by Michael E. Brooks
“But he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?'” (Mark 2:25-27).
My wife Brenda has expanded her menu and cooking technique over the last several years of travel in South Asia. In order for us to eat some of our favorite foods here she has had to learn innovative ways of cooking with propane gas (we have always had electric stoves in the U.S.) and without an oven.
This trip she has begun to make biscuits and has even baked a cake. She puts a heavy iron pan over the gas burner to distribute the heat, then a covered skillet on top of that to cook on both sides and brown the top, “Dutch oven” style. The results have been delicious.
Improvisation is a useful talent. When one doesn’t have all that is needed, it is essential to make do with what one does have. There is often “more than one way to skin a cat” and those who can use their imagination can often find a way to do the apparently impossible.
There are areas even in Christianity where God allows us to improvise. Naaman the Syrian wanted to worship the God who healed his leprosy, but could not regularly visit Israel for that purpose. He took two mules load of dirt from Israel back to Syria so he could be reminded of God’s presence (2 Kings 5:15-17). This apparently was approved by the prophet Elisha.
Jesus cites the incident of David’s eating the showbread, to which he was not entitled, because it was the only food available. In this instance we are not told whether God actually approved of David’s action. The point Jesus made is that the Pharisees accepted what David did but were quick to condemn others who did similar things. The Pharisees’ hypocrisy is the focus of Mark’s account, along with Jesus’ authority to authorize what man cannot.
And that is an essential point. It is one thing for inspired men, or Jesus himself, to make exceptions to God’s laws. It is quite something else for us today to improvise without authorization. Some things cannot be changed. Some commands do not permit exception.
Some time ago a man was talking with me about an incident on the mission field. A congregation was meeting on Thursdays because of customs and schedules in their area. The question was, “Can they observe the Lord’s Supper during those meetings?” I was asked my opinion on the matter. My response was, “First I would make absolutely sure that meeting on the First Day of the Week is impossible. Only then would I consider doing something differently than we read about in Scripture.”
Note that even then I did not commit to improvising, but simply stated that until such was absolutely required I would not even consider it. As long as I can do what is taught in Scripture there is no possibility of doing anything else.
David and Jesus made adjustments in their practice from necessity, and were perhaps guided by inspiration and, in Jesus’ case, his own divine authority. We may be able to justify some improvisations on the basis of necessity. But not just for our convenience, nor for our desire to do something different. As Peter wrote, “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11).