Luke 12: 10-17
Rules rules rules. Life is filled with them and I can remember being the kind of young person that was quite gifted at getting around them and certainly never hesitant to challenge them when they didn’t make sense to me. But more often than not the rules were there to help me and to preserve order in general. That’s a hard concept to relate to a young person because it often seems like just something that restricts their freedom and ability to make decisions for themselves.
As we grow older we encounter a slightly different problem. Some of us cling to the rules as codes for living and look to them as a kind of guarantee policy that will make our lives and world work. I know this sounds like being on board with the idea that rules are there for our well-being and to save us from chaos but often that’s not really it. Sometimes it’s a desperate idol that we blindly cling to in order to feel secure in a world that is truthfully, random and unpredictable.
Today’s Gospel reading at first sounded like a story about Jesus giving us permission to buck the rules when they don’t make sense to us and believe me, I was more than ready to preach on that! But it’s actually more complicated than that. It’s about the messy business of discerning when the law of conduct must bend to the law of Love.
Let’s take a look at the story.
Jesus goes into the synagogue, as he’d done before, and sits down to teach the people. Now while there, in walks a woman who has been bent over for 18 years. She’s not there to be healed. She is one of the faithful and is there to worship, but Jesus sees her and calls her over. Can you imagine her surprise when Jesus tells her that she is free from her ailment, lays his hands on her, and suddenly for the first time in 18 years, she can painlessly stand up straight? What other response could there possibly be but gratitude and praise to God for such a miracle?
I feel quite certain that at no point did she think, “Uh oh, maybe that shouldn’t have happened because it’s the Sabbath.” But there was someone who did, the synagogue leader. At first I imagined him as this hysterical little man running around yelling, “Stop, stop. You’re not allowed to do that today. Stop I tell you!”
Then later I read a commentary that gave a different perspective. It said that the leader was in fact correct in his reading of the Law—that you were not supposed to do work on the Sabbath—and that he probably was well intentioned. After all, once you transgress one law it is a slippery slope into disregarding them all. At least that is what many people think. This may seem legalistic to our modern ears but consider where this law came from.
It was part of the 10 commandments given to Moses for the Israelites after leading them out of slavery from Egypt. They had been slaves doing hard labor for over 400 years and we can be pretty sure a day off and consideration for their well being was not part of that equation. It never is in the case of bondage.
So the law to keep the Sabbath was a welcome gift of grace to them. It not only gave them permission to take a day of rest and renewal but required them to do so as a reflection of God’s love and compassion for them. This was not a restriction of their freedom, it was good news that said they must rest.
The modern person doesn’t seem to take the Sabbath very seriously. Granted, most of us have never been slaves completely without autonomy but many of us do know what it is to work long hours or more than one job to make ends meet. We also often don’t recognize the tyranny of technology in our lives. We are tethered to our phones, texts, and emails pretty much twenty-four seven. It’s a real challenge to disconnect in our world and let ourselves rest and be renewed.
But even if the modern person is somewhat lax about keeping the Sabbath the modern person does have rules that matter just as much as this law mattered to the synagogue leader. One list I read included such things as the importance of eating organic food, being strict about our children’s bedtime, of not taking calls on our day off, and not singing Christmas carols in Advent. (That last one is a particular favorite of the clergy.) But seriously, we do feel pretty strongly that things should be a certain way. They may be our version of what we perceive as natural laws or laws that reflect our personal codes. Look at the passion involved in discussions around gender roles and sexual orientation, and I can tell you that when someone breaks my personal rule about considering others, I can get just as strident in my objections as the synagogue leader did.
So when Jesus takes this man to task, is it because he suddenly thinks the law is unimportant? No, that’s not it. That would be to contradict his statement that he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them. (Matt 5:17)
What he is saying is there are times when the law must bow to mercy, to life, to freedom. As my favorite commentator wrote: Law helps us live our lives, but grace creates life. Grace invites us to value the law because it is a reflection of God’s care for our well-being and creates the criteria for justice. Grace also says that there are times to suspend the law out of mercy, love, and compassion. The Law will never have the last word. The only truly absolute law is the law of Love. Love God and love your neighbor.
There will be many times in our lives when we have to discern whether to keep the rules or bend them in order to free another person from their bondage.
Just quickly, I want to share a story that has had a lasting impact on me. A friend of mine grew up in a family that all lived under the same roof. They were very devout and faithful people and there was a rift in their church over allowing the leadership of women. The church was divided and one of the leaders sent out a strident letter to every single member of the church proclaiming why it was Biblically and morally wrong. That meant that every member in the family got a copy of that letter and so they all had read it. At table one night, they noticed that the grandfather was reading the letter and they wondered how he was going to react. He finished reading it, folded it back up and said, “There’s no love in this. I’m done.”
I think that’s how we discern when to tow the line and when to bend the rules. It’s all about whether love or an expression of love is the end goal. We aren’t always going to get it right and there are no guarantees, but I have long held the view that it is better to err on the side of love than judgment, and the one thing we can count on is that God will never stop loving us, even if we make a mistake.
In life we will be asked to make many decisions. We may be asked to draw a moral or ethical line in the sand. Let us resolve to be a people that honor the law and are committed to its purpose—love in all its forms and expressions. Amen.