Tuesday, December 18, 2018

More than bending over backwards

I think we shall always be among those who don't approve of what we say, what we do, the way we dress, or what we take joy in discovering. The world is full of people who think they know best, not really knowing much more on the subject than we do, but they think they do. There also all of those in this world who find fault in what we do, but all the while they are secretly admitting they want to do the same thing, or probably are! One day, Jesus and his disciples are walking to their next destination. They find themselves in the midst of a field of grain. Hungry from their journey, they 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. A day in which there was absolutely NO flexibility for these Jewish 'law' followers - the 'letter of the Law' must be followed.

"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)

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 this specific source of food, and not even their desire to be satisfied. 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 were livid with Jesus and his disciples - they were not honoring the traditions of the Jews and this just wouldn't do. Their encounter of Jesus and his disciples was less than welcoming - they immediately confronted Jesus with an accusation: "Your disciples are breaking the Sabbath rules!" Not that they recognized their need for food, but that they weren't keeping all the 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, or our silly belief some 'set of rules' will get us somewhere in life. His response is direct and to the point. "There is far more at stake here than religion." This is the key we must see in what he says. 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 nearer.

"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 place where we cease from all the things that distract us from living for him and then we are drawn 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! Just sayin!