Sunday, February 5, 2012

Rules Would Be Easier

Rules Would Be Easier
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 5, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 5:17 - 6:11

As you may have noticed this morning's New Testament lesson is longer than usual. It covers two chapters, and includes 34 verses. It is really five separate stories, five distinct events, but I chose to look at them as a whole because they each show Jesus dealing with his most consistent critics, the Pharisees. It is no accident that Luke presents them here in order together, because by doing so he is suggesting that he sees them as connected as well.. Working with them as a unit, therefore should give us more insight into the theme he is trying to relate. I will read each one separately, provide some minimal commentary, and then at the end work with them as a whole. The five episodes are Jesus Healing a Paralytic, Jesus Calling Levi to be a disciple, Jesus answering a question about fasting, Jesus answering a question about the Sabbath, and finally Jesus healing the man with a withered hand.
Jesus Heals a Paralytic
(Mt 9:2–8; Mk 2:1–12)
17 One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting near by (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal.  18 Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus;  19 but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd  in front of Jesus. 20 When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 24 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the one who was paralyzed—“I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.” 25 Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. 26 Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen strange things today.”

As we go through these let's take special note of what Jesus does to make the Pharisee's angry, what they say to him about it, and what his response is.
In this story Jesus shocks the Pharisees by forgiving sins. Yet they do not speak to Jesus directly, rather they seem to grumble to themselves about Jesus and his blasphemy. Jesus seems to overhear and read their displeasure, so he brilliantly paints them into a corner. You see the Pharisees are sure of two things. 1. Disease is certainly the result of sin, and 2. Only God can forgive sins. By healing him by saying, sir Your sins are forgiven, he assures the Pharisees that they will be wrong on at least one of the two counts. Either Jesus can forgive sins, or sin and disease are not connected. . . You can see why they would be angry.
Then the next, the calling of Levi. . .
Jesus Calls Levi
(Mt 9:9–13; Mk 2:13–17)
27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And he got up, left everything, and followed him.
29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

A tax collector, a sinner, a traitor to the Jewish people, and Jesus chooses him to be a follower, again the Pharisee's are appalled. This time again they do not question Jesus directly, but instead complain to the disciples. Again, though Jesus gives the answer. The Pharisees believe that Good people are the ones who deserve our care and concern, not someone who lives off the sufferings of others? That is not righteous! Jesus answers, you're right why would the righteous need to repent? Shown up again, and challenged on their deeply held beliefs, the Pharisees' anger grows.
Then the question of fasting. . .
The Question about Fasting
(Mt 9:14–17; Mk 2:18–22)
33 Then they said to him, “John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.‘ 34 Jesus said to them, “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” 36 He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’ ” 

Finally they directly confront Jesus, this time on the behavior of his disciples. You are not like us, Jesus, and you are not like John, we taught our disciples to be respectful of the laws, sacrificing in honor of God, why don't you? Jesus answers two ways, one proclaiming again the importance of himself, paralleling his earlier, forgiving of sins, and then presents to them two images of change. No one likes to be called old fashioned and out of date, so their anger grows again.
The Question about the Sabbath
(Mt 12:1–8; Mk 2:23–28)
6 One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 3 Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” 5 Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

This time Jesus is breaking a very old law, keeping the Sabbath holy is one of the Ten Commandments after all, and an important holy day since the seventh day at the very beginning of creation. Now, imagine this, he this time tells them something about history and tradition, which is their area of expertise. It would be like going up to Tom Brady this afternoon and giving him tips on how to throw a football, and as if that were not enough he proclaims himself Lord of the Sabbath. So their anger builds.
The Man with a Withered Hand
(Mt 12:9–14; Mk 3:1–6)
6 On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. 8 Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

Now as if plucking grain weren't bad enough, this time he does a healing on the Sabbath, and in the process questions their intentions about what they really care about, insinuating that they care more about the Law than people, and this is the last straw. . .  They were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
It's amazing to see, here, already, in chapter 6 the writing is on the wall that Jesus is going to have trouble with the powers that be. As a baby he posed a threat to Herod and the political powers of the time, and now here he is alienating the Religious leaders. It doesn't take long in any of the gospels, the road to the cross begins early in the story of Jesus. So many times in my life I have heard it told that the Pharisees are the villains of this story. I talked last week at how the disciples are so human, and therefore easy to relate to because of their weakness, yet their willingness to somehow go on, but no one ever thinks of relating themselves to the Pharisees. I mean the idea of the Pharisees has even become its own word, a nasty epithet, in the English Language, Pharisaism has come to mean "rigid observance of external forms of religion or conduct without genuine piety; hypocrisy." Oh we like to demonize them, but how different are they from us. . . really?
Imagine what would happen if someone came in here and did what Jesus did. Would we react any differently than these Pharisees. Jesus comes in claiming to be God, painting them in a corner, challenging their long time held laws, rituals, and observances, claims to know more about the history of their religion than they do, chooses the company of defilers, traitors, and thieves, and accuses them of being heartless, shallow, and cruel, when all they are doing is following their tradition in the best way that they know how. Much is at stake for them. They are an occupied nation, and they have been for years. Their identity as a people is tied up in their traditions. Their personal livelihood is tied up in their traditions. Their hope as a nation is tied to their traditions, and their connection to God is tied to their traditions. How would you feel to have all of that challenged? So instead of throwing them under the bus, perhaps we can find ways to see the difference between what they believed, and what Jesus was trying to show them, for our own benefit today, not because the Pharisees are so different from us, but because we are in many ways like them.
I  took out  Jesus' responses to them and put them in the bulletin as the Prayer of Preparation. Take a look at what we have going on here.
  • Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?
  • Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick;
  • You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?
  • No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment
  • The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.

These first five all get the Pharisees going, but do not really put them over the edge. It's interesting though because these are the really radical ones. In these Jesus is saying that he is in fact God incarnate. I can forgive sins, I am here to provide a chance for righteousness, even to the most despicable people among us. I am the center of this party, there is new stuff going on here, which changes the old, and O, did I mention I'm the Lord of the Sabbath, too. If Jesus is not God, these are the most blasphemous statements you have ever heard. I mean this is a culture where speaking the name of God will get you stoned, and he is claiming to be God. . . But it is not this that pushes them to their breaking point. Instead it's this last one that sends them over the edge, and maybe it's just, "the straw that broke the camel's back" but I think there is more to it, and it certainly points toward what is most important to them. Jesus says. . .
  • I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?

This is the point where they find the law as they know it and morality, not aligned, not on the same team, but set instead at odds. This is where the Pharisees get their bad name, as being hypocrites. This is the exact situation that my friend's facebook post pointed to from my sermon two weeks ago. Remember it said, "Morality is doing right regardless of what you are told, Religion is doing what you are told regardless of what is right." Here we are, the law says leave off from healing the hand till tomorrow, morality says heal away. Jesus heals away. . .
How can we classify the difference? Does this mean that the old laws are insufficient? How do we as religious people determine how to act if not by the law? Is being religious bad? I don't think so, necessarily, I think the problem is that living by law is too easy. Too easy you say, doesn't that run contrary to so much of what Paul, Luther, and Calvin spent their lives preaching. Not so fast. I agree with them that we are all filled, and surely filled with Sin, and therefore in dire need of Christ, I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is that living by the concept of Law is easy because Law is made up by "all you shouldn't do's", and it is really easy not to do something. I mean look at this situation it's a whole lot easier not to heal this guy's hand than to heal it. Laws are easy because you can actually finish. You can look at the checklist at the end of the day and feel satisfied with your success or failure.
Ben Franklin famously tried to perfect his moral character in this way. In his Autobiography he shows how he came up with a list of what he called virtues, but they were really just reverse laws. He would focus hard on one for a time, and mark on a column where he had transgressed each of his moral laws, hoping that he could improve on each one at a time. He found that his biggest downfall was pride because when he successfully improved in an area he felt pretty good about himself. This is what he wrote:
"In reality there is perhaps no one of our natural Passions so hard to subdue as Pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as  much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself. You will see it perhaps in this History. For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my Humility.”"

This seems to be what the Pharisees in this story have against them. They have been so successful at preaching, teaching, and following these laws, that they feel pretty great about what they have done, and they've done great things. The Pharisees of Jesus' time were reformers, and were responsible for much improvement in the Jewish landscape, but here faced with their status being questioned, they cannot look beyond what they know they know. Laws, and successfully following the law becomes about them, not about God, which could be why what they saw as Jesus' blasphemy did not anger them quite as much, as his challenge to their personal "goodness and righteousness," as he does by suggesting that following the law would be doing harm and choosing death.  
Let's look instead at what Jesus seems to be teaching. Forgiveness, even to the point of associating closely with those whom you forgive, rejoicing in fellowship with a real and present God, a present God who brings newness that stands out from the old, new understandings of law, new understandings of rest, doing good rather than just not doing evil. It all points to some new understanding of commandment. . . again as it does so often in the New Testament, in the life of Jesus, it comes back to Love. Love God, and Love your Neighbor.
Not breaking laws is easy compared to living by love. Living by Love is hard, nigh impossible apart from the grace of God because love is really never done. When in love does the word enough exist? It doesn't. . . Enough is not in love's vocabulary. Neither is done, finished, even death. Love does not ever end. Law lets you look at yourself each day, checking  your status, checking off your checklist. Love requires you to look outside of yourself, to the other. Love is harder because though there is only one you, there are tons of others whom you can give love. Maybe you could say that following the 200+ laws of the Old Testament would be difficult. It would be difficult to keep track of them all for sure. It would certainly be a long checklist to fill out every night, or on each Sabbath, or at each Year of Jubilee, or even to be held to account to at the final Judgment day, but all of that time would be time spent accounting for yourself, caring for yourself, making sure that you are squared away, but Jesus forgives us, grants us grace, and instead commands us simply to love. . . Would we prefer the rules?  Do we make new rules to prefer?
I said earlier that the Pharisees were upset to have their traditions challenged because their tradition was the source of their identity, their calling, their connection to God, and their hope. They couldn't see that a new identity was being established, an new calling was being spoken, a new and greater connection to God was being formed and a new hope was being offered. Do we see that new possibility? The identity, calling, and hope, by following, knowing, and experience a God who is love, loves us, and commands us to love.
I'll leave  you with this thought. A friend of mine was looking at the possibility of moving her family to Saudi Arabia because her husband had a great business opportunity. They would be gone for a couple years, and would make the kind of money that would set them up for the rest of their lives. Now there were many reasons not to do it, and to be honest I didn't think it was a good idea overall, but part of their thinking against it I didn't see. They knew for a fact that they would not be able, in their words "to be Christian there." Bibles, crosses, praying, anything that had to do with Jesus they could not have while there.. They didn't think that they could be a Christian without those things. What is interesting to think about, is that they would pretty much be in the same situation as the 1st Century Pharisees, in a land that does not support their faith, and in fact is challenging them at every turn. Another way of saying it is that their identity as Christians, their hope for the future, and their connection to God were based on those things. I remember saying to them that you can be a Christian anywhere because you can love anywhere. It is interesting to think, that if our identity is based on our traditions, perhaps my other friend's facebook post is more accurate than I'd care to believe, you know the one about Morality versus Religion. Perhaps we are more Pharisaical than we'd like to think. Let's think hard: What gives us our identity, hope, calling, and connection to God? Is it our traditions or is it our love? The famous song says: "They will know we are Christians by our Love, by our Love, they will know we are Christians by our love. . ." Please God. . . may we live up to that distinction.