way, we find ourselves confronting those two big questions that we all must answer sooner or later: For what purpose did God create us? How have we been using the talents God gave us for this purpose?
And if we find ourselves in the position in which Paul found himself, then we must do what he did.
We must pick up the Gospels again, rediscover Jesus and his teaching, and take both of them seriously.
This is the challenge set before us in today’s Gospel.
How we respond to that challenge will make all the difference in the world—not only to our lives but also to the lives of our loved ones and, above all, to our relationship with God.