August 20, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Luke 14:1-6.
On a sabbath he went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully. In front of him there was a man suffering from dropsy. Jesus spoke to the scholars of the law and Pharisees in reply, asking, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath or not?” But they kept silent; so he took the man and, after he had healed him, dismissed him. Then he said to them, “Who among you, if your son or ox falls into a cistern, would not immediately pull him out on the sabbath day?” But they were unable to answer his question.
The Pharisees have set a trap for Jesus and, as usual, it backfires on them. Sort of like the roadrunner and Wily Coyote. It’s almost comical except that Jesus is dead serious.
The Pharisees and lawyers purposely invited to Jesus to dinner on the sabbath and confronted him with a dilemma: to obey the sabbath prohibition on healing that wasn’t urgent or to cure a man who, though, was obviously unwell and perhaps in stress. Dropsy is edema, swelling due to retention of fluid. The host was not extending his hospitality; he was showing his hypocrisy and hostility.
However, the crux of the story seems to me to be the silence of the Pharisees and lawyers when asked what they would do if one of their own children fell into a cistern on the sabbath and was not in danger of dying. We are often so eager to make rules that we aren’t ready to apply to ourselves when the situation arises. All it does is expose our own lack of understanding, empathy, and compassion. Let’s use the Affordable Care Act as an example. Some of our Congressional legislators are determined to thwart its implementation and benefits. What is they are their families weren’t covered by the generous health insurance benefits they receive? What is they were like one of us with a pre-existing condition who couldn’t buy insurance at any price? What is they were one of the working poor laboring at two part-time jobs with no benefits and not enough money to buy health insurance? Would they still be so adamant about denying a basic need for accessible, affordable health care? I doubt it. Principles only carry so far for most until they start to pinch too much. They are the modern-day lawyers and Pharisees that Jesus had no use for because they refused to act in justice and compassion for others. They are the hypocrites that Jesus excoriated.
Jesus put human need above scrupulosity. The last time I took communion to those in the hospital I entered the room of a young woman whose name was on the list of Catholic inpatients. I introduced myself and asked if she would like communion. She responded that she wasn’t Catholic but used to be. I replied, “You know what they say. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” She said that’s what her father always said to her. After talking about her growing up in the parish, she told me that she would like to take communion even though she had been been a member of a nondenominational church for many years now. The question flashed in the mind, “Should I be doing this?” I quickly decided that it was the right thing to do. It was technically a violation of Church rules, I suppose. But then I’ve never been chained to rules or acquiescent to authority.
I choose to believe that God’s spirit dwells within me and guides me if I am open to Him. I think He wants me to ask the question, “What is right and just?” That, of course, is the principle of civil disobedience. I should always ask myself not what does the law require, but what does God tell me is right and just. That’s the question that Jesus always asked himself and it got him into deadly conflict with the authorities. The penalties and repercussions for those who disobey the law and challenge authority can be severe. But Jesus tells me that there is a higher authority and law that I am to respect and obey especially when it conflicts with man’s laws that are too often based on fear, protection of the powerful, and oppression of the poor. I pray that I will always have the courage to do what is right and just, to answer Jesus’ question, to put human need above other considerations.