Today’s message reveals a poignant lesson, one from Jesus’ preaching in a synagogue. An afflicted woman arrived during Jesus’ visit and disturbed the order of service. Jesus had compassion, and he immediately proclaimed the healing power of God’s love. End of story, right? Not so! One of the synagogue leaders became indignant at the healing. This zealous critic denounced what he considered to be work on the Sabbath. What a bitter irony. This legalistic moron condemned a healing just because it may have technically violated the Sabbath. Fans of law-based religion do this all the time when they elevate narrow interpretations over love.
There was an Old Testament prohibition against working on the Sabbath, but the problem is how a person defines work. Only on the surface, the synagogue leader’s opinion may have been correct. A strict reading of the religious law might lead to the conclusion that doing much of anything on the Sabbath other than sleeping or sitting with your hands folded is forbidden (depending on how crazy-rigid are the standards). Jesus destroyed the leader’s version of the law by citing the man’s hypocrisy. Jesus rightly called out the synagogue leader’s reasoning as nothing more than a ruse, a cover-up intended to mask the spiritual poverty of a weak, hypocritical mind.
How did Jesus win the argument? Jesus gave an example of “work” on the Sabbath. He cited how people regularly untie an animal (such as a donkey) and lead it to drink water. In working with an animal even for drink, a person could be guilty of breaking the Sabbath. Because of the monetary value of animals, people were less likely to question such tasks even if it required Sabbath-breaking. How much more should Jesus be free to heal someone than to tend to a donkey. Jesus brilliantly emphasized how any rule-based religion is doomed by its own inherent contradictions. The conclusion is that the synagogue leader was a hypocrite.
Our task involves opening our hearts and minds to the inconsistencies within our own system of doing things. What might we be doing wrong but that we refuse to notice? The hypocrisy Jesus exposed was such that the synagogue leader was upset with healing a sick woman whereas common practice was to take care of animals without question. Jesus’ elegant, simple logic exposed the peril of the synagogue leader’s soul. The synagogue leader was more concerned with doing things decently and in order than with doing the right thing. After all, a human is more valuable than any property, and any act of healing a person—Sabbath or not—should never be hindered.
When you examine history and the way many religious organizations are administered you’ll find the same problem as with that synagogue leader. It is as if there is a fatal thinking inherent within many forms of formal, institutionalized religion. The act of orchestrating and administrating a faith tradition risks a diminished spirituality. Sure, we can defend certain policies, processes and procedures, yet none are substitutes for spontaneous acts of “disorderly” love. We must take care that we don’t elevate religious officiousness and judicial reasoning over doing the right thing. Religion is supposed to serve us; we are not supposed to serve religion. It’s amazing that so many people twist this truth and become slaves to religion. Spirituality sets us free from faulty faith.
There’s no doubt that life is messy, and we can’t always get it right. Life’s tough. There are sick people, thirsty donkeys, goodness knows what else in the complexities and convolutions of life. The gist is that we must remain flexible and allow exceptions to supposedly timeless traditions and religious rules. We can become experts at religion and yet fail at faith. We must continually ask ourselves who and what are we serving. God heals us despite the cries of critics, Sabbath or not. Are we ready to receive God’s blessings at any time and in any place?