Rules and Values

This is a sermon I preached. If you prefer to listen to it, here you go.

I just finished reading Adam Grant's Originals: How Non Conformists Move the World. In the book, Grant examined people during the Holocaust who helped Jews, versus people who did not. And what research found was that the decision to help Jews or not help Jews had a lot to do with the way people were parented.

The research showed that in order for children to internalize the rule, they needed to understand the “why” behind the rule. If the reason behind the rule is not communicated, then children do not internalize the rule.

On the other hand, children who were given an explanation and encouraged to consider the impact of their actions on others, were more likely to develop an internal compass of values.

This helps children develop a code of ethics, and when that code of ethics doesn’t aline with societal expectations, you have to be able to rely on the internal compass of values rather than the external compass of rules. 

Now, the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were strict rule followers. In fact, they created rules around the rules. I never like to vilify the Pharisees, because they weren’t necessarily evil. The Jews were living under Roman occupancy, and were not fully in control of their nation or their destiny. We see the Pharisees arise and offer a compelling narrative for fixing the problem. They believed if everyone was faithful to the Laws, then God would restore their nation. And so they created a fence around the laws, laws around the laws, in the hope that people would get in line and God would restore their nation.

When we’re looking at ways that Christians can engage the culture, this is always a popular way to go. 

The Pharisees believed if people would get in line, then God would restore their nation.

The Essenes lived out in the caves, separating themselves from the culture. They were waiting apart from the culture for God to intervene. It’s a bunker mentality. We see this today, when Christians put up walls between Christians and the culture, and attempt to hide out.

The Sadducees were wealthy priests who controlled the temple. They combined conservative religion with power politics. They rejected the laws of the Pharisees, and they pandered to whoever was in control. They believed they had to do whatever they could so long as the temple was still functioning. 

The Zealots were radical militant revolutionaries. They were devoted to the law, they were nationalists. They were ready to overthrow the empire, set and set up Jewish self-governance again. They believed in taking matters into their own hands to regain control of their nation.

So there were the Pharisees. The Essenes. The Sadducees. The Zealots. All of these groups had their own ideas about how to live under foreign occupancy. They all had their own idea about what it meant to be a faithful Jew. 

They all had their own idea about the right way to follow the rules.

Now, let’s look a little more closely to the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees on the Sabbath.

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

On another Sabbath, he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there. 

Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?

He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus. 

Jesus and his disciples are in a field on the Sabbath, and one of them takes grain, rub it in their hands and eat the kernel. Jesus and his disciples were at the synagogue and there is a man with a shriveled up hand and Jesus heals his hand.

The Essenes had their own written laws about the Sabbath, where it’s written that if your livestock falls into a pit, you can’t get them out. if they came across a person fall into a pit- and you come across them on the sabbath and you have a rope, you can life the person out. But if you don’t have a rope, you can’t go home and get one. 

The choice the law gave you was to let them die.

But is this what sabbath keeping is about? 

Sabbath is a gift to us, to remind us that we are human beings, not human doings. To remind us that God rested on the seventh day, and we are made in the image of God. It reminds us that we are God’s creation, and we belong to God. That’s our identity. Our identity is not in the things we produce or achieve or earn. The point of the sabbath is to remember our identity. To remember that everything in the world belongs to God. To remember that all of creation has been crafted by the hands of God, and that all people are made in the image of God, with the breath of God breathed into their lungs. 

To walk by a person stuck in a hole, and to leave them for dead is to follow a rigid rule about Sabbath, but it is not to understand the value of the sabbath.

To leave someone paralyzed because it is the sabbath, is to forget that they are a child of God, made in the image of God.

It’s to be more concerned with the rules about the sabbath, than the value of human life.

Jesus is teaching values, not rules. We see that as he sets up his stories. Jesus does not guide people with new rules, in fact he says he came to fulfill the law. He’s taken care of the law. In a few weeks we’ll look at where he says just love God and love people and everything else is taken care of. 

Jesus does not come to give us a list of new rules, instead he tells stories, he speaks in parables, setting up his teaching in such a way that there aren’t hard and fast, black and white, rigid lines. Instead, he tells us stories about how to have values, values that are rooted in love for God and love for people. And here we see, here we hear from the mouth of Jesus that more important than the law of Sabbath is the core value to save life. That’s at the heart of his mission, to love God and love others.

Now of course, there is value in keeping the sabbath. But I’ve already talked to you a lot in the past about how important the sabbath is, so for today we’ll leave it at that. This week, our world has continued to sever, and this text speaks to that. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling weary. If I dare to log into Facebook, all I see are my dear friends and family separated into two camps, greatly at odds with one another. Instead of seeing the new babies and fun adventures and learning what my friends and family are up to, I had to sift through strongly worded articles accusing the other of being irresponsible or heartless or having a bleeding heart. 

I have extremely devout Christian friends and family on all sides. Passionately convicted that what they stand for is in line with their Christian faith.

And what we see are sects of Christians doing just what we see the Jews of Jesus’ day doing. There are Christians attempting to hole up in a bunker, to shelter themselves from all that’s going on in the world. Which means a fierce protection from the world. This group isn’t watching the news. They’re not logging onto social media. They live in a carefully created bubble. Just as the Essenes did.

There’s a sect of Christians attempting to create a lot of rules around the rules, rules that they hope will protect their tribe. They create these rules to the point that they end up hurting and harming other people in the process. Just as the Pharisees did.

There’s the sect of Christians attempting to lean into the culture and find a way to benefit from it, to the point that they completely lose their identity as Christian. This is convenience Christianity. It allows the appearance of participation, but lacks the commitment. Just as the Sadducees did.

There’s the sect of Christians ready to revolt. To wage war against the opposition. Just as the Zealots did.

So which of these is the right way to engage the culture? I think we see it in the last few verses of our reading today. Let’s look at verses 13-16.

When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles:

Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, 

Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. 

The interesting thing about the end of this story is that Jesus gathers up a group of followers. Among them are Simon and Andrew, two brothers who own a small family fishing business. There are James and John who probably had a larger fishing business. There’s Matthew, who was a tax collector. Matthew leaned into the culture and was making good money doing so. There’s Simon, the zealot, waging war against the Romans. 

Matthew and Simon’s jobs would have put them against one another.

Jesus brings them together, and shows them a different way.

He doesn’t give them a list of strict rules and regulations for every single word and action. Instead he teaches them the values of the kingdom, so that they can learn to make decisions based on a pursuit of righteousness, rather than the rigidity of restriction. 

If we’re going to get serious about following Jesus and bringing Jesus to a broken world, then we need to ask if our rules reflect our values. If we’re going to be serious about following Jesus, then we aren’t creating rigid laws for the culture to follow, we aren’t separating ourselves from the culture, we aren’t leaning into and prospering from the culture, we aren’t waging war against the culture. Instead, we see Jesus caring about people. Loving people. Saving people. We see him prioritize lives of of people above the law. We see him sacrifice his life for people.