Absolute Rules?

In Luke 6:1-16, we see Jesus continuing his ministry and he’s finding himself in conflict with the religious authorities. They want Jesus to stick to the rules—the way they think they should be interpreted. Both Jesus and the Pharisees value scripture but the Pharisees want to stick to the letter of the law. Being faithful becomes about following the rules, rather than the rules giving life. Jesus’ focus was on how the laws could bring life.

Jesus and his followers are walking along on a Sabbath day and they are hungry so they pick some grain to eat. Picking grain was considered work so Jesus and his disciples were in violation of the Sabbath laws. Some Pharisees see this and question Jesus. Jesus refers them back to scripture and reminds them that David and his followers were on the run and they were hungry. (1 Samuel 21) They asked a priest for help and were given the Bread of the Presence which was only permitted to be eaten by the priests. David went on to become the great King of Israel. So Jesus is telling the Pharisees that David did not lose favour even when he broke the rules. The conversation about the Sabbath continues as Jesus enters the synagogue and heals someone’s hand.

Rules are not absolute. They help create a social structure and set boundaries but Jesus is warning against allowing the rules to rule our lives at the expense of truly living. In Jewish society, if you followed the rules you were an insider. If you did not follow the rules, you were an outsider. By healing on the Sabbath, Jesus is challenging the whose social order. When someone had a disability, they were seen as unclean, as an outsider. After being healed this person would be welcomed back into the community. Jesus, on the other hand, places himself on the outside by healing on the Sabbath. It raises questions—yet again—about who is in and who is out. It raises questions about the role of the law and whether there are times when it is appropriate to break the rules or break the law.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian born in 1906. (For a good biography of Bonhoeffer check out: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy Paperback by Eric Metaxas.) Bonhoeffer was a young man as Hitler and the Nazi regime rose to power. He was a pacifist and an outspoken critic of Hitler. His pacifism was grounded in his faith and in his belief that Christianity could not just be an intellectual belief but must be lived. His faith led him to resist the Nazi regime. He watched holocaust happen. He watched the Nazi invasion through Europe and struggled with what to do. His faith told him that to use violence to resist violence was wrong but he could not stand by and watch these events unfold. His non-violence resistance seemed to be losing ground so  he and some other religious leaders became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Even someone who took their faith seriously and knew the rules, struggled with how to respond. To stand by and watch was wrong but to kill was also wrong. Which of these is the lesser of two evils?

 

Most of us will not be faced with this type of extreme situation but we do have situations in our lives where we need to decide whether rules should be kept or broken. Throughout history, and depending upon culture, the rules change. At one time, women were required to wear hats to church. And we no longer have that standard. At one time, it was standard for men to wear hats to church but now people are offended by men wearing hats in church. Sometimes rules around appropriate dress can prevent people from feeling welcome if they don’t know the rules or are unable to fulfill those rules for some reason.  Rules do play a useful part in ordering our lives and structuring our culture but rules for the sake of rule are sometimes destructive.The rules change and what we know of the rules—whether it is about the Sabbath or appropriate clothing or proper behaviour—always needs to be questioned in terms of whether something brings life or destroys life. Does it help people to be faithful or is it a barrier to being faithful?

What rules might God be calling you to reconsider?

Amen.

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