Rules that Help and Rules that Hinder
Faith In Real Life Blog
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
January 19, 2023
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.”15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it to water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things being done by him.
The obvious and very important point of this passage is Jesus redirecting religious practice away from the letter of the law to the spirit of the law. Human needs take priority over religious observance. As Mark puts it when Jesus points out another instance in which human needs trumped religious obedience: “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath…” (Mark 2:27) The spirit of the commandments is to guide us toward a better life. And, as we discussed last week, the sabbath commandment has a dual purpose. First, it acknowledges that we must build rest into our lives if we wish to maximize our lives and second, if we want our lives to have lasting meaning and purpose, we must be intentional about what it means to worship God—what it means to make love our highest priority.
Unfortunately, the application of this theme is problematic in real life. The interpreters of the law were not simply rigid rule followers. That is a stereotype that is too dismissive. They were certainly vulnerable to criticism, but they also desired that the law would serve humankind. At their best, rules give direction and simplify decision making. I had a spinning class years ago that met at 5:30am. The instructor told us that when we woke up we should immediately put our feet on the floor. The decision was made on the front end. We didn’t need to rehash whether we felt like we wanted to get up. The rule helped us show up regularly. Whether it is a diet, an exercise program or a commandment, making exceptions is a slippery slope. Loving is hard work. We forget that much of faith, and certainly much of loving is a choice. It is difficult, challenging and often inconvenient to love another person. We forget that such love is always a choice. To break away from the disciplines that value those choices is risky. The sabbath commandment helps us stick with the program.
The earlier interpreters of God’s word realized all too well that there is almost a universal resistance to sticking to disciplines we know are good for us. It doesn’t take many cheats to ruin a diet, or many days off to make returning to the gym pure torture. Theologically, the same is true of our faith. Our default setting is self-centeredness. Our default setting is our belief that we are not enough. And our default setting is to seek to prove ourselves and to earn love. We need constant reminders that we are loved and regular reminders of our core beliefs to make the choices of love. Lose touch with either and we will revert to self-centeredness, entitlement and live lives trying to prove ourselves.
In ordinary learning, we cannot make faith decisions if we do not have the building blocks of faith. When we are required to study math in school, we don’t actually have to understand the importance of math. What is important is that the basic skills are acquired. Hopefully, the need for them will become clearer later. We don’t give third graders the choice. They must learn how to add and subtract. To borrow NIKE’s phrase, sometimes we must JUST DO IT. The benefits will follow. Sabbath provides much needed rest, nourishment, and direction to sustain us on the journey of faith. We do not have to understand how or why that works to benefit.
Those are some of the positives of the “Just Do It” mentality but as this passage points out, there are some significant negatives. When rules help us without discipline, they are invaluable but when obedience to the rule is confused with the reason the rule was written, we enter the predicament of this passage. In this case, the sabbath rule designed to help us stay focused on loving functioned to keep the religious authorities blind to the needs of people. Obedience took priority over mindfulness and regard. In real life, individual situations call for exceptions. And exceptions call for discernment. Most of the time, we can set aside our ordinary activities on the sabbath but confronted with immediate human need, we need to be able to respond. The rule, even the commandment should not get in the way.
Neal Davies told us about a man in our own church who was put on trial in the early 1900’s for grinding corn meal on the Sabbath. He was exonerated because the community was in a drought and there was not enough food. Community hunger was deemed sufficient reason to break Sabbath. It may be disconcerting, but most, if not all the commandments have exceptions in real life. Even “Thou shall not kill” has exceptions for self-defense and war. It depends upon who is defining the terms. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a famous German theologian during WWII, spent months trying to discern if it was permissible for a Christian to murder a despot. He finally decided yes, and he was part of the plot to kill Hitler. (He failed, was arrested, and hung). One man’s act of political resistance is another man’s treason.
In real life, there are few easy answers and there are no absolutes. The Pharisees had turned the commandments into absolutes and as such had made the commandment an idol. Obedience rather than love had become the priority. If we accept Jesus’ great commandment (Love God and Love Neighbor) as the overarching rule of faith, we are left with the incredibly difficult task of discerning what that might mean in any given situation. Zero tolerance for guns in school sounds like a wise policy but what about the child who is expelled for bringing a toy gun. Or infinitely worse, how do you respond to the six-year-old who shot a teacher. These are difficult and painful questions. The rule is clear. What is loving is not.
I don’t think any of us realized when we signed up to be a Christian, we were being called to a lifetime of discernment with inadequate information. But that is exactly what Jesus was calling the Pharisees—and us— to do. If we need to be right to act, we are going to be immobilized. Such discernment is only possible because we are called to love by a loving God. Humans have made some spectacular, hurtful errors in our history and many were made with the best of intentions. (No wonder we want rules to tell us what to do.) It took years to realize that double mastectomies were more often mutilating rather than life saving. Those doctors were doing their best with what they knew. It just turns out they were wrong.
We are called to obey the sabbath commandments in the knowledge the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. Keeping the sabbath reminds us of our own limitations and of God’s love. We need both if we are to go beyond following the rules to discerning what is loving. Jesus’ version of what is right and Jesus’ version of what is strong turned secular thinking on its head. As much as we yearn for God’s saving acts, we often, like the Jews on Palm Sunday, want a God who intervenes rather than a God who is present. We need sabbath to remember these core, counter cultural beliefs to serve in a broken world.
It is through humility and gratitude that we are enabled to discern and to serve. Always remember why we have a sabbath commandment. Look for ways to keep the Sabbath—no matter what day of the week it is. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.