How do you understand this scripture? How do you understand Jesus breaking the religious laws in this way?
I think about the story of Les Miserables. The man, Jean Valjean goes to prison and does hard labor for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread that was intended to feed his starving sister and her son. He is then released with a yellow ticket which means he has to show his status as a convicted man every where he goes. The result? Well, it’s similar to now in that it is extremely difficult for a convicted person to get employment, to have places to stay, to do anything. But in his desperation, he steals again and this time, when he is caught, the bishop whom he stole from offers him grace. The bishop gifts him the objects that he stole, and lies for him, telling the police that they were gifts. As a result of the grace he is offered, he becomes a new person: he is generous, he is giving, he saves several lives in the course of his own life. He becomes the man that he was meant to be. But Javert, the police officer, does not see it that way. Javert feels that because the law at that time basically said that Valjean needed to pay with both 19 years in prison and a harsh, unmovable parole, that that was what was right. Javert’s job was to uphold that, without any reference to the circumstances and certainly without any grace. That was the law and so Javert felt it was RIGHT with a capital R. Of course, later, Jean Valjean ends up saving Javert’s life. And the moral quandary that this created for Javert, to be faced with the goodness, innate goodness of the man he had spent his entire life persecuting was simply too much for him to take.
Similarly in the movie, Chocolat. The mayor of the town is a very good man. He cares about the village and the villagers. But when Vianne moves in to the town and opens a chocolate shop during lent, when she makes it clear that she is not religious and though she has a child, she does not have a husband, when she dresses in much more colorful clothing than the village women, he feels that she will be a temptress for the villagers and encourage immorality in their village. In fact, she, too, is extremely kind. She is extremely good. She provides refuge for the woman who is being beaten by her husband, and she offers kindness to the strangers who pass through the village. She heals relationships that have been estranged, and opens up those who’ve been broken, down, bitter with her genuine love, ability to listen, and deep insight. The mayor, Reynaud is not a bad man. He is a very good man, living with his own struggles, his own pains. But he cannot see beyond the rules that he, himself, has created.
I’ve shared this story before and it is not a pleasant story, but still, I’m reminded of the tale in which a holy man was meditating beneath a tree at the crossing of two roads. His meditation was interrupted by a young man running frantically down the road toward him. “Help me,” the young man pleaded. “A man has wrongly accused me of stealing. He is pursuing me with a great crowd of people. If they catch me, they will chop off my hands.” The young man climbed the tree beneath which the sage had been meditating and hid himself in the branches. “Please don’t tell them where I am hiding,” he begged. The holy man saw with the clear vision of a saint that the young man was telling him the truth. The lad was not a thief. A few moments later, the crowd of villagers approached, and the leader asked, “Have you seen a young man run by here?” The holy man had taken a vow to always speak the truth, because he believed it to be absolutely right, so he said that he had. “Where did he go?” the leader asked. The holy man did not want to betray the innocent young man, but his vow was sacred to him. He pointed up into the tree. The villagers dragged the young man out of the tree and chopped off his hands. When the holy man died and stood before Judgment, he was condemned for his behavior in regard to the unfortunate young man. “But,” he protested, “I had made a holy vow to speak only the truth. I was bound to act as I did.” “On that day,” came the reply, “you loved vanity more than virtue. It was not for virtue’s sake that you delivered the innocent man over to his persecutors, but to preserve a vain image of yourself as a virtuous person.”
Finally, there is another story in which two Buddhist monks who had made vows to never touch a female came across a girl who was desperately trying to cross a river but was unable to do so because she was too small. One of the monks picked her up and carried her across the river, setting her down on the opposite shore. As the two monks continued the journey, finally the one who had not carried the girl burst out with “You made a vow to never touch a female and you just broke it by carrying her across the water!” The other one responded, “perhaps I did break my vow. But at least I put her down on the opposite shore. In contrast, you are apparently still carrying her!”
In all of these stories, the person being legalistic, being unable to separate the spirit of the law from the law itself, was not a BAD person. The same is true of the Pharisees. They were legalistic because they cared about their faith and cared about the people. They gave the Jewish people ways of living out their faith in practiced, dedicated, devoted ways. Additionally, they were worried that if the laws were too lax, that the people would end up as we are now: not honoring or revering Sabbath practices at all. Keeping the Sabbath is not just an idle law, it is not just one of the hundreds of laws that we read about in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Keeping the Sabbath is one of the big ten: on par with not stealing, and even with not KILLING. The Pharisees were right to be concerned with it, they were right to want some structure to it that made it real, that made it clear, that separated the day out as only for worship and rest. We know their intentions were good. We know they had the people’s best interests at heart.
Jesus was a serious threat to them. As professor Elizabeth Johnson said, “[Jesus] was careless with regard to the boundaries meant to guard ritual purity. He ate with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5:27-32), and his disciples did not fast (5:33-35). He even claimed authority to forgive sins (5:17-26), which constituted a violation of the most important boundary of all — that between God and humans. Jesus was a threat to all that the Pharisees held sacred, and he was gaining a following among the people.” So in this situation, he was condemned, out of fear, for his breaking of the Sabbath laws.
And the reality is that they took it too far. This remains true, in my opinion, today. Orthodox Jews, for example, cannot use light switches on the Sabbath, so whatever was turned on at the beginning of Friday evening must stay on all through Saturday, and whatever is off must stay off until Saturday night. Most of these laws are not oppressive. But there are exceptions. Electricity is not, actually, supposed to be used at all, so in a place a friend of mine works (she works for an orthodox organization), the electric doors are off on the Sabbath. For my friend’s partner, who is in a wheel chair, this makes it extremely difficult and much harder work to get her through the door. Also, they are not supposed to use cars, which makes it extremely difficult for a person who has limited mobility, to actually get to Synagogue, though that is the activity that is supposed to be done on the Sabbath. And while the laws, again, were supposed to set up things to avoid cruelty, to give rest, they often do not do what was intended at all. For example, one Sabbath law is that you are not supposed to cook an animal with its mother’s milk because it was seen as cruel. But instead of helping people to eliminate then the cruelty to animals, those with a high financial level end up having two of everything. One stove, one fridge, one set of pots and pans for the animal and an entirely different set of everything, including the fridge and stove, for the milk.
We see in today’s scriptures, even best intentions, when we get distracted by the laws we’ve made, when we get too focused on the law itself rather than the reason for it, the intention behind it, and the meaning of it, become abusive, oppressive and can be very harmful. A lot of this has to do with how rigid we are.
I’m taking a resilience training webinar through the Board of Pensions and they’ve been talking about the great importance of having a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset does not allow for change or genuine growth. It does not allow a person to see in a new way. But resilience, or the ability to stretch and grow and deal with the challenges and changes in this society and in our lives requires that we move from a “judge and be judged” mindset to a “learn and help-learn” framework. The commitment is to growth. And that growth mindset allows you to keep in mind the intention, the meaning behind whatever it is that we are facing, rather than the legalisms.
The question is, will we be afraid, overwhelmed and anxious about the changes that we face, needing to fall back on rigid ideas of what is right and wrong that are not based on Love, not based on compassion or grace; or will we move forward into what is new with HOPE, and even with joy. As professor Wesley Allen said it, “While some feel that the fabric of our society is being ripped in two, it is perhaps more accurate to recognize that we live in a day when that fabric is being re-dyed. Some experience this with joy and hope and others with fear and pain. As part of this process, the church’s identity and mission is also in flux. Denominations battle and split over issues like homosexuality. Congregations watch their numbers dwindle. Worship leaders are challenged to embrace contemporary methods of entertainment and technology to reshape the liturgy. What does remaining faithful to Christian tradition and practices mean in such a day?”
Change is not optional. And when change is thrust upon us: like with the pandemic, and perhaps like with the political situation we are seeing right now, when we do not know what the future will look like, the desire for “normal” can be strong, extremely compelling. But Jesus embraced change, confronting the old ways, and calling us to let go of fear in the face of tomorrow. Fear is a liar. Fear is a liar. And so as we seek to find new ways to do things, we are called to respond, both as individuals and as communities, in whatever way “does good and preserves life”. Those are the criteria Jesus puts before us. And that means we will have choices to make as times change, but that we need to not be limited by what has been done before simply because it is what has been done before.
I also want to point out that after these two interactions, Jesus went away and “prayed all night”. In other words, he kept the Sabbath: he took the time to go away and worship and listen and pray and be with God. He just didn’t do it in the way that the Pharisees wanted him to.
The bottom line? The sabbath is supposed to be life-giving, freeing, healing. It is not supposed to be oppressive to those who are hungry or hurting. It is not supposed to be a tyrant. Nor are any laws. They are there for our good, for our healing for our wholeness. They are not there to enslave or imprison. They are there to “do good and preserve life”. When they do that, great. But when we are too rigid in them, even the best will fail us at some point or another.
Keep your eyes open. Don’t take the easy way out when it comes to right and wrong. Look deeper, always, for what does good and preserves life. And remember, the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. Amen.