1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:5-12; Mark 2:23 – 3:6
I saw a story this week about Tracey Helton Mitchell, who is sometimes called, “the Heroine of Heroin.” She herself is a recovering heroin addict who, after completing rehab in 1998, dedicated her life to the care and treatment of other heroin users. To date she has been part of saving more than 300 people from dying due to a drug overdose by making Naloxone available to them.
Naloxone is an overdose antidote – it reverses the effects of heroin, or it’s more potent synthetic version Fentanyl, which is fueling the most deadly drug crisis in human history. Generally speaking, Naloxone is often too expensive or too hard to find. So, since 2013 she has become a one-woman distribution center – sending out custom life-saving kits to stop drug users from dying. She has mailed out over 2,000 Naloxone to those who ask for them, using her own money or money she raises to pay for the drug.
This is all part of a philosophy known as harm reduction. It is the idea that not all drug users are ready to quit just yet, so you have to help them survive in order to get them into treatment, even if they keep using. Some say she is enabling people to use drugs; her response is reminding people that the person the drug saves could be a member of their family.[i]
Today’s gospel reading is about Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees, that group of Jewish leaders who, as we read in the gospels, were largely concerned with adherence to Jewish law. They are too often characterized as the bad guys of the gospel—religious leaders pushing against Jesus. That way of interpreting the gospels has contributed to Christianity’s shameful legacy of anti-semitism, so we must tread lightly as we consider what’s really going on in this story.
It is interesting to note that this story we read today is early on in Mark’s story of Jesus; Mark, like the gospel writer John, doesn’t tell the story of Jesus’ birth, but instead starts with his baptism. Then, beginning in the second chapter, Mark provides a series of stories showing Jesus in conflict with temple authorities. First there is conflict over table fellowship (the Pharisees ask his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?”); then about why he and the disciples are not fasting when the Pharisees are; and finally we get the stories we read this morning.
The question at hand is what is permissible on the Sabbath. First the disciples pluck heads of grain as they pass through the field; Jesus does not defend them by saying that they are hungry, or that what they do is harmless. (In fact, the book of Deuteronomy says that it is legal to go into a neighbor’s field and pluck the heads of grain, as long as you don’t harvest the whole stalk of grain. One imagines he could easily have quoted the law and gone on.) Instead, he preaches to the Pharisees about the meaning of sabbath, using King David as a reference.
And then he heals the man with a withered hand, even though law would say that non-life-threatening diseases were not permitted to be treated on the sabbath. Jesus then pointedly asks a rhetorical question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” [Mark 3:4] He is clearly provoking the Pharisees—he is getting in their faces, challenging their assumptions.
But the questions from the Pharisees are valid. One theologian has remarked that, “Sabbath rest was, after all, a deeply significant value and practice for the Jews. It was intimately connected to Jewish identity. Should we be so hard on the Pharisees for pointing this out?”[ii]
Jesus is really questioning the Pharisees’ understanding of the intention of Sabbath. This scripturally-required day of rest of course, finds it source in the first creation story, and so it is directly related to the holiness and goodness of creation. It also has resonance with the Jewish people’s remembrance of their liberation from captivity and slavery. When Jesus says, “the sabbath was made for humankind,” [Mark 2:27] he is calling for a liberation and restoration of the meaning of sabbath. “The ‘day of rest’ and its attending [peace] are not intended to be a matter of such strenuous human observance that the worship of God is eclipsed.”[iii]
We can assume that this point would not be lost on the Pharisees; and yet they seem caught up in the rules. And we must keep in mind the way that Jesus is challenging them and their authority; they are probably reacting to his provocation as much if not more than to the acts he undertakes.
But it is Jesus’ reaction at the end of the story that really has me thinking. “He looked around at them with anger,” the text says, “he was grieved at their hardness of heart.” [Mark 3:5]
First let’s think about Jesus’ anger. This is the only place in the gospels where anger is attributed directly to Jesus; the other places where the Greek word translated as anger appears all refer to God’s wrath. It is such a unique attribution that we must notice it! And the cause of that anger is the hardness of heart of the Pharisees. He is not angry because he has been treated unfairly; he is not angry because they don’t see who he is; he is angry because the Pharisees have become so wrapped up in the rules and their job as enforcers that they have lost sight of ordinary human need right in front of them.
And this jumps out at me today because I often wonder if my heart has become too hardened. I spend my days in service to God; I have the privilege of being a leader in what our Presiding Bishop calls the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement. But my deep commitment to the church and to the gospel is not the point. You see, far too often I am able to turn my head away from those things I don’t want to deal with—ordinary and very real human need that is right here in our front and back yards.
I’ll give you an example: in the last 10 days or so all of the various media outlets have been filled with stories about the plight of immigrant children coming into the U.S. I know that because I read headlines. But I have yet to read one of those stories; I really don’t understand what the issues are, or the source of the pain that has come to families who have sought to come here for a better life.
Now, I know myself at least well enough to realize that I haven’t read those stories because I know they would be painful to read; I would become very sad, and perhaps a little angry that these things are being done in my name as an American citizen. I have also grown a little bit skeptical about the media these days; I have fallen into the trap that has been laid, distrusting much of what I read or see—it seems that more than two years now of hearing the cry of “fake news!” has made me question what is actually happening. And I have very little sense that I can do anything about the plight of these children; not only that, but I feel my level of frustration growing with political leadership and my fellow citizens.
And all of this has added up to a hardening of my heart. As I become stony about these big events happening mostly in the world far outside of Berkshire county, I realize that I am also rather cold to the cries of those in need right here. You see, that’s the funny thing: A hard heart is just that—hard. They are rarely selectively hard and soft. Once we become desensitized to one pain, our tendencies start to shift, and soon we are numb to almost everything.
I don’t want to be hard of heart; it is not my vision for myself, and it is not what I feel called to be. But the good news for me today is that there is hope—the heart can change, if we will only become more aware and more intentional about exercising that muscle in the direction of care and compassion.
What Jesus does in the moment is focus on the need right in front of him; the disciples are hungry; he doesn’t chastise them for breaking the sabbath by plucking grain, he allows that their need should be met. He sees the man with the withered hand before him, and has compassion, rather than parsing whether healing him more lawful on this day or the next.
That brings me back to Tracey Mitchell. As a heroin addict, she had every right to be hard-hearted. I don’t know exactly what drew her into addiction, but if her story is anything like most other addicts, it was probably about trying to escape from things in her life that were painful to her. Even after became a recovering addict, she could have chosen just to get on with her life, thinking that she did it, so why couldn’t other addicts just buck up and stop their self-destructive behavior?
Instead, she has devoted her life to being soft-hearted. She has found a way to reach out to those in need—a need she understands better than most of us—and bring life-saving hope to those caught up in the web of addiction. She doesn’t mind the critics who think that it is a waste of money to save the lives of those they believe brought the harm of heroin on themselves; rather she quietly goes about the work of saving lives. She doesn’t get caught up in the rules; she sees the real human need before her. Her heart is soft.
In today’s gospel lesson, “Jesus is not compelled to decide between lifesaving actions and violation of a narrow and technical legalism. He is behaving with wanton disregard for simple and life-giving religious practices…. The rather terrible implication of this story is that normal and natural religious commitments [may] render us indifferent to human suffering and true community…. This conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees contrasts religion that hardens hearts with the gospel that opens heart to the ubiquitous presence of God and give birth to compassion and joy.”[iv]
This morning I invite you to dare to take a look at your own heart—to consider it’s state. Have you become hard-hearted like me? Do you need to find a way to soften it up? There are so many forces in the world today that are not interested in your having a compassionate heart; it is far easier to just allow ourselves to be insular and numb. But the gospel points to a better way of life.
Perhaps you remember the 1996 novel, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. At the end of the book, the protagonist has an amazing revelation about life that has stuck with me ever since I read it. She says, “The point is simply this: how tender can we bear to be? What good manners can we show as we welcome ourselves and others into our hearts?”[v]
We are called to stay focused on the world around us, and not get caught up in legalism, or politics, or own sloth and regret. Jesus calls us to soften our hearts by opening our eyes to the need that is right here, to not stand on the sidelines, but to get involved in life, making the world better. Let us endeavor to stay connected and compassionate, no matter how the world might try to pull us in a different direction. Let us all endeavor to carry the spirit of Jesus in our hearts, and manifest it for the world.
Let us pray:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.[vi]
[ii] Saliers, Don E. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 96.
[iv] Farley, Wendy. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 96.
[vi] “A Prayer attributed to St. Francis,” The Book of Common Prayer, p. 833.