October 16, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
I’m taking the good news today from Matthew 12:9-14.
Moving on from there, he went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man there who had a withered hand. They questioned him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep that falls into a pit on the sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable a person is than a sheep. So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him to put him to death.
It’s interesting to me that the Pharisees became determined at this point in time to see Jesus put to death because he had profaned their orthodoxy. He did not conform; in fact, he challenged their righteous position and practices. Jesus was now a legitimate danger to their authority, to their privileged status.
It was actually written in the law that if a man’s sheep fell into a pit on the sabbath, a Jew was permitted to carry food to it which otherwise would have been considered illegal as being work. Jesus masterfully used this case illustration to his advantage and then sealed it with divine approval in restoring the man’s withered hand. The withered hand might have represented the correspondingly withered relationship of the Jews to God, a faith that had erected higher and higher walls between God’s compassion and justice and His people. Of course, the Pharisees were also embittered about being painted into a corner and made to look foolish.
But what’s really interesting is that this principle about the rightness of relieving suffering on the sabbath which Jesus demonstrated then became established rabbinic teaching later after the gospel was written and long after Jesus had put forward this argument. We are slow to change, but we do change. Sometimes just not in time.
I see this in myself. I am often so locked into a certain way of seeing things that I refuse to admit anything that doesn’t confirm my bias. In fact, I often become even more adamant that I am right in the way I see an issue. But sometimes something breaks through and challenges my way of believing. It is often a crisis of some sort which shakes me to the foundation of my being. Then I sheepishly think to myself, “You know, I was wrong about that.”
Institutions are like that as well because they are just collections of individuals. I just finished reading Repair My House by Capuchin Franciscan Michael Crosby. Obviously, it echoes the dictate that Francis of Assisi heard from God. People who identify as Catholic are the largest group among denominations in this country, which has remained relatively stable at 22-23% over the last several decades largely because of immigration. The second largest group is lapsed Catholics – larger by far than any other group! Evidence suggests to me that it’s because the Church has become like the Pharisaic church of Jesus’ time. Too often it stands between God and His people instead of serving as God’s instrument of compassion and justice. Too often it insists on being right according to its own version of rightness. All churches are like this.
That is Jesus’ message to me today, to me individually and to me as a member of the Church. Jesus doesn’t ask me to be a defender of orthodoxy, he asks me to be a practitioner of God’s love and a defender of His justice. He wants me to look at my biases and say to myself, “You know, I was wrong about that.” He wants to restore my withered hand.