In practice, the main thing I will do as a Franciscan is follow a rule of life that I negotiated with established Franciscans and that I have been working on for nearly three years. It covers things like worship and prayer and study.
So, yesterday, after making my more general vows, I laid a copy of my rule of life on the altar and promised God that I would do my best to live by it.
As I prepared for yesterday’s service, I thought a lot about what it means to commit to a rule of life, to commit to specific behaviors aimed at enhancing my relationship with God.
One part of my rule concerns the Sabbath. For the last year or so, I have been trying to follow that rule with increasing strictness.
But—this is where it gets tricky—in our gospel reading, Jesus doesn’t seem too keen on people following strict rules on the Sabbath.
The background to our reading is the Old Testament law to keep the Sabbath holy. Whatever else that meant, and people debated it then and now, keeping the Sabbath holy definitely meant doing no work.
But in the first of our stories, Jesus’ disciples are plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath. That is work. In the second, Jesus himself heals on the Sabbath. That’s work too.
Some Pharisees were scandalized. They tell Jesus to make his disciples stop. Jesus refuses.
Then Jesus goes on the offensive. Normally people approach Jesus with a request to be healed. But not this time. Jesus sees a man with a withered hand, calls him to the front of the synagogue, publicly challenges the Pharisees, and then dramatically heals the man. All in front of a crowd on the Sabbath in the synagogue itself! Jesus is clearly trying to provoke the Pharisees.
The Pharisees are so outraged, they can’t wait to get back at Jesus. They storm out of the synagogue, and immediately begin conspiring to destroy Jesus.
The reaction of the Pharisees is extreme. But it indicates how high the stakes were for Jesus and for everybody else at the synagogue that day.
So, what do we make of all this?
Jesus intentionally violates the Sabbath law, at some personal risk, in the middle of Sabbath worship, knowing that he is causing offense.
And here we are, on the Christian Sabbath, doing our version of what those pious Jews were doing when Jesus shook things up. And just yesterday, I promised God I would observe my own version of the Sabbath, the kind of thing the Pharisees were defending that day.
This is a cautionary tale. It is easy to condemn the Pharisees for their legalism, and we should. But we miss the point if we condemn these Pharisees without pondering how this story applies to us, how we may sometimes be like those Pharisees.
The challenge of this gospel reading is to reflect on our own tendency to legalism, our tendency to judge others when they don’t behave like we think they should.
Despite the fact that I have a Sabbath rule, the Sabbath is not an area where I am particularly legalistic. But without a moment’s hesitation, my family could tell you where I am often legalistic. I didn’t warn her, but I am sure it is in Carrie’s head right now. I don’t like driving more than is necessary, running the air conditioner, or using the dishwasher. My poor wife, the one I made a lifetime vow to love, honor, and cherish, has often felt judged by me on all three. My children would have felt the same way, except that they don’t care.
This story is a reminder that Jesus doesn’t approve of that kind of legalism!
But there is more to our Gospel story than a condemnation of legalism.
Jesus does NOT suggest that Jews should do away with the Sabbath. Jesus is not anti-Sabbath. When the Pharisees complain that his disciples have violated the Sabbath, Jesus defends his disciples. But listen again to what he says: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man—remember, that’s Jesus himself—is lord even of the Sabbath.”
God instituted the Sabbath. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a good thing and a godly institution.
The problem with the Pharisees is not that they are committed to the Sabbath. The problem with the Pharisees is that they have forgotten what the Sabbath is for. The Sabbath is to serve human needs.
The Sabbath is not a burdensome obligation that God imposes on us and we should impose on each other. The Sabbath is a gift that God gives to us. That makes all the difference in the world.
This should not have been news to the Pharisees. In the Sabbath law itself, Moses tells the people of Israel to keep the Sabbath holy, as God commanded, so that they and their servants and even their animals could rest (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). I say again, the Sabbath is God’s gift to us.
This is a big deal, and goes way beyond the Sabbath.
When we have questions about how to live, we should ask what God would have us do. But as we wrestle with those questions, we should remember that God’s will for us is joy and abundant life. God’s requirements are gifts, not burdens.
We may not always feel that. But it is always true.
We should pray, not because we have to, but because it is an opportunity to commune with God. We should worship, not because we have to, but because we come together to celebrate God’s grace and love. We should love our neighbors as ourselves, not because we have to, but because that is the way of Christ, which is the way of truth and life.
Most difficult, we should take up our crosses and follow Christ, we should sometimes sacrifice our own interests for the interests of our neighbors, not because we have to, but because that unites us to Christ in his sacrifice for us and for all people.
Always, always, the ultimate goal is growing in the love of God and neighbor, which is the only true and lasting joy because it is what we are created to do and be.
In the end each particular area of any rule of life has a simple measure. Does it help me to love God and neighbor better? That is true for all of us, whether or not we have a written rule of life or, as is more common, a set of unwritten moral values.
We can and we should stand by our values, of course. But we must always remember what they are for: helping us to love better. And if love—I don’t mean niceness but true love, the love God calls us to share—if love sometimes requires us to hold to some of our expectations a little loosely, we should do that too. Because every rule is made for human beings, not human beings for any rule. And the Son of Man, who calls us to follow him, is the Lord of them all.
And so I give thanks to God for my rule of life. I give thanks to God for the values that guide all of our actions. And I thank God for the gift of helping us to know and to do those things that draw us closer to him. In Jesus’ name. Amen.