I am by nature a rule follower.
Whether I necessarily agree with the rule or not, if there are rules in place I will typically follow the rules.
If bedtime is 8:00, we will be in bed at 8:00. If my children are required to wear white socks to school instead of fun colorful socks, as much as I think it’s silly, I will encourage my children to wear white socks to school. If proof of income is required to hand out food boxes from the food pantry, I’m going to lean toward requiring proof of income before we hand out a box of food. (Now, I’m not going to let someone go hungry, or punish my children if they wear colorful socks, but rules that don’t hurt us should be followed.) I’ve even been accused at times of making up rules so that we could keep the rules.
Perhaps this is why I feel some sympathy for the Synagogue ruler in Luke 13 who is upset with the woman getting healed on the Sabbath day.
It’s a familiar tale. Jesus is at a Synagogue teaching on the Sabbath when a woman comes in who has been bound for eighteen years with an ailment that causes her to be slouched over constantly. Technically no work is to be done on the Sabbath, and no one has ever decided whether healing someone is work. Jesus doesn’t wait for a decision however and decides eighteen years is long enough to be bound, so he heals the woman. At this point the Synagogue ruler shouts out, “there are six days to come for healing, come on one of those days, not the Sabbath.” It’s his passive aggressive way to say I don’t agree with what’s happening, but I’m not going to openly question Jesus or the woman. Instead, I’ll talk about them, just not to them, while they are in the room.
Obviously, we hear the Synagogue ruler and we want to criticize him for lack of compassion and wonder why he doesn’t want to help people. We shout legalist and hypocrite; and we are not wrong in our reaction. Jesus has a similar reaction to his critique. However, I have some sympathy for him because he’s just trying to follow the rules. Remember, Synagogue worship developed during the time of the exile; a time when Israel was punished because they didn’t keep the rules. Israel was punished severely because they had spent generations not following the rules, including Sabbath laws. You have not given the land its Sabbath rest, so I will give it seventy years of Sabbath rest, God says. The Synagogue ruler wants to avoid more punishment, so when he encounters a traveling Rabbi who clearly has no regard for the rules and has broken Sabbath laws in multiple settings, he has to say something. Come some other time for healing, we need to keep the law.
It’s a slippery slope. Sure, one healing on the Sabbath isn’t much, but once you break the law once the second time is easier. If we’re not careful soon we will be breaking multiple laws, and we may start to wonder if we are even following God anymore, or concerned with keeping the law. God will remember, and God will punish. Remember the old saying, it’s better to be safe than sorry; it’s better to make sure we are faithful than run the risk of incurring the wrath of God.
At times, if we’re not careful, we can let religion get in the way of us being Christians. Whether it’s rules, tradition, the way we’ve always done things, or our own interpretation of scripture; if we’re not careful, we can let that get in the way of offering love. In an effort to keep the rules, we might miss the love of God.
It’s not that religion isn’t important, or church isn’t important, or what we’ve done in the past is wrong or doesn’t matter. The church is very important; it is the Bride of Christ. The church, in all of its faults and misgivings throughout history, is still very much the Bride of Christ; which means it’s not wrong or to be ignored.
However, we need to remember that Jesus said, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. It’s not that sacrifices and following the law don’t matter, because they absolutely do. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Yet, in fulfilling the law, Jesus reminds us that at times, love has to triumph over regulations. At times, even if the law says you don’t belong here, Christian love says you are welcome and cared for and we will help you. Even if the law says you are illegal, Christian love says you are here with me and I will love you regardless of the law.
Living like this will cost us. It may cost us reputation and honor by some who don’t trust us and think we are no longer faithful. It may cost us financially to love in a way that is life-giving. It may cost us because we may have to go against our greater culture, or religious history, or even our government to love and do what is right, even if technically it’s breaking the rules.
This isn’t easy. Being a Christian is not easy. It requires us to walk into places of despair and offer hope. At times, that means breaking the rules so we can be like Christ.