Recently I received, which also went to a gentleman known for his love of expressing wisdom in discussions on sometimes recondite Bible questions, a request for information from one of the widows of our congregation. She had stated that according to our church , those brethren who are in extreme latitudes were able to count sundown as happening at a particular time when it came to calculating the beginning and the end of the Sabbath or various Holy Days, and wondered if there were other circumstances where this would not apply. She then stated that she was going to enjoy the Night To Be Much Observed with about thirty people, half of them mostly small children and the other half adults, and that while she was a single person (as a widow) who could wait until 8PM to eat, that she did not feel it would be just to the children to be made to wait up past their bedtime before beginning supper, which prompted me to wonder if we were going to the same place.
I was pleased that she wished to hear my opinion, not because it necessarily means a great deal in any kind of official way, but rather because the question in point allows us to examine the application of biblical law in specific situations. The question reminded me of a specific story, which can be found in its longest form in Matthew 12:1-8 , and also in Luke 6:1-5 and Mark 2:23-28. The account in Matthew 12:1-8 reads as follows: “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Let it be freely admitted at the outset that the Night To Be Much Observed is a human tradition and not a commanded ordinance of God , although it occurs on the eve of the beginning of the Days of Unleavened Bread, and is traditionally eaten after sundown at the beginning of the Holy Day. A recognition that something is indeed a tradition and not a commandment need not hinder us from enjoying it as a tradition, but to keep in mind that traditions are designed to serve people, not for people to serve traditions. In Matthew 12, when the scribes and Pharisees harangued Jesus Christ about his disciples eating some grain on the Sabbath, we are faced with the pernicious way in which people can sometimes forget the priority of traditions. The Pharisees had added to the body of biblical law certain interpretations of halakha that sought to regulate what activities were and were not appropriate on the Sabbath. By these traditions, the grabbing of a few unharvested grains of food for a hungry man to eat counted as “harvesting” and pulling out the edible portion of the head of grain counted as “preparing food,” both of which were among the prohibited categories of work. In such a fashion, eating earlier than tradition dictates would be a similar deed, acting contrary to the traditions we have received.
It is worth noting, though, the importance of context. In defending the disciples’ conduct to the point of calling them blameless in this matter, similar to their blamelessness in not performing the ritualized ablutions before eating a meal (see Mark 7:1-23), Jesus Christ points to the story of David and his hungry men being allowed to eat the old showbread on account of their hunger. He then cites 1 Samuel 15:2, Hosea 6:6, and Micah 6:6-9, which in different ways point out what it is that God desires and what he does not desire. When Saul had sought to cover his disobedience of the commandment to utterly destroy Amalek by sacrificing a few token animals, God had reminded him through Samuel that God desired obedience and not sacrifice. Likewise, in Micah, the reminder is that what God requires of us are not mountains of sacrificed animals for our many sins, but rather to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God. Likewise, in Hosea 6:6 we are reminded that God desires a relationship, intimate knowledge, and mercy, rather than sacrifice and burnt offerings. The sacrifices we offer to God, including the sacrifice of waiting for our dinner, are a means to an end—the end is not to suffer, but rather to be humble and to seek God.
In that light, there is no need that we should make little children suffer for our traditions. If Jesus Christ could look with compassion on David and his hungry soldiers in the wilderness, or with his hungry disciples grabbing some grain to munch on to calm their Sabbath hungar pangs, then God too would not be troubled by feeding little children so that they do not suffer from a lack of food and timely bedtime. What God desires is mercy and not sacrifice—He does not want children to suffer so that people should follow a tradition, which the scribes and Pharisees were clearly ignorant of. The laws of God, including those laws that allowed the showbread to be eaten only by priests and temple servants, were put into place as a way of showing Israel what is holy and dignified and set apart, not to make people suffer. The application of law, and tradition, is to take into consideration the well-being of all of God’s children, and we would do well to remember that the purpose of such is to honor God and not to make people suffer. If we make others suffer because of our tradition, or if we use a technical obedience of God’s law as a way of hardening our hearts against concern and grace towards others, then we are allowing the law of God, and the traditions we hold dear, to suffer slander and abuse because of their application. We must never lose the forest for the sake of the trees, never fail to remember that the purpose of our laws and traditions in honoring God is to build relationships with Him and with each other, and to do good where it is within our power to do so.
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