What is the basis of your identity? Is it how you measure up to a certain standard? Or is the basis of your identity your frail humanity, which often is hungry and in need? As we’ll see, the Pharisees based their identity on their moral performance. They tried to keep God’s law perfectly and attacked those who fell short.
It was the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday on our calendars. Jesus and his disciples were hungry and in need of food, so as they walked through some grainfields, they plucked heads of grain to eat. The Pharisees caught them and accused them of working on the Sabbath day of rest. According to their rules, this was a capital offense, punishable by death. “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:25).
Jesus reminded them of a story in the Bible when King David and his men also broke the rules, eating consecrated bread from the temple that was meant only for the priests. Jesus asked them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry…how he entered the house of God…and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” (Mark 2:25, 26).
Then Jesus said to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Again, the Pharisees got their sense of meaning and identity from being excellent keepers of the law. If we’re honest, we’re the same as them. More often than not, we get our sense of meaning and identity from being those who can perform well, who can meet or surpass a standard. For instance, if we don’t commit any crimes, then we think we’re better than those who do. If we have a certain income that can afford certain purchases, then we feel better about ourselves. If we have achieved specific career goals or have a family, then we think we must not be too bad a person. If we listen to the right pastors, read the right blogs, or go to the right church, then we’re better off than others.
But all who build their identity on performance metrics will fall and cut themselves on Jesus’s razor sharp rule, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
If you can’t see what he means yet, let’s put it in other terms: “Career goals were made for man, not man for career goals.” “Family was made for man, not man for family.” “A nice home was made for man, not man for a nice home.” “A good reputation was made for man, not man for a good reputation.” “Success was made for man, not man for success.”
This razorsharp rule of Jesus has the potential to cut you free from the identity project that is enslaving you, releasing you to discover your ultimate identity, which is being a needy, hungry, hurting, beautiful, beloved, weak, wild child of God.
You were not meant to serve your home like a slave. You were not meant to serve your appearance like a slave. You were not meant to serve your so-called reputation like a slave. You were not meant to serve your job or kids or friends like a slave. Don’t put these things in the place of God. Use these things to get more of God, but don’t use God to get more of these things.
To me, the most precious sentence in this story is, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry” (Mark 2:25). And then later, did you notice the new name Jesus called himself? He called himself the “Son of Man,” as if to identify with the frailty of humanity (Mark 2:28). If you cannot embrace your need, your hunger and pain, weakness and want, then most likely you have an ulterior identity project you’re nursing on the side. The Pharisees would never admit to need or failure. In fact, they were ready to kill Jesus and the disciples for breaking a rule, in order to do something as fundamental as eating!
For some people, one of the hardest things in the world is to admit their need, for they want to appear to have everything under control. Why? Because they’re caught up in their identity project of moral performance, which does not allow them to be real, flesh-and-blood human beings.
Some people keep God’s rules, denying themselves, not because they love God, but because they love the accolades they get from others. Ironically, the more ‘godly’ we become, the greater the chance we might fall out of love with God and more in love with ourselves. The opposite is also true, the more we are able to embrace our humanity and need, the greater the chance we have to grow in godliness and our love for God.
When we base our identity on our moral performance, then we’re in danger of becoming entitled, thinking we deserve something better, because we’ve been so good. Or we might even think we deserve to be bad, because we’ve been so good. You should know, however, that a sense of entitlement leads to a lack of empathy toward others. This is why the Pharisees could not accept the tax collectors and sinners.
Here’s one last observation that flows from Jesus’s words. Think about how the Pharisees noticed Jesus and his disciples plucking grain, even though they were far out in a field. The only reason the Pharisees noticed was because their lives (personal identity projects) depended on it. You see, the things you notice others doing wrong are the things you want others to notice you doing right. For whatever reason, you’ve made that thing you noticed others doing wrong your personal identity project, which is the thing you’re using to create your own pool of self-righteousness.
The thing about self-righteousness is that it never rests. It’s like an angry sea, constantly churning up muck and grime. It’s constantly noticing a particular behavior from others, because, as I already said, it wants to get approval for not failing in that way.
But, as you might have guessed, the Pharisees were guiltier than they themselves realized. Did you notice the Pharisees were also working on the Sabbath? The very thing they accused Jesus of doing, they were doing, too. Jesus was only picking some grain to eat, meeting a basic human need. However, the Pharisees were doing the work of spying, following, accusing, plotting, and condemning! They were much busier than Jesus on the Sabbath! When your heart starts to condemn someone else, realize you do the same thing, because you wouldn’t have noticed it in the first place. This is how to find out where you suck. “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (Romans 2:1).
God has given you much with which to enjoy him. You’ll find him more enjoyable as a real, needy human being, than as a strong, self-sufficient model of faith.
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. —Mark 2:23-27
- Think about the identity that might be enslaving you, then fill in the blanks: “The _______________ was made for me, not me for _______________.”
- Is it hard for you to appear weak to others? Why or why not? Write your answer in a journal. Take time to dig beneath the surface.
- What do others do that bugs you in particular? What do you really notice that stirs you up? Now, be honest with yourself, and realize you do the same. Think of the ways you’re guilty, too.