Ancient laws vs. God’s justice: who wins?

On this Sunday, we grapple with the difference between the call for justice Jesus makes again and again on the one hand and the ancient purity code found in parts of Jewish scripture which we incorporated into the Christian Bible on the other hand.

This conflict arises early in today’s pivotal Gospel Story. Jesus is walking on the Sabbath and his disciples are grabbing ripened wheat and eating it. Why? Because they are hungry. They are not rich men, they are working men who have walked away from their trade and their income to follow Jesus. They can’t afford to buy food.

A Pharisee sees this and calls out Jesus: “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” Pharisees were a group within first-century Judaism who believed that upholding Jewish law was the paramount responsibility of an observant Jew.

You might see a similarity here between the Pharisees and today’s evangelical or fundamentalist preachers, the ones who demand that everybody else live by the purity code they see in Jewish Scripture.

And that reflects the basic conflict in this Gospel story. It is a struggle between the Good News of Jesus and the ‘follow the law’ approach of the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. And it is a preview of the struggle we face today between the Jesus Movement typified by our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and conservatives who demand we all obey their understanding of God’s law.

Purity codes found in Jewish scripture form the basis of their version of God’s law. We have many problems with their attempt to force all Americans to live by a conservative view, even one which is supposedly based on ‘Biblical truth.’

One big problem with Pharisees of the 1st and 21st-century centers on how easy it is to mix things up and think upholding a law is how God wants us to live. If we’re not careful, abiding by religious laws becomes the end rather than a means to the end of living as God wants us to live. God doesn’t call us to abide by a literal reading of ancient purity codes. And in today’s Gospel teaching, Jesus tells us clearly that living by “the law” is not what God calls us to do.

For centuries, human beings have thought that if only they made a perfect law then everyone would live a perfect life and God would be pleased. Thing is, the drive to achieve a perfect law can – after a few centuries – lead to a complex and confusing set or legal requirements. If you how many laws were given to the Jews, a knowledgeable scholar would reply that tradition holds there are 613 different laws or things Jews are supposed to do or to avoid.

How could anyone follow 613 different – and sometimes conflicting – rules? They can’t – and perhaps that is why ancient and modern Pharisees arise. Often self-appointed, these Pharisees take it on themselves to correct everyone else. No error or omission is to minor to escape their eagle eye. They live to find fault and to correct. And sometimes, if the Pharisee is an evangelical preacher, they go on and on as they pronounce their judgement(s).

But what about Jesus? How does he handle his first century Pharisee?

First Jesus schools the Pharisee, ‘reminding’ him of when David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food so they eat the bread which “is not lawful for any but the priests to eat.” If David could do that to feed his companions, Jesus implies, why can’t Jesus allow his companions to harvest and eat wheat on the Sabbath? Feeding hungry people, he suggests, trumps observing empty religious laws.

Then Jesus says: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” Here Jesus is saying ‘the law was made for humans to use as a tool for living an abundant life, but the law is not the end in and of itself.’ The law is the means, not the end, a process, not the final result, a roadmap for our spiritual pilgrimage through life but not the pilgrimage itself.

Then, to hammer this point home, the Gospel attributed to Mark continues with the story of healing a man in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were again waiting to see if Jesus would break their view of the law and heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Once again, Jesus turns the tables on them.

“Then [Jesus] said to [the Pharisees],” the gospel states, “‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent.”

Facing down their silence, Jesus “looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart” and heals the man with a withered hand. And, the Gospel says, “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

So from this story, it seems clear that given a choice between observing the letter of the law and acting with compassion, Jesus repeatedly chooses to act with love.

Jesus acted with love. We must remember that on this the first Sunday of Pride month in San Francisco. Because there are still people out there who claim to be Christians but don’t act with love towards LGBTQ people. There are still parents out there who – in the name of following a religious purity code – cast out their LGBTQ children, condemning them to a harsh life on the streets. There are still preachers out there who – in the name of following a religious purity code – cast LGBTQ people out of their congregations.

There are still people out there who – in the name of following a religious purity code – seek to force LGBTQ people into a second-class closet of fear and loathing.

So many LGBTQ people in our city – and the neighborhood where each of us lives – believe that Jesus hates them, condemns them, wishes they were put to death. And we, as our part of the Jesus Movement, need to live our lives in ways that say we choose love and not judgement, love and not condemnation, love and not a fundamentalist version of a pseudo-Christian form of ‘Sharia law.’

How are we to live? Who are we to love?

Jesus tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our might and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our liberal neighbor and our conservative neighbor. Our black neighbor and our white neighbor.

Our lesbian neighbor, our straight neighbor, our bisexual neighbor, our questioning neighbor, our queer neighbor, our gay neighbor and most of all, our transgender neighbor. Our Asian neighbor and our Native American neighbor. Our rich neighbor and our poor neighbor. Jesus calls us to love God and our neighbor. That’s the law that Jesus calls us to follow.

And that’s hard: sometimes people who aren’t like us are not easy to love. And that’s hard because it feels risky and scary. And that’s hard because it is open-ended and leaves us to each figure out how to apply this law to our own lives.

It would be so much easier if we had a set of rules we could just follow and be sure we’d be a good Christian. That would be easier, less scary, less of a risk of making a mistake, of getting something wrong. But Jesus calls us to walk away from the rulebook and follow his spiritual path of abundant love and abundant life.

And that works: it is transformational. If it didn’t change people and their lives in fundamentally good ways, the words and teaching of Jesus would never have survived to this day.

After almost 2000 years we are still fighting with Pharisees who wish to force their religious belief on others. But this time is different: this time you and I are here, and we have a chance to transform ourselves and our world if we follow Jesus the Christ by loving God and our neighbor. May the God who gives us grace to see the way forward help us to have the will to do the good works set before us.

Let us pray

Lord of the Sabbath, lawgiver and outlaw,

you lift the burdens from our shoulders.

You entrust your treasure to our clay.

Sabbath in us a rest —

joyful as tambourines,

nourishing as bread,

and available to all people, rich and poor —

so that withered bodies and spirits can be restored.

May the Church say: Amen


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