Some of you may remember the saga of the steps…
When I arrived in Henley nearly four years ago, the handrail on the steps down from the church to the Red Lion was already broken. On the face of it this seemed like a simple thing to resolve: let’s work out who is responsible and get them fixed. Of course there are laws, both secular and ecclesiastical, that govern these sorts of things. But after years of work we simply got nowhere.
On the one hand, none of the local authorities would take responsibility for the steps. On the other hand, they fell outside of the registered area of church land, and so our insurers were adamant that we should not carry out any work on them, and the diocesan lawyers were also very discouraging. In the end, a generous parishioner simply came along and fixed them, and that was the end of that, at least until the next time repairs are needed!
Why do I tell you this story? It seems to me to be illustrative of the difficulty caused by rules. On the one hand, we all benefit from living in a society governed by rules. The rule of law is really a very good thing; however annoying rules can be, they do serve to protect us from the alternatives of might making right, or of outright corruption. But rules can be inflexible, especially if they are not applied with good sense. There are always situations that fall between the cracks, there are issues which arise which have not been legislated for, there are all sorts of little anomalies and exceptions for which the rigid application of law falls short. The saga of the Red Lion steps is an excellent example.
Jesus is more interested in the disposition of the heart than in legal niceties; He is more interested in the spirit than in the letter of the law.
Now that’s not to say that laws and rules are not useful: they are. Yes, they certainly have their dangers. They can be a frustrating nuisance, they can get in the way of things that need to be done, as with the steps, and they can introduce complications to things that should be simple. And sometimes they can even be used as an excuse for not doing something that we know perfectly well that we should do. But most of the time it is a jolly good thing that we have them, because they serve as a sort of backstop. It would be great if we didn’t need rules, it would be great if everyone could be relied on to act with perfect integrity, consideration and kindness at all times, but since none of us seem to be capable of that we need to have some rules to keep us on the straight and narrow.
But that is really all that rules and laws are for. Morality, especially Christian morality, is so much more than following the rules.
For the leader of the synagogue in today’s gospel, rules are all-important. The sabbath is a day of rest; so in his view it is wrong for Jesus to heal on the sabbath, and it is wrong for the woman to ask to be healed on the sabbath. The obligation to keep the sabbath is not understood as a positive injunction to keep the day holy, but rather simply as a negative prohibition against working, no matter how necessary or good that work may be.
But Jesus’ approach is different. The rule that the sabbath should be kept as a day of rest is not an excuse to avoid doing good. The positive requirement to help those in need trumps the letter of the law. As Jesus says elsewhere, the whole of the law and the prophets can be summarised in the double commandment: love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour as yourself. Rules cannot be used to avoid the obligation to love one’s neighbour.
If the leader of the synagogue had been better acquainted with the Jewish scriptures, he would have known that Jesus’ approach was in keeping with the teaching of the prophet Isaiah. For Isaiah, the sabbath is a “holy day” and a “delight”; it is a day to leave off the pursuit of self-interest, it is a day of rest, it is a day to leave worldly affairs behind. It is not a matter of cold prohibitions; it is something to be enjoyed.
For Isaiah, what God requires is not cold, routine obedience to a set of rules; God rather requires that we remove the yoke from among us, we refrain from the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, that we offer our food to the hungry, that we satisfy the needs of the afflicted. Isaiah would not have been at all surprised that Jesus healed on the sabbath. The positive obligation to help those in need is the overriding priority of his moral teaching in this morning’s reading.