Friday, December 11, 2009

Of More Value Than Many Sparrows

And Jesus answering spake unto the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day? And they held their peace. And he took him, and healed him, and let him go; And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day? And they could not answer him again to these things. (Luke 14: 3-6)

I always found it astounding that one of the objections to Jesus' ministry could ever possibly have been that he healed on the Sabbath. It seemed incomprehensible to me.

Of course, just to play Pharisees' advocate for a moment here... It might be pointed out that a man who has been blind or deaf or lame from birth could surely wait one more day to be healed. Surely Jesus had six out of seven days of the week to heal. Did he have to do it on the Sabbath? It would have been so easy for Jesus to avoid offending the sensibilities of his critics, one wonders if he didn't deliberately provoke them in order to teach a particularly important principle.

Jesus once asked his opponents, "Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill?" (Mark 3: 4).

I always used to stop thinking about that scripture verse past the first half of it: "Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath..?" Of course, put that way, the answer seems self-evident. But Jesus takes it a step further. The complete text of Jesus' question to the Pharisees seems to point us to a larger understanding of the Sabbath. In emphasizing good and evil, life and death, Jesus reminded the Pharisees that a legalistic approach to the Sabbath completely misses its larger purpose. The letter "kills." The spirit saves.

Jesus' query was in line with Isaiah's classic teaching on the Sabbath, which insisted that true Sabbath-keeping is to "keep judgment," to "do justice"! (Isaiah 56: 1) In other words, if the poor are oppressed and the cause of the downtrodden and the stranger is abandoned, the Sabbath is broken. It doesn't matter how piously we attend Sacrament meeting or how scrupulously we avoid worldly amusements!

And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn. And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him? And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath. (Mark 2: 23-28)

When Jesus was criticized for allowing his disciples to gather food on the Sabbath, he defended their actions by analogy to the time of King David. David and his men violated ritual boundaries by eating the shewbread in the Temple. And David did so because his men were hungry. "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath"! Basic human need outweighs legalistic considerations. Always. "Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath."

Gay people in our culture are the oxen in the pit. We are stuck, and we are literally dying. And the nature of the metaphorical pit we're caught in is precisely the one Jesus spoke of when he demanded, "Which of you... will not straightway pull him out?" Because essentially we are told that no consideration for our humanity can be allowed to outweigh the demands of the law. It does not matter what isolation we might overcome, what anguish we might heal, nor even what lives we might save. The law is the law is the law.

Such an approach to law, Jesus insisted, amounts to Satanic dominion over God's children, and he rejected it out of hand. At every opportunity, Jesus demonstrated the superiority of human considerations over law, even when to do so enraged the religious establishment, leading eventually to his execution by that establishment.

Ironically, the denial of our humanity is rationalized in the name of the cross of Christ. It is true, Jesus said, "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Mark 8: 34). But he also said "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 30: 11). To deny oneself is to enter into service, not to pretend to be something we are not. The cross of Christ is the opprobrium that disciples of love must necessarily face in confronting a world built around wealth and privilege of the few and the dehumanization of the many. The cross is the price of truth and love. It is never an artificial burden placed upon a select few in the form of the denial of their humanity. The burden placed by our culture on gay people is like the burden Jesus spoke of when he denounced the aficionados of the law: "Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! for ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers" (Luke 11: 46).

Jesus' response to unreasonable legalistic demands was simply to ignore them. He healed. He fed the multitudes. He lifted up the fallen. In the face of human anguish, he responded, whether his response stayed within the legal strictures of the establishment or not.

Jesus spoke to his disciples about human need, and the worry that accompanies need when he promised:
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10: 29-31)
We are of more value too than the ox or the ass fallen in a pit, that ought to be pulled straightway out.

There came a point in my life where I found myself on my knees pleading with God, believing that I was unacceptable because I was gay. And a most incredible, most warm and comforting reassurance from the Spirit came over me. Not only is every hair of my head numbered, but God knew me from my inmost parts. He knew me when I was knit in my mother's womb; how I am both "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139: 14). God knew that I was gay, the Spirit reassured me, and there was nothing wrong with me. I need have no fear on that or any other account.

God knows my needs too. God knows my destiny. He has guided me this far, and he will continue to guide me. This I have been promised, and so far God has been good to his word.


Alan said...

This is a novel and delightful take on the parable. I'm strongly tempted to send it to my dad and see what he'll say. He assures me that he'll always love me but he will never accept "the behavior". Wonder if this post might help him see things in a different way. Thanks for another great post.

J G-W said...

Odd, to me, if we should think it a "novel" reading of the teachings of Jesus that consideration for human need should outweigh legalistic concerns...

But such is the "morality" of the culture we live in.

Anonymous said...

A thought-provoking post, as always. I have never before applied the "letter of the law" principle to the stance on homosexuality. The next step in the logic chain, then, is to question whether 'commandments' regarding sex fall into the 'rules' category rather than the 'eternal laws' category. I would have to say that is the case.

I could be wrong, but does not 1 Corinthians 13:8 imply that as our imperfect understandings fall away in the face of perfection (Christ, of course, but also our own eternal perfection), so too do the rules designed to guide us in our imperfection? If prophecies will 'fail' - they will no longer be needed in the presence of Christ - then it stands to reason that rules based on prophecies will also fall by the wayside.

We can never circumvent eternal laws: actions bring consequences, that which separates us from God is by definition evil, and so forth. But those are very basic, universal laws. The commandments we are given are lesser laws, so to speak, in that they are designed to guide our choices while we lack godly wisdom and maturity to make perfect choices. I think they are also designed to suit most circumstances, but by their nature cannot fit all situations. As you said; the Sabbath is made for man, not vice versa. The letter of the law must bow to the spirit.

J G-W said...

My approach is still to take the "rules" very seriously. My working assumption is that the rules are -- in general principle -- good, and intended for our perfection and our well-being.

The world we live in, however, has a tendency to twist rules meant to provide guidance and help into something else... Rules are like everything else that is fundamentally good. If we lose our perspective on their role in the grand scheme of things, they can be perverted into something destructive and dehumanizing.

I could also point to a host of scriptures in which Jesus upheld the fundamental goodness of rules and laws. But in the texts discussed in this posts, he addresses the evil in losing perspective.

I love the pragmatic way he does this... If an ox falls in the pit, don't you just pull it out? Don't you just address the need before you, without thinking beyond that immediate need?

Anonymous said...

I think the challenge is to maintain that perspective without falling victim to hubris and deciding one is above the rules.

J G-W said...

Aha! There's the rub. I don't think we should take any form of disobedience, even (especially?) the most principled disobedience lightly. Jesus certainly didn't.

But you don't have to go very far to see the trail of human misery left by the way traditional rules of sexual morality are applied to the situation of gay people. Ruined marriages. Chronic depression. Not to mention the endemic suicide. The signs of crisis are rampant. The ox is in the pit. So what are we going to do about it?