Sunday, August 21, 2022 | Trey Comstock
Stay in the pastoring game long enough, and you will get burned. My first church was in the true middle of nowhere – across the street from cows and next door to corn. One Sunday evening, towards the end of Bible Study, a family in a decrepit 1980s station wagon pulled into our parking lot. The back of the car was full to the brim with stuff. The car’s suspension had seen better days. The engine made that specific whine that tells you that something is quite rotten in that particular State of Denmark. As they emerged from the vehicle, you could tell that they’ve been through a lot. They said that a member of their family had died, out of state, and they’d driven to the point of being nearly out of gas. They needed money to get the rest of the way. They definitely appeared in need, so we took up a collection, gave them a little bit of money, filled up their tank, and sent them on their way. I was pleased to see my congregation spring into action and help a stranger in need. I said a silent prayer for them and thought no more of it.
A year or so later, you’d never believe what pulled into our parking. It was a decrepit 1980s station wagon with a back full of stuff, a wonky suspension, and a dangerously whining engine. And, you’d never believe what had happened. A family member had died out of state, and they’d already exhausted their fuel supply. I had met, blessed early in my pastoral tenure, the type of person that can make a cynic out of any willing servant of God – people who travel from church to church gaming our instinct to help. From that moment forward, I instituted various policies around helping people. I never hand out cash, especially if its what someone asks for. I try, as much as possible, to only pay bills, where I can see the bill and pay the company directly. I track who is coming to me for financial assistance and will cut someone off if they’re coming to me too often. I have to be a good steward of what God has given us, and giving our precious resources to someone who is traveling the countryside defrauding churches is not good stewardship.
I have to watch myself though. With these policies and a need to be a good steward, it becomes super easy to say “no” to everyone, to assume that everyone is gaming you, and to brush off anyone who comes needing financial help. These policies exist to protect the church, but these policies can, all too easily, let me harden my heart and miss chances to actually help actual people who actually need help. It can become the thing that one can point to as a reason not to serve – ever.
This is the tension that I see in the heart of the Synagogue Leader in our story. The restriction of the sabbath is not some minor or obscure religious principle. We are not arguing over the finer points here. God put it in the top ten. God observed the sabbath during creation. A great way to become an Old Testament hero is observe the sabbath especially when it’s difficult or dangerous to do so. To this day, in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, each Sabbath, elevators run automatically stopping on each floor, so that the residents won’t even have to push a button to activate a machine, which in some more orthodox interpretations counts as work. It’s easy to see how it becomes a religious gut reaction. Is it the sabbath? Yes. Does this thing count as work? Yes. Then, will I do it? No, of course not.
Jesus, as the living Word of God, takes another path entirely. He heals the woman and chides the Synagogue Leader for thinking that it shouldn’t have happened. It’s not that Jesus just went around and threw out all of God’s previous instructions. In both the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew, and the Sermon on the Plain, in Luke, Jesus takes various instructions from the Law and increases both their importance and difficulty. Instead, Christ call us to the deeper principles rather than checklist rules. As humans, we bristle at this. We dislike deep thinking and prefer consistent dos and don’ts. However, there will be times, when following the sabbath rules will be the most important thing that you can do for God, and there will be times, when completely disregarding these rules will be the most important thing that you can do for God. At the core, the question is why are you doing something or why are you not doing something?
As Christians, with a couple of millennia worth of experience playing more loosely with the Law, this sabbath one seems much more basic than it would have at time in a world with a huge emphasis on an exacting and detailed view of the Law. If strict adherence means that someone doesn’t get helped, the Law and the Prophets boil down to “love God and love neighbor,” so help the person. Often, when the literal interpretation of the Law meant leaving someone unloved, Jesus upended it. He ate with sinners, touched the ritually unclean, talked with Samaritans, healed lepers, and protected the woman caught in adultery. He welcomed children, made a tax collector a disciple, forgave Peter after a huge betrayal, and died for all of us even though none of us are worthy. It’s not that there are no rules, or that the rules don’t matter. The rules exist to give structure to loving God and loving neighbor, but that structure should never stop us from doing what Christ did – loving God and loving neighbor.
In my own life, the question becomes, am I turning someone away to protect the church, or am I doing it because it’s always easier to not help? Is it good stewardship or is it a failure to love my neighbor? There are not easy answers to this question. It is the ever-present tension in discipleship, when you realize that the Christian life is far more than following a checklist of easy rules. It has as much to do with what is happening inside of you as you make that decision as it does the outward action that you end up taking. The journey of discipleship is this never-ending internal interrogation. Did I do this because I am loving God and neighbor? Or, did I do this because adherence to a checklist is much more convenient? We can only answer those questions for ourselves, but in the final calculus, we cannot simply say that these were the rules, and I followed them.