Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Wednesday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Hebrews 7:1-3,15-17
Psalm 110
Mark 3:1-6

REFLECTION: "Lawbreaking... starring Jesus and the Pharisees"

Jesus doesn't seem to have much luck on the Sabbath day when it comes to sharing his message with the religious types. No, I don't mean the rank and file Jewish believers who, even at this early stage of his ministry, have begun flocking to his public appearances. I mean for the religious leadership of the occupied Promised Land, and, by extension, for their relationship with the puppet regime of Herod.

Once again, Jesus, who - if you recall - was exalted in our reading last Tuesday for teaching with "real authority—quite unlike the teachers of religious law" (Mk. 1:22b) is turning ears and heads with a controversial teaching. He's just blasted the false understanding of the Sabbath plied by the Pharisees, and now he enters a synagogue and - GASP! - proceeds to do something nice for someone.

Now, we need to stop for a moment and understand a few things about Judaism in the Holy Land in Jesus' day. This isn't the place for a comprehensive overview of the subject. Let's call this a 'minute primer' on the topic.

Most lay-Jews were non-sectarian. They were Jewish, but, in our current language, they didn't affilliate with a particular 'denomination' or 'brand' of Judaism. There were, however, four significant streams of Jewish leadership active in Jesus' day. Josepheus, the Jewish historian, identifies them as the Essenes (famous for the Dead Sea Scrolls), the Pharisees and Saducees (whom we hear of often in the Gospels), and a group identified only as 'the fourth way' (which scholars today identify with one of a handful of active groups, including the Zealot party). The Essenes were generally opposed to participation in politics and seem to have been founded as a reaction to politically appointed priests in the Temple. They are never mentioned in the Gospels. The Pharisees embraced an oral tradition that was on par with the written Law, and also believed in the Resurrection of the Dead. The Saducees rejected both. Obviously, time prevents us from discussing all the possible 'fourth ways', other than to say that many of them were interested in promoting the liberation of Roman-occupied Palestine, by whatever means possible.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus seems to have landed in a Pharisee-controlled synagogue. Now remember, the Pharisees had an oral tradition that was accounted, by their party, as being on-par with the written Torah. Of all the myriad rules and regulations the Pharisees kept to preserve their ritual holiness, the Sabbath rules stood at the top. Most holy of all their laws, the Pharisees believed that Sabbath-keeping provided a righteousness that was unequaled by any other work of the written or oral law.

Of course, Scripture never really defines work for the purposes of the Sabbath observance. Some of the other laws of the Old Testament give some structure to the concept of what work means with regards to the Sabbath... but it was left to the development of the Oral Law to flesh out what Sabbath keeping meant... and, of course, when it came to Oral Law, it was the province of the Pharisees. They had the power to define (and yes, to selectively define for their purposes) what the law meant. And so, quite expediently, their definition does not agree with Jesus'... so his performance of a miracle, a healing miracle, immediately ran afoul... and they immediately ran to Herod to find a way to silence this upstart Rabbi from the Galilee.

We know from Colossians 2:14 that Jesus "canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross." Charges are only possible where a law remains in force. He destroyed the power of the Law over those who came to him in his death. But he did so as well during his earthly ministry. He was, after all, a different kind of priest... a priest, not linked with Judaism's ritual origins... but directly with the Most High God; just as Melchizedek was.

He did this with a succession of miracles, each more prominent than the last, during his ministry. Each miracle involved the healing of a sick person. In each case, Jesus could have waited till after the Sabbath. He repeatedly chose to heal disabled or chronically ill people, those who could have easily waited a few hours until sundown. The healings were both gifts from God, and overt acts performed to illustrate a point. 

Starting with healing a man in a Capernaum synagogue and culminating with giving sight to the man born blind (see John 9), Jesus systematically displayed the need to "judge not by appearances, but to judge with right judgment." He repeatedly challenged the Pharisees on the points they would consider most holy, to find out if they could somehow elevate their minds beyond their own traditions.

The cooked up boundaries of the Pharisitical sabbath meant nothing in the eyes of the God who instituted the Sabbath in creation. It had a much deeper meaning that they completely missed. And yet, it was their strongest belief... their strongest mode of sanctification in the works-based religion. So Jesus went right to their theological stronghold, and, not just once, but repeatedly, made pointed attacks against their traditions. 

Traditions can have great meaning and power. They can have deep purpose. Jesus never denies this. Just yesterday we heard the words of Jesus conveying to us that the Sabbath was instituted and intended as a blessing to us. But when the theological gobbledygook appended to a God-given institution becomes to much to bear, Jesus has no problem wiping it away in the name of the truth.

May God give us the grace to behold our own beliefs through a similar lens...  not utterly forsaking our traditions, but instead, insuring that our traditions and laws, be they ecclesiastically propagated or self-imposed, are Spirit-inspired, God-pleasing, and never found to be interfering with the purposes of our Holy God.


That Christians everywhere would be faithful to God's Word
as the ultimate rule by which their life is to be lived,
and may make right use of the Church's traditions
to further their connection with their Creator;
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.

That church leaders may carry out their responsibilities to keep doctrine and beliefs pure
with a compassionate, pastoral heart
that does not seek to burden individuals with unnecessary weights
as they seek God's loving-kindness in their lives;
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.

That individuals who feel that man-made rules have overshadowed Scriptural truth
may be given the grace to recognize the difference
between God's established standards of living and belief,
and those created by people,
so that they may discard what hinders them
and submit to what God has asked of them;
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.

That denominations and ecclesiastical jurisdictions would seek
to more fully understand one another,
and, ultimately, that they would seek unity and peace among themselves,
to the glory of God,
and to the strengthening of Christian witness in the world;
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.

That the needs and intentions we bear in our hearts today
may be touched by the merciful love of the Father,
expressed in the life and ministry of Jesus the Christ...
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.