This past winter writer and blogger extraordinaire, Jeremy Huggins, compiled a book of essays and some poetry concerning the Gospel. He invited fellow bloggers to contribute to this book, be they believers or atheists or somewhere in between. The simple instructions were to write a piece about something from the gospels. Fully twenty-six bloggers contributed with many others interested. Here is my piece from that now sold out book, which Jeremy published with a hand fashioned cover. Sometime in the future there may be a Blog Book II, so if you are interested in contributing, fire up a blog and keep your ears on (good buddy). OK, I have been watching too many reruns of the Dukes of Hazzard on CMT. And while we’re on that topic, Jessica Simpson as Daisy Duke? Puh-lease! In fact, why must they reimagine and sully such high art at all? “Kee! Kee!”
I love rules. They tell you how to behave. And, if you are unclear about exactly how a specific rule should be applied, well, with rules, “There’s always more where them came from.” And, if you really love rules you can make unlimited addenda to address any hypothetical breach. And this will invariably lead to principles that spring from the rule that, when applied consistently, will create a sort of warning track around the rule. If you are not in the know regarding baseball, the warning track is the several yards of gravel just before the outfield wall. The outfield wall is what truly “rules” which fly balls are home runs and which not. The warning track, though, lets a charging outfielder know that very soon he will be reaching a hard immovable object that is unforgiving.
The other side of the coin of being a rule lover is that I strongly dislike people who have no regard for rules, who live out their lives acting either as if there are no rules or, more maddeningly, as if, of course, the rules do not apply to them. I would have said I “hate” such people, but you see there is this rule that says we are to love one another and…. No, really I should say no more even than that I hate their behavior. More than that, and, well, I would be breaking the rule…which, actually, is not such a bad one to apply when angry unless you use it simply to stifle and repress valid feelings which need to be addressed.
Who are these people, though? Who are they to snub their noses at rules to which the rest of us submit? Of course, ironically often I am one of the very people I hate the most in this regard. At other times, though, I truly do not understand. A former girlfriend confessed to touching the corner of a famous painting in a museum in Europe. Why? Because she just wanted to touch it so badly to have a connection with it and the artist. Inwardly I burned, principally because she was simply a rule breaker, but also because, really, that rule is there for a pretty good reason. If everyone did the same, you would end up with a squidgy masterpiece.
More often than not, though, a rule that a person is “flagrantly” breaking (which my former girlfriend did constantly), is really one of my own construction. They are only crashing through one of the pretty little hedges that I have so painstakingly planted in my mind. And, boy, once it was like the gardens of Versailles in there. My girlfriend’s hedge crashing of the latter sort and my angry-hurt-obsessive-gardener-like-sulks-and-tirades (yes, it was a complex) helped a great deal in adding the adjective “former” to my appellation of her as “girlfriend.” And, that separation, of which I am only finally beginning to accept the Goodness, brought sorrowful regret and pain into my life of a depth I had not experienced before. It also, though, helped bring about the perspective I articulate in this piece. And, for that, I am eternally, and temporally, grateful.
In Matthew 12, when the Pharisees confront Jesus both about his disciples picking and eating grain on the Sabbath and then his healing of the man with a withered hand on the same holy day, we have something of Jesus addressing the “warning track” dynamic. The Pharisees were forever creating hedges around the law to ensure that people would not even come close to breaking it.
However, there is another dynamic in his interaction with the Pharisees that is more radical and explosive. Jesus, at first blush, seems to be one of my hated crowd who believe that the rules do not apply to them. He answers the Pharisees’ complaint about the grain picking by noting that David ate consecrated bread when starving and Hebrew priests, kind of like pastors today, of necessity work in the temple on the Sabbath. But then he says something that is truly mind blowing; that he is greater than the Sabbath. Unfortunately, I can imagine from my own experience just how the Pharisees must have felt. “Now who in the world….” Or, if they were blindingly mad at that point, “What the f….” Yes, the extremely fundamentalistic are very prone to abandon their niceties under duress.
In the passage, Jesus does two things: one conventional, the other radical, no ridiculous, if it were not true. First, for the conventional one, in true Rabbinic fashion, balancing principles and precedents, he makes the case that the need for acts of mercy to be done for distressed animals on the Sabbath provides a precedent for his healing on the Sabbath. While they might have disagreed with his conclusion, the Pharisees would have at least had a framework for such argumentation.
For the greater claim, though, which actually occurs first in the passage, they would have had no framework. He begins with the precedents of David needing to eat bread in an emergency and priests needing to work in the temple. But then Jesus claims to be greater than the temple in which both of these accepted precedents occurred, except in David’s case it would have been the tabernacle, I think. In so doing, Jesus elevates his disciples to the role of the great historical king’s companions and to that of priests. His elevation of himself, though, is truly astounding. He elevates himself as one greater than the temple, the One, indeed, who makes the temple itself holy. And there would have been no doubt in anyone’s mind who heard those words of the only person who can make that claim. And, how dare he?
How dare he, indeed? And, yet, I still do not thinking he is claiming the rules do not apply to him. If they are simply rules for human behavior, of course, they would not. However, if they are Rules with a capital “R,” or rather words that describe his character and nature, even he cannot (or perhaps it is better to say he will not) break them. No, what Jesus is doing here is claiming his position as both the provider of Sabbath Rest and the true recipient of Sabbath worship. He claims the position of Lord of the Sabbath. In that context, the disciples munching their grain in his presence are participating in a high, holy feast with their God. Rules are not so much suspended as they are superseded. They are being followed truly, organically, naturally, perfectly. And, oh, it took me so, so long to understand this wonderful truth of this passage.
The truth is, though, that I still tend to love rules. They are easy. I do, though, want to love them less, at least the variety which multiply like rabbits and rigidly proscribe behavior, which I especially use to judge others in my heart and sometimes still in my words. I do not want to need them. I want something more. I want the heart of rules. It is not the righteous who need rules but the wicked. The thought is not original with me, but it is actually where wickedness and lawlessness increase where more rules are needed. And, no example is more prescient than our own law-saturated, litigation-mad nation. No, what I really want, whether I always realize it or not, is the heart of God, and in that I will find freedom for myself and the peace not to take that freedom from others. The more I hang with Jesus and his followers, whether it is munching corn on the cob in a Sabbath potluck or carrying out the acts of mercy he wants me to, I think the better I will understand that.