At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”
As a Catholic I believe that the Church is a divine institution, not only in its original foundation, but the everyday experience of divine life inspiring its members.
However, the Church is also a human institution, and thus is susceptible to that disease called institutionalism, whereby it becomes inward-looking, self-regarding and self-serving, forgetting its original mission. The members of such an institution, whether it is a school, hospital, police-force, or government department, feel depersonalised and apathetic, reduced to being cogs in a machine.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus confronts the institutionalised and inquisitorial attitude of some Pharisees by reminding them that the Sabbath is not an end in itself, but is ordered to a greater good: the Son of Man. Similarly, the Church is not an end in itself, it exists for the benefit of its non-members. The Spirit is saying to the churches that they have lost their first love, they have become lukewarm, apathetic, and locked into a maintenance-only, machine-minding attitude that fails to bring divine life and flourishing into the world.
The Pharisees were good people, but that is not enough for God to change the world. If the Church does not move with the Spirit, then God will circumvent it. The Spirit blows where it will. Jesus’ disciples broke the Law, in the Pharisees’ view, by doing work on the Sabbath. Jesus points out that David’s men ate the priests’ bread on the Sabbath, and the priests themselves were allowed to work in the Temple on the Sabbath. His clear implication is that his disciples are as good as priests, because he himself is the new Temple. In this Temple we are all priests who share in the bread of the Presence, so long as we continue to be faithful disciples. To be faithful to Jesus is to bring his divine life to others, rather than sacrifice them to a cynical puritanism.
Lord, help us not to forget our mission as disciples, bringing life, health and salvation to the hurting world. Teach us to be sensitive to your Spirit blowing throughout the universe. Lead us to share the bread of your Presence whoever we go, and prevent us being cynical, judgemental and self-righteous. May all who profess the name Christian be united in love and service. Amen.
The Rev’d Deacon Kingsley Fulbrook, member of Christ the King Catholic Church, Thornbury. Kingsley is married to the Rev’d Ruth Browning, a retired URC minister who wrote yesterday’s reflection.