Year C, Pentecost 14
If you were here last week and recall the Gospel reading, you will know that this is our 2nd week in a row of Jesus calling the religious leaders hypocrites. It is easy to villainize the Jewish religious leaders—the Pharisees. That has been done for millennia and unfortunately has led to considerable anti-Jewish sentiment. I am not sure that it is fair to beat up on the Pharisees. I will admit that as a religious leader, I take it a tad personally. I cringe a little every time I hear Jesus call someone out for being a hypocrite. That is what he is doing…he is calling them out—in front of everyone.
This was the Jewish Sabbath at the local synagogue. Everyone in the town was present. While Jesus had no official standing in the community that we know of, he must have been fairly well respected as he was allowed to teach in the synagogue on the Sabbath. While he had a certain amount of authority, he was still expected to follow the laws of the Jewish faith. These laws were essential to the faith. No matter how great a teacher, preacher or healer he was…he still had to follow the laws. One of the really important laws was that you did not work on the Sabbath. That wasn’t just any rule or law–that was a commandment.
When we hear the word Sabbath, we think of going to church, relaxing a little, maybe having a lazy day at home. That does not mean that we do any of those things, but we assume that is the goal. When God told us to rest on the 7th day, surely that is what he had in mind…binge watching Netflix all day. Not quite.
One of the reasons that the fourth commandment mandated that people keep the Sabbath was to recognize that the Hebrew people were no longer slaves and thus no longer forced to work every day. Moses delivered the 10 Commandments after the exodus. The Hebrew people were released from bondage and free to rest. God was demanding not only that the people who were listening rest from their labor, but that they make sure that their servants don’t work. It’s a justice issue. The nice thing about the Blue laws (where businesses were closed on Sundays) was not just that church attendance was higher but that these forced closures allowed everyone to have a day off…everyone.
That might explain why the Pharisee was a little upset. He was not against someone being healed. There were 6 other days that Jesus could have healed this woman. Why did Jesus have to do it on the one day he was not supposed to? Now you might think there should be some wiggle room in the commandments, especially given this particular situation.
There was. That was why Jesus called the leader a hypocrite. He was reminding the Pharisee that they already did work on the Sabbath when they untied their oxen and led them to the manger for water. You would not deny your animal water just because that would cause some work. Why then would you withhold healing from someone who so desperately needed it? The Pharisee was a hypocrite because he was making an exception for a purpose that made his life easier, but refusing to make an exception for another person whose life was exceptionally hard.
The Pharisee seems unreasonable, but I bet we all have little rules in our life that we don’t break. Some of them are really important rules that have important reasons. Some of them were important once, but are no longer relevant. Yet we follow them because it is habit. Think about your rules. It might be that you always make your bed, or you always wear a jacket and a tie to church, or you always wash your face at night. You could skip a day and it would not kill you. But what I always worry about is the slippery slope. Once you break the rule once, there is a good chance you will break it again. Then it is no longer a rule, it’s a recommendation and recommendations are very easy to ignore.
I believe this is what the Pharisee was worried about. He was worried that we would start making so many exceptions that the commandment would no longer be relevant. People would forget what the purpose of it was—that it was not just about rest, it was about justice. That is exactly what happened. The Sabbath is now a quaint memory.
That’s why I feel for the Pharisee. I can see that slippery slope all over the place and it scares me. I see Jesus’ point as well. We have tons of rules in the church. Most of them have really good reasons behind them. Some of them were originally based on practical needs but those needs changed and we kept the rules because they became tradition. Do you know why some churches have rails around the altar? Hundreds of years ago, there would be dogs that would wander through the church. The rail kept out the dogs. Now the rail gives us a place to kneel so that we can be in community around the altar. Having this rail has become a rule for us. People would be in an uproar if we took it out. The rail is one of our unwritten rules.
But we also have lots of written rules in the church. We call them canon law. We have rules in the Book of Common Prayer. They are called rubrics. Do you know why we finish the wine at the end of the service instead of pouring the dregs in the bushes? Page 409 of the prayer book tells us that the sacrament must be reverently consumed by the clergy and communicants. That makes sense to me because it’s a sacrament. It’s the body and blood of Christ. Yet there are some rules that do not make sense to me and sometimes I wonder why we keep doing them…why it all matters. On the one hand I see that slippery slope that the Pharisee was worried about. On the other I hear Jesus calling me a hypocrite.
Why does all this matter? Often times, rules (whether they are written or not) cause us to exclude people and things. They give us excuses not to change, not to take risks. They keep us isolated. There was once a church rule that African Americans could not sit in the same pews as a white person. That’s not in the Bible. It was a rule created by people. You might think, ok, well that seems like a good way to judge, we’ll follow the rules in the Bible. There was a long standing church law that women could not be ordained. That rule came from a Bible passage. It’s tricky isn’t it?
However, I do believe that there are guides to help us interpret the laws of our church. Holy Scripture provides an awesome guide. If we read it literally, we will find a lot of rules. If we read it in community with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we will find the same rules but we will discover ways to determine what is and what is not truly critical to our faith.
The most important guide is Jesus. Some people like to portray Jesus as this big rule breaker who thumbed his nose at authority. He didn’t break the rules; he reinterpreted them. Thankfully he provided some divine guidance while he was still on earth. When someone asked him what the most important commandment was, he responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” He interpreted everything through a lens of love. He healed the woman because he had compassion for her. He could not let her go one more day in agony…not one more day. That was what the Pharisee failed to see. For him, the laws became more important than the people they were created for.
It is vital that we as a church look at our written and unwritten rules and traditions. We look at them through a lens of love for God and our neighbor. If we open ourselves up to that exercise of seeing things through a lens of love, our church will become more open, loving, and authentic. Because when Jesus calls out the hypocrites. I don’t want to be the one he is looking at.