One of the things that I find interesting in the New Testament is how many people want to tell Jesus that what he is doing is wrong. In today’s gospel reading we have another example of the Pharisees wanting to condemn Jesus and tell Jesus that what he is doing is NOT what is supposed to be happening.
Now, it would be easy to just get on the case of the Pharisees and say that they are all bad people. It would be easy to say that the Pharisees should have known that Jesus was the Son of God and could do whatever he wanted. It would be easy to say that the Pharisees are just too short-sighted to see that what Jesus was doing was a good thing. Yes, it would be easy to do that, but that would not help us to see how this story can truly apply to our lives.
So often I think we jump to the conclusion that the Pharisees are “bad” because it is just easier. If we can categorize them as “bad,” then we don’t have to think too much about it. But, as I said, it makes things too easy. I am reminded what a director once told me when I was in a play. I was playing a Mafioso named “Brock.” What the director told me was that I was playing the character as if “Brock believed he was a bad person. People,” he told me, “even ‘bad’ people, don’t believe they are bad people. Even ‘bad’ people believe they are doing things for good reasons.” I had to think about that for a few minutes. But I think he is right. In the mind of the person, there are perfectly “good” reasons to be doing what they are doing. In our gospel for today, it would be easy to just think of the Pharisees as “bad,” but maybe we can learn something if we try to understand what their “good” intent was.
The Pharisees were the keepers of the law. They worked to have the people follow the whole law perfectly. Now this was important because there was the belief that if the people could keep the whole law perfectly for just one day, then the Messiah would return. They believed that the Messiah would be the great warrior king who would come in and rescue the people from the tyranny of the government. But this rescue would not come until the people could prove they were worthy by keeping the law. I guess a somewhat simplistic way of thinking about it is to say that “Santa won’t come until all the children are good.” So it was very important for the Pharisees to look after the law. The sooner all people kept the law, the sooner the Messiah would return. And the sooner the Messiah returned, the sooner the people could live free of the yoke of oppression.
So we do a disservice to just think of the Pharisees as thick-headed people who were just trying to get in the way of Jesus. In their opinion, Jesus was some kind of radical who was trying to destroy their way of worship and their way of life. He was doing things that not only were against the law, but were also going to make it more difficult for the Messiah to return! They saw what they were doing in more than just local terms; they saw their job as having cosmic implications!
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see where the Pharisees were wrong. We can see that what the Pharisees were trying to do was NOT what was in the best interest of the reign of God, but there were doing what they truly believed was in the best interest of the people. They did not see themselves as “bad” people, they saw themselves as trying to save the people from doing anything that would be ultimately harmful to the salvation of the people.
Now, if we want to bring this example up to modern time, we are faced with some choices and decisions: Are we the ones who are helping Jesus or are we the ones who think we are doing good, but ultimately are getting in the way? That is a tough question. Remember what my director said, bad people don’t think they are doing bad things. How can we be sure what we are doing is a good thing or a bad thing? How can we be sure we are following Jesus or are getting in Jesus way? I think, on our own, we can’t.
One of the hallmarks of being an Episcopalian is the concept of Bible and Tradition tempered with reason. Like the Pharisees, we are to look to the scriptures for our answers. And also like the Pharisees, we are supposed to look at the traditions to find our way. But the thing that we add to this is the concept of “reason;” that is, “does this really make any sense?” It is here that the Pharisees got tripped up. And it is here where Jesus points out their mistakes.
As followers of Jesus, our first commandment is to love God, but then the next is to love those around us. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And if we remember from the Good Samaritan story, our neighbors are those whom we encounter on a daily basis. These two commandments trump all other commandments. Even though one of the Ten Commandments is to “Keep the Sabbath holy,” it is still more important to love your neighbor. And allowing the woman to stay hunched over was not a very good way to love your neighbor. Some may say that since she had been hunched over for so long, another day won’t matter; but this is said by the person who is NOT hunched over! To remove the cause of the woman’s pain was, in fact, loving. And as a side note, I think easing another’s pain is a VERY holy thing, so easing the woman’s pain was, in fact, keeping the Sabbath holy.
This story sets up a very real tension for us all. How do we know when we are following God’s will by keeping the law, and when do we look for a new interpretation to the law? In our world today, with all the changes that happen, not every change is a good thing. Sometimes the church needs to say, “Hold on! This is not a good thing.” But at other times, we need to step back and really take a look at what is happening and see if the law needs to be reinterpreted due to situations that could not have been imagined when the original law was formed. These are tough things to do! A law that took into account every contingency would make zero sense for the people at the time the law was implemented. The laws of the Hebrew scripture could not anticipate the Messiah being right in the midst of the people. Biblical laws could not take into account the things we have today.
So we always need to approach situations with three things in mind: We need to approach a situation with the love of God in our hearts and the understanding that God is so much greater than we are. We need to approach a situation with an attitude of love and respect for our neighbors, and a desire to do what is best for our neighbor. And finally, we need to approach a situation with an attitude of openness tempered by a prayerful connection with the community of faith. So, we need to Love and Trust God. We need to Love and Respect each other. And finally, we need to keep connected to God and the world through prayer and fellowship with the Christian community.
This last step, keeping connected, is the most difficult. It is not a hard and fast rule. It is messy. We will make mistakes. We will step on some toes. But it is important! It is important that we remain in conversation about our community and about our world. We don’t want to become like the Pharisees who, in dogged adherence to the law, actually get in the way of Christ’s work in the world.
I can’t over emphasize the difficulty of this process. It would be so much easier to just ignore all of God’s laws and say anything goes. Or it would be so much easier to just fall back onto the old standby: The Bible says it, I believe it, THAT SETTLES IT! But Christ asks us to do more than just settle for these easy answers. Christ asks us to get into the muck of life and truly be present! Christ asks us to keep the Sabbath Holy while also healing on the Sabbath. Christ asks us to hold onto our faith while questioning our beliefs. Christ asks us to be truly present and engaged in life while realizing what we see that life is transitory.
This is the difficulty of our world; this is the difficulty of being human. This is the difficulty of being Christian. We are not given quick and easy answers, but we are given minds that think and communities what help. Our challenge is to remain connected to our community of faith and our community within the world.