PROPER 16, C
Today’s Gospel story presents a clear example of the tension that exists between following the rules and compassion. It’s a dilemma that arises very frequently in the life of the church, but also in other parts of life.
Jesus is teaching one Sunday in the Synagogue, when a woman arrives who is severely bent over. When he sees her, he has compassion for her, so he heals her, and she praises God. The leader of the Synagogue is outraged because it is against the rules to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus is equally outraged by the lack of compassion implicit in asking the woman to wait. Isn’t 18 years long enough to suffer such indignity?
Well, you may say, what’s a few more hours after 18 years? Clearly there’s an argument to be made on both sides of this. After all, rules are important. What would life be without them?
It’s rules that allow people to live together in peace, like the 10 Commandments. It’s rules that prevent accidents and illness, like traffic laws and the FDA. It’s rules that teach us our own cultural norms, like “nice girls don’t do that!” or “shake hands firmly and look the other person in the eye.” All those things our families taught us.
The problems arise, when over time, rules become rigid and more important in and of themselves than the people they were created to serve. Do we look at girls from other cultures and label them “not nice” because they do do that? (whatever THAT is.) Do we complain when our young people come to church in clothes our parents would never have allowed?
As I have mentioned before, Pastor Irv commented some years ago that religion should be like a bowl that holds the spirit life and allows people to experience it. When the bowl becomes encumbered with rigid rules or traditions, it can no longer be a vessel for the holy. People end up worshiping the bowl instead of what it once held. This is idolatry.
And this also reminds me of Phyllis Tickle. She has talked about how the church has had to make great wrenching changes about every 500 years because the rules and forms of the religion have become rigid and static. We are in a period of time like that now.
Over and over again Jesus seems to be defying the rules of Judaism, which grew up for good reason, but have now become a barrier to experiencing the holy. There are a number of stories with similar content. Remember the Pharisees complaining because Jesus and his disciples picked something in the fields on the Sabbath to eat?
Jesus seems to be saying several things in these stories. One is that the rules are meant to serve people not the other way around. And they are not meant to serve the power of the establishment. And also clear in these stories is that people are more important than the rules.
The problem is in the application of what he seems to say. For instance, when a person acts like they are above the law and makes excuses whenever they are held to account, then it may be important to apply the rules! Consider a child molester or a big bank that sells fraudulent stocks. These are the people the rules are supposed to protect the rest of us from.
On the other hand, what about the rule that says a person who commits suicide cannot be buried in the church yard? The rationale is that the person was not absolved of his sin, taking his own life, before dying. Right. But can’t God do that? Who are we to condemn what God can make clean? And what provides compassion to the family of that person?
Take a more simple issue, maybe. A small child comes to the communion rail with her parent. When the priest gives Mom bread, the child holds out his hands too. We were taught that no one can have communion until they are confirmed. Certainly not if they haven’t been baptized.
As I struggled with this conflict between the rules and compassion, I thought about food and feeding, which made me thing of Thanksgiving. Do we invite friends to share Thanksgiving dinner but then tell the children they can’t eat because they aren’t old enough to understand Thanksgiving. No we don’t. They participate in the holiday and that’s how they learn what it means. At that moment I changed my mind about the rules around communion.
I know others may not agree, and certainly parents who don’t agree have the right to refuse communion for their children, just as children have a right to refuse it for themselves. I just don’t want to be denying a child who is clearly asking to participate.
I fully support the traffic laws that promote a safe flow of traffic on our streets. I don’t necessarily feel the same about all the new border restrictions. I think having to have RABC’s and Nexus cards in order to cross the lake to visit friends serves the bureaucracy, not the people. I wouldn’t mind, if I thought for one minute that it actually makes us safer. I just don’t think it does.
One of the things Jesus does is encourage people to stop behaving by rote and to think about the implications of what they do. He wants them to be mindful about what they see and do and believe. “But that’s so much work,” I whine. “Just tell me what to do.”
So think about the rules you set for your children or for yourself. When have you been willing to change those rules? Did you change them as new circumstances arose or as your children grew up? Did you change them soon enough?
We have had discussions on the team at times about the rules and when they can be, well, not so much ignored, as not applied. The key question has always been a pastoral one. When the rules force us to ignore the needs of people, we may let them slide. On the other hand there are some rules that never really slide. Murder is not OK just because it benefits a person. It’s not OK to consecrate wine and bread if you’re not a priest in this church even though someone may be in need of communion. That’s why we keep reserved sacrament in the church. However, it is OK to baptize someone in an emergency.
As in so many instances in life, the key is discernment, which requires first a certain level of mindfulness, and then the time and energy to give it careful consideration. This is difficult and so it may seem easier to just follow the rules.
This was not the way Jesus chose, and I’m afraid it isn’t the Anglican way either. We are expected to figure out which rules to follow and which to let go. Let’s try to thank God for that privilege! AMEN