“Jesus Breaks the Rules”

Pentecost 14

August 21, 2016


Text:  Luke 13:10-17


    There were a number of times over the course of his ministry that Jesus incurred the wrath of the religious leaders of his time because he broke the rules.  Today’s Gospel lesson tells of one of those times.

    It was the Sabbath, and Jesus was in a synagogue, teaching.  While he was doing so, he noticed a woman present who was bent over and couldn’t stand up straight.  She had been in that condition for 18 years.  Jesus called her to come over to him, and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your sickness.”  He then placed his hands on her, and at once she stood up straight and began praising God.

    Immediately the synagogue leader began to object.  Notice that he doesn’t confront Jesus head-on.  Instead he starts griping at the woman:  “There are six days when work is permitted.  Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”  He blamed the woman for what Jesus did to her!  That’s really not much different than blaming a woman for being sexually assaulted rather than blaming the man committing the assault.  And that still happens far too often.

    Jesus responded to the synagogue leader very sharply:  “Hypocrites!  Don’t you all untie your beasts of burden on the Sabbath and lead them out to get a drink?  So isn’t it necessary that this daughter of Abraham who has been bound by Satan for 18 years should be untied and released from her bondage on the Sabbath day?”  Jesus highlighted the inconsistencies in the thinking of the religious leaders of the time.  It could easily be argued that teaching in the synagogue was work.  But that was permitted on the Sabbath because it is God’s work.  And taking care of your livestock was considered God’s work because it was necessary to their well-being.  Yet the rules also said healing was not appropriate on the Sabbath.  Apparently the religious authorities did not think that was God’s work.  Jesus begged to differ.

    Sometimes Jesus broke the rules.  The times he did so were times when he found it necessary to do so in order to improve the wellbeing of another person.  So he healed on the Sabbath, allowed his disciples to pick grain so they could eat on the Sabbath, touched and healed people who were considered ritually unclean (such as lepers), talked and ate with people who were considered undeserving (such as Gentiles, Samaritans, tax collectors, and other “sinners”), and talked with women about God in public--all things that the religious leaders of Jesus’ time and place said were against the rules.  All of these rules came from their interpretation of the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets and writings--what we know as the Old Testament.  Yet there were situations when Jesus found it necessary to break these rules because he saw people as more important.

    I find that in our world we have rather a curious relationship with rules.  On the one hand I observe that most people think rules are a good thing that are necessary for society to function well and people to get along with each other.  But I also notice that people often seem to want the rules to apply with full force to other people, but when it comes to themselves they often whine and complain fiercely when they have to deal with the consequences of failing to comply with the rules.  I find it is very tempting to want an exception to be made for me, and when no exception is made, to howl loudly about how unfair it is.  And I know I am not alone in this.  This is because our usual motive for breaking the rules is to gain an advantage for ourselves.  We break the speed limit so we can get where we are going more quickly.  People cheat on their taxes because they want to keep more of their own money.  Students cheat on tests because they want a better grade.  And they want these things badly enough that they are willing to risk getting caught.

I notice that when Jesus broke rules, he never did it for his own benefit.  He always did it to bring healing and wholeness to someone else’s life.  And unlike the cheaters described above, Jesus did not break the rules on the sly.  He broke them boldly, in plain sight of the authorities who enforced the rules, and when challenged on what he had done, defended his actions by appealing to the higher authority of God.  And he accepted the punishment--surely at least part of the reason Jesus ended up being crucified was his numerous violations of the rules the religious leaders enforced.

This topic is very pertinent at the present time because it is directly connected to the conflict in our denomination around how to understand the Bible on the subject of homosexuality.  (I recognize some of us don’t like this subject being discussed in worship, but if worship has to do with every aspect of our lives, it seems to me we cannot ignore this subject even though we may feel uncomfortable.  In fact, I’m not feeling very comfortable myself right now.)  Currently the rules in our Book of Discipline say that the United Methodist Church regards homosexual persons as being of sacred worth, but does not condone homosexuality as a Christian lifestyle.  It also forbids our clergy from officiating at same sex weddings and prohibits “avowed, practicing homosexuals” from serving as clergy.

There is a growing movement in the church, especially in some parts of the United States, to change these policies.  Those who are in support of this movement believe that the witness of Scripture on the subject is not as clear cut or as condemnatory as others claim, and further that the rules as they now stand do not contribute to the wellbeing of LGBTQI+ people, but instead cause considerable harm by refusing to let them be the people God created them to be, refusing to validate their loving relationships, and rejecting the gifts they bring for ministry.

Those who agree with the current rules insist that the rules as they now stand must be kept until General Conference sees fit to change them.  The basic argument I hear from these people is “when you became a pastor, you agreed to uphold the Book of Discipline.  You just can’t go violating these rules willy nilly just because you don’t happen to like some of them.  If you think they need to be changed, follow the process.”

Those who are seeking change point out that they have been trying to follow the process to change the rules since 1972, but the church has refused to listen--if anything, the church has over time made the rules even stricter.  As a result, there have been several instances in the past few years where clergy have chosen to break the rules (and been willing to face the consequences) and been brought up on charges either for being “avowed practicing homosexuals” once they came out of the closet, or for officiating at a same sex wedding.  In addition, we now have a few Annual Conferences saying they will not follow the rules forbidding LGBTQI+ persons from being clergy, and the Western Jurisdiction has now elected a married lesbian as a Bishop.  I believe these persons would say they are acting in the spirit of Jesus, who broke the rules when they got in the way of doing what is best for people.

Although I would like to see a change in the rules to at least allow clergy and churches more flexibility in following their conscience around this issue, I also understand that recent events have had the effect of driving the denomination to the brink of division, and I find that scary.  The Council of Bishops is in the process of appointing a commission to try to come up with a “way forward” to help us move past this impasse to be presented to a special General Conference in 2018.  Please pray for that Commission.  They have a difficult task, to say the least.

One of the complications, I find, when it comes to breaking the rules is that my motives are not as pure as those of Jesus.  I find that my own self-interest can get involved in ways that prove not to be helpful.  Knowing that about myself, I also find myself skeptical about the motives of others in those situations.  I hope they are indeed acting in the best interests of others in those situations.  But I know that might not be the case.

There may indeed be situations where you or I may need to break the rules.  But if so, we need to be sure we are doing so not out of self-interest, but for the sake of making life better for others when the rules prevent that from happening.  We need to be sure our motives are pure and Christlike.  Let us pray for wisdom to make the right choices as we encounter these situations in our daily lives.  Amen.

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