Sunday, February 09, 2020

Authority and Example

Those of you who have been reading here for a long time may remember that I have struggled with the idea of Bible history being authoritative. Many things were done by many people during the roughly 4,000-year period during which the history of mankind is explored in scripture, some of them good and some of them bad. We can learn from all of those stories, but that doesn’t mean we ought to imitate the conduct of everyone we find in them. Abraham makes a better role model than Ahab, but even Abraham was far from perfect.

Accurate history simply records what happened. Telling you what you should conclude about it — or, much more importantly, what you should do about it — generally requires some sort of editorial comment or authorial aside. As Hume famously put it, you can’t get ‘ought’ from ‘is’.

Still, there seem to be biblical exceptions to this principle, and I have gone back and forth about how to view them. If Jesus and the apostles occasionally treat Old Testament history as authoritative, well, who is going to tell them they can’t? Certainly not me.

Laying David to Rest

However, I think there is one case of a historic event apparently being used prescriptively or authoritatively which we should probably lay to rest, and that is found in Mark 2:
“One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?’ And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.’ ”
“Have you never read what David did?” That seems to make history authoritative, doesn’t it? At least initially, it appears Jesus is saying that David’s breaking of the Sabbath is license for other devout men to break the Sabbath in emergencies as well, including his own disciples.

A Can of Worms

Such a reading opens up a real can of worms for the serious Christian. I’ve read a lot of things David did, and I can say with a fair bit of confidence we’re not supposed to imitate his adultery with Bathsheba, his lax fathering, his multiple wives and any number of other questionable or outright evil things he did, good man though he generally was. How then do we distinguish between an act we should emulate and one we should not?

I have made a number of suggestions about how we might do that elsewhere, so I will not repeat myself here. The thing about this particular incident is that after a little more attentive reading, I believe we can strike it off our list of potential problem texts. Jesus is not really using history as authoritative so much as he is using history as a means of forcing a group of Pharisees playing Dickie-Opposite to re-examine their own default assumptions.

Ruffling Pharisaic Feathers

When you and I read about David, we are not terribly interested in defending anything he did or didn’t do. Why would we be? We have no national pride invested in David, no glorious future hope for the blessings of God on our people pinned on David’s greater son ruling from Jerusalem. The first century religious Jew, however, certainly did. If you were going to point to an Old Testament figure the Pharisees venerated, David was right up there with Abraham and Moses as part of the Big Three.

So the Lord takes this great man whom the Pharisees would be ill-disposed to attack, and throws out a little historical example to ruffle their feathers. On the run from Saul, in a time of hunger, need and extreme danger, David took the bread of the Presence, and he and his men broke the Law of Moses by consuming it. Did the judgment of God fall on David for his presumption? No, it did not. Instead, he became Israel’s greatest king. Was there any visible sign of God’s displeasure with David to be found in the account, or any editorial comment from the writer of 1 Samuel to the effect that David erred? Again, no. The Lord’s argument is implicit rather than overt, but for a group of legalists, this incident certainly poses a major theological problem.

The Pharisees are now stuck between a rock and a hard place: if they wish to condemn the Lord’s disciples for breaking the Law, they must condemn David right along with them. That’s not authoritative so much as it is disruptive. It slows down the judgmental Pharisees, cooling out their self-righteous hypocrisy.

The Origin of Authority

Now, that’s not to say there is no authoritative teaching in this short passage in Mark. There certainly is. The Lord Jesus now makes a plain, declarative statement: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Should the Pharisees have known this? Of course they should, even if they had not heard it stated precisely this way before. It does not come from the historical account in 1 Samuel; rather, it is legitimately inferred from the order of creation described in Genesis. God first creates man, then institutes the Sabbath; not the other way round. The Law was created for man, not man for the Law; it is intended to help, not injure. Perhaps instinctively, David has observed this principle in time of need, but he did not invent it. It does not derive its authority from him.

Then, even more importantly, the Lord adds this: “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” The authority to state this truth does not come from David’s historical example, or even, really, from his inference with respect to Genesis 1-2. It comes straight from Jesus’ person. “The Son of man is lord.” Or, as the parallel account in Matthew puts it, “Something greater than the temple is here.”

Jesus has already established his authority earlier in Mark’s second chapter. He forgives the sins of a paralytic, then, when questions arise about his right to do so, he miraculously enables the man to get up, pick up his bed, and head on home. The miracle validates the forgiveness. It is the Father’s declaration that the Son is who he says he is.

A Truth License

David’s story, then, is not the justification for the Lord’s authority. That is already well established. Jesus did not require David to give him a license to teach truth. Rather, David’s story serves merely as the illustration of the principle the Lord sets out in his conclusion: that the Sabbath was made for man, and not the other way round.

It is the principle that is authoritative. The story about David is simply the Lord’s way of getting his audience to grasp how this principle worked out in one great man’s experience.

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