Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Luke 6:3 - Situational Ethics?

I got home from flying around midnight tonight, a little earlier than expected due to some Automatic Flight Control System problems. Still energetic from my pre-measured caffeine dose, I decided to take the quiet time at hand to read the Bible and pray a bit. I started with a little Bible roulette and opened right up to the Sermon on the Mount in Luke 6. I only got as far as the first few verses, however, before I ran off on a trail that ran deep into the Old Testament.

I'm talking about Luke 6:3 (there are parallel passages in the other gospels) where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for rebuking His disciples for plucking grains of wheat to eat on the Sabbath. Since Jesus so piercingly said "Have you not even read this, what David did...?" I kept my thumb on the page of Luke 6 while turning the pages back to 1 Samuel 21 so as not to commit the same error. Then I was perplexed a little more. What point was Jesus trying to make?

Google is a great Bible study tool. I found a commentary that listed the reference for the law Jesus was talking about when he said what David had done was "unlawful." It's in Leviticus 24. I need to type, so I give up keeping thumbs in all the pages I'm referencing and hope I remember the chapter numbers. Basically, this particular law dictates that 12 loaves of bread (called "showbread") will be set before the LORD in a holy place and replaced once a week on the Sabbath. After the old loaves get replaced by new ones, the the priests get to eat the old ones.

A little familiarity with the Mosaic Law is needed at this point. In general, the Law called for various sacrifices of animals and food and resources to be brought to the LORD. What actually happened to someone's little lamb after they had walked it over to the temple mount, slaughtered it, and given it to the LORD? Barbecue!!! ...for the priests, that is. The Law, while high and lofty, was also extremely practical. The priests ate the sacrifices. That was how they got fed, supporting them for the work they did in the service of the LORD and of their country. To understand this, read 1 Timothy 5:18, which quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 and the words of Jesus in Luke 10:7, saying, "For the Scripture says, 'Do not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,' and 'The laborer is worthy of his wages.' "

With that in mind, let's examine the scenario of 1 Samuel 21. David was fleeing from Saul for his life, and in need of food. He goes to the temple, where he knows the priests, to ask for some food. But Ahimelech the priest hasn't got anything on hand except for the showbread thathad just been replaced by newer loaves that day. It was his dinner (or lunch, or something, but you get the idea.) And apparently, rations were a little tight around the temple at the time.

The gears are turning in Ahimelech's head as he considers how to respond to David's request. He mulls over Leviticus 24:9, which says this of the bread that's finished with it's week-long shift on the gold table before the LORD: "And it shall be for Aaron and his sons [the priests were the descendants of Aaron, in accordance with the Law], and they shall eat it in a holy place; for it is most holy to him from the offerings of the LORD made by fire, by a perpetual statute." Ahimelech knows God has provided this food to him and the rest of the priests as his wages for their temple work, so in a sense it belongs to them. Can't they then give it away to someone desperately more in need than themselves? He also knows that God wants this bread to be eaten "in a holy place" in keeping with His own holiness. So he probes David, looking for a reason to justify the manner in which he and his men will eat it as "holy" so as to fulfill the intent of Lev. 24:9, if not the letter. He asks "...if the young men have at least kept themselves from women." David, in a round of negotiation that is intriguing to say the least, responds that, yes, it's been a whole 3 days since the guys had any whoopee, something about their vessels being holy, and lastly that bread was "in effect common" anyway. "Works for me," Ahimelech must have thought to himself as he fetched the bread. He was looking for an excuse to have compassion on David and provide for his need. By making the holy manner of consumption a non-issue, he was narrowing the legality down to the single issue of who had the right to the bread. The LORD, being gracious and compassionate, had given it to feed the priests. Now the priests were sacrificing their personal, God-given right (does this sound familiar?) in order to give it to someone else who was more in need than they. Yes, in the technical sense, that was not precisely what the Law had prescribed. But it was in keeping with the Law's intent, which was basically an expression of the supreme law of love on God's part. They were imitating God.

Too many commentators are concerned that such an interpretation of these passages is an open door to "situational ethics" (google it.) They fear that if the above is true, there is no longer any rational, academic argument that can be made to prove in black and white what exactly is 'right' and what exactly is 'wrong.' And if we can't pin it down in a way that can't be misinterpreted, we might all be susceptible to walking around committing sins against God unknowingly, all the while duping ourselves into thinking that we're following God's supreme, yet regrettably wishy-washy, law of love. They think we have to break God's demands down into specifics for all the laymen so they don't inadvertently lose their way. Does that sound familiar?

If the devil invents a lie which at first glance looks similar to the truth, is that truth now too dangerous to understand, because the distinctions between it and the devil's lie are too subtle? May it never be. Counterfeiting is one of the devil's most prolific and effective strategies, the primary effect of which is too deceive unbelievers and the secondary to frighten the saints away from the truth that was so closely counterfeited. Knowing the truth requires a careful and detailed examination of God's Word.

Their argument is that David was in fact sinning in this story and that Jesus' point was to expose the Pharisees' hypocrisy of condemning Jesus' disciples while justifying David. I argue otherwise. By asking if they had even read 1 Samuel 21, Jesus seemed to be accusing the Pharisees of failing to understand its point, not merely introducing the passage as background for His argument. The anti-situational-ethics argument says Jesus was calling hypocritical the Pharisees' stance that while David's actions were justified, the disciples' actions were not. This basis is conjecture, however, since the Bible doesn't record the Pharisees ever making such an argument. The key to understanding what Jesus meant, then, is to first understand the point of 1 Samuel 21 which he reproached the Pharisees for failing to understand.

I think Jesus was arguing that the priests had authority over the bread and decided to use it in keeping with the very reason God had given them the bread in the first place: kindness and compassion. Jesus then really offends the Pharisees by saying He has authority over the Sabbath and is going to administer it in accordance with it's original intent, which was for man's restoration and well-being. The key in both cases is the authority of the priests in the first case, and Jesus in the second, to administer the trust which God had given them in accordance with God's intent.