Silence binds these scenes together. Silence explains them. Silence condemns the
silent. Silence demands to be filled. The silence of which I speak is not the blessed,
healthy quiet that comes when we mute the voices that would increase our anxiety and
consume our attention. The silence of which I speak is tacit complicity, or failure to say
something, or active refusal to say something.
Silence binds these scenes. Scene one: Jesus and the disciples pass through grain
fields, and the hungry disciples pluck heads of grain, which would be permissible except
it’s Saturday, the Sabbath. There is no work on the Sabbath, and harvesting grain (even
plucking it) was considered work. The Pharisees complain. Jesus responds with a story
from 1 Samuel. David was Saul’s best general but Saul has turned on him. David and his
men are on the run, and since “the run” has just started, they don’t have any food. They
come to a holy site, and David asks the priest if he has any food. The priest says, “Well,
the only bread I’ve got is the twelve gigantic loaves of the Bread of the Presence, that we
lay out every Sabbath. I could give you that. How long since you’ve been with a
woman?” Women have cooties, and would defile David. (It’s in Leviticus!) David says,
“Uh, several days—er—weeks. Several weeks.” The priest says, “Great.” David says,
“Yeah, all the guys are pure on campaign. We even purify the pots and pans.” The priest
says, “I’m giving you the bread; don’t get carried away.”
It’s a story of finding out how to make God’s law work for God’s people. David’s
men were hungry, the priest had bread, and he figured out how to feed it to David’s men. Jesus tells the Pharisees this story, saying, “We’re supposed to use God’s law to help
people.” And the Pharisees are silent. Mark writes, “Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath
was made for humankind…’” which is a biblical way of indicating a pause. Jesus
expected a response to this story didn’t get one. He got silence.
Scene two is much more to the point. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the
Sabbath?” Silence. The Pharisees could’ve replied that the offer to heal a man’s withered
hand was hardly an emergency, yet they do not. They remember the conversation they
just had in the grain field. Jesus is arguing that the law is supposed to help people, to help
with the same urgency as David trying to feed his men while on the run. They didn’t have
an answer in the field, and they don’t have one in the synagogue. They cannot argue with
Jesus over giving life to people. Why?
The answer lies in the grain field. In First Century Palestine, grain production and
consumption were major political issues. The Pharisees fashioned themselves as critics of
centralized agricultural tithing. They wanted to ensure local priests got their fair share
and that local farmers had better control over separating goods. This messed with
distribution of food, though. There was a whole system the Herodians ran. And, the
Pharisees wanted to dictate what was suitable for human consumption according to purity
laws, so farmers (and buyers) ran into Pharisees who may consign a crop to animal feed
or to the fire. “Once produce was detached from the ground, it became subject to purity
regulations.” (Myers, 161) As Quaker theologian Ched Myers argues, Jesus uses the
plucking of grain on the Sabbath to identify the Pharisees with issues of food availability.
I think this is why the Pharisees cannot reply to Jesus. Jesus has mentioned the
Pharisees’ complicity in hunger, food shortages, and general economic problems. The
purpose of God’s law is to give life and they’re using it to take life and everyone knows
it. If they try to tangle with Jesus, they’re going to have to talk about their role in the
mess. The scene ends with the Pharisees deciding to “throw in” with the Herodians—the
central power, Roman collaborators, the Pharisees’ arch-enemies. Well before the
Pharisees “threw in” with them, they were entangled in the mess.
We, too, may be entangled in the mess without consciously throwing in. My
family used to live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where the dominant industry was
producing grain for animal feed. The further south you go on the Delmarva Peninsula, the
larger the farming operations you encounter. Nothing is family-run any more. People
bought out their neighbors, and run big operations that their families cannot possible
handle. A lot of the farm workers were undocumented, and at busy season undocumented
migrants got bussed in. Lacking citizenship, they were not all protected in the workplace.
They were not all able to access medical care or lodge grievances over unpaid wages.
Whether you thought immigrants should be here or not, whether you thought their
conditions were fair or not, you were entangled in it. No local business could survive
without immigrant workers because they either needed immigrants as employees, or
because their customers needed immigrants as employees, or their customers were
immigrants. Want to order a pizza? The pizza parlor is viable because of immigrants.
The grain? It all got shipped off the peninsula for animal feed. No food was locally
bought. And even now that I live here I am entangled in it all. If I eat meat or poultry,
chances are good I eat something fed with food an undocumented immigrant harvested.
And I can recycle and drive a hybrid and drink fair trade coffee—and I do and those are
good things—and I am still entangled in this mess. I am part of dangerous underpaid
work performed by people afraid of being seized and deported. And if I am silent about it
my silence condemns me. I become the Pharisees, critiquing the system yet unwilling to
talk to Jesus about grain plucking because I am knee deep in it.
I am entangled in the mess. It’s because I am entangled in life. There’s no getting
out of it. If you are a member of the human race you are entangled in the lives of billions
of other humans. If we are entangled by virtue of being here, then while we are entangled
in problems we can also be entangled in efforts to address them. Jesus offers us that sort
of entanglement. Jesus offers to entangle us in good.
The Sabbath itself originated as entanglement for good. I’m not talking about the
story in Genesis 1, but the real world reason we know led to the story. In the ancient Near
East, the seventh day of the week was unlucky. People didn’t start projects that day
because it was bad luck. People walked on eggshells all Saturday. And there was no day
off. The Hebrews discerned God may be offering a day of rest. The people are already
disinclined to work on Saturday, and they never rest. So, now, rest. God wants you to
rest, wants your animals to rest, wants your employees to rest. We are already entangled
inextricably in the world, so let’s be entangled for good. Let’s take a break for physical, mental, and spiritual health, and offer that to the world. The day of rest is a witness to the
world, not so much a stern “think about God” as a “be whole and healthy as God creates
you to be.” People are overworked, and everyone’s silent about it. The Sabbath fills the
silence, saying, “Rest and be whole, as God rests and is whole.”
Silence demands to be filled. Jesus fills it by announcing his ongoing unending
entanglement with the world. As the Pharisees are silent while Jesus questions them
today, later on, at Jesus’ trial, the Pharisees hurl false accusations at Jesus and he is quiet.
The High Priest bluntly asks, “Are you the Christ?” And Jesus fills the silence: “I am, and
you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming in the clouds!”
In Mark, Son of Man is a way Jesus refers to himself as a human being. He tells the High
Priest, “God comes inseparable from the human condition. God will come inseparable
from eating and drinking and sleeping and crying and hurting.” When Jesus says that, he
announces to us that he is always present in suffering and rejoicing and tears and
laughter. He is present in us. He is entangled in us for good.
And he entangles us for good. We are entangled. There is no escape. So we are to
be entangled for good. Back during Holy Week, Munib Younan, Bishop Emeritus of the
ECJHL, visited Valparaiso University and spoke to a gathering of pastors. And I asked
him, “What can we do to help you?” He told us that being Christian in Palestine is
difficult. The image that Palestinians and most other Arabs have of Christians is that they
are judgmental, fanatical, hate Muslims, hate Arabs, and profess a bizarre backward belief system. “Show them you aren’t,” he said. And I think he spoke for more than just
Christianity in the US today is publicly represented by pastors who say,
“Homosexuals should be executed, but humanely.” Or who say, “I need tens of millions
for a private jet because my other four private jets are insufficient.” Christianity in the US
today is publicly represented by people who discriminate in God’s name, who cut off
access to health care in God’s name, who underpay people in God’s name, who demand
the removal of the people who harvest their food in God’s name, and who slander other
religions in God’s name. That’s not just the picture of Christianity that folks in Bethlehem
or Jerusalem get. That’s the picture of Church that folks in Valparaiso or Kouts or
That’s not the Church we know. That’t not what we preach, teach, or do, here. If
we are silent, no one else will know. If we are silent, we tacitly accept that dominant
narrative. We will not be silent. Jesus fills the silence. Jesus fills our silence; Jesus fills
the world’s silence with us. We are entangled by virtue of being human. By virtue of
Jesus, we are entangled for good.