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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Expandable hearts in a rigid world

6-8"There is far more at stake here than religion. If you had any idea what this Scripture meant—'I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual'—you wouldn't be nitpicking like this. The Son of Man is no lackey to the Sabbath; he's in charge."
(Matthew 12:6-8)

One day, Jesus and his disciples are walking to their next destination.  They find themselves in the midst of a field of grain.  They are hungry from their journey and reach out to take some of the grain as a little snack to get them through.  What they do is forbidden - not because this was not their field to harvest, but because it was the Sabbath.  To the Jew, this was a day of rest - commanded by God many years prior to be kept holy; a day when men cease from work and pay attention to God.  

Their simple actions of removing grain from the stalks, and rubbing them between their hands to remove the outer "husks" of the grain, was the issue - not that they were hungry, not their source of food, etc.  It was the action of 'conducting work' on the day dedicated to not doing any work.  The Sabbath had become a day full of ritual observances, but it lacked the reality of seeking God, of truly enjoying his presence.  The Pharisees are livid with Jesus and his disciples - they are not honoring the traditions of the Jews.  Their encounter of Jesus and his disciples is less than welcoming - they immediately confront Jesus with an accusation:  "Your disciples are breaking the Sabbath rules!"

I almost imagine Jesus at this point taking a deep breath, holding back the desire to roll his eyes and shake his head in disappointment at their lack of understanding about what the Sabbath was to be to the one who serves God.  There are probably times when we receive a response from Jesus that is "tempered" with his grace when what we really deserve is a good "chewing out" for our lack of belief, limited understanding in the face of revelation, etc.  His response is direct and to the point.  

"There is far more at stake here than religion."  This is the key to this passage.  Jesus is pointing out that the "religion" of the Jewish leaders had not produced what God would honor.  They were hung up on the keeping of rules, while God was looking for obedient and submissive hearts.  To so many, religion is a set of "do's" and "don'ts" - keeping many in a place where they don't really want anything to do with "religion".  I think that was what Jesus was most concerned about that day when he responded as he did.  He knew that the religion of rule-keeping was driving men further from God, not drawing them near.

"I prefer a flexible heart rather than an inflexible ritual."  Plain and simple - Jesus focuses on the condition of the heart, not on all the good intentions, the innumerable times they had done "good stuff".  He looks at the "pliability" of their heart - in other words, the responsiveness of their heart to the voice or leading of God's Spirit.  The one thing that gains the attention of God more than anything else is the flexibility of our heart.  If we are rigid in the keeping of rules with the idea that the rule-keeping will somehow get us the notice we desire from God, this does not move his heart.  It is quite plain - the openness of our heart is what God notices. 

Rules are fine - that is not the issue.  We spend lots of time developing the rules - far less time evaluating the heart that struggles with the keeping of those rules.  Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath - he is the "point" of the Sabbath.  It is not the rules, the religious rituals, or the day of the week.  The Sabbath was always known as being a day of rest.  He is the one who provides perfect rest to our souls - the ceasing from all the things that distract us from living for him and the drawing of us into the nearness of his presence.

A flexible heart is one that is capable of being "molded" without being completely destroyed in the process - one that is willing to be modified for the use of the one who is doing the "molding".  The desire Jesus has for his disciples is that they be "pliable" in his hands - yielded to his leading, open to his voice, hungry for more of him.  When he finds that kind of heart, he takes delight in making that one into his image.  The person who is rigid in belief, unyielding in the "rules", finds themselves struggling with the "change of heart" that Jesus may be after.  

If we can learn anything from this exchange with the Pharisees it is this:  We need to be flexible.  That which is flexible is expandable.  Jesus is looking for "expandable" hearts - because he desires to gives us more and more of his grace until it leaks out of us to all those around us!