What Are Rules For?

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, June 2, 2024
Mark 2:23-3:6

    Legend has it that when my parents asked me how was my first day of kindergarten, I replied, “I learned that some people don’t follow the rules.”  As much as we may hate to admit it, many of us who consider ourselves law abiding, rule-following citizens can be like the Pharisees in our gospel for this morning.  We try to be good and follow the rules.  We expect others to do the same, and we don’t like it when people think the rules don’t apply to them.  It can be upsetting and disappointing.  After all, unless we agree as a society to abide by certain rules and enforce the consequences of not following them, we could experience total anarchy.  We need rules!  Perhaps many of us can sympathize with the Pharisees’ concerns about Jesus bending the rules in Mark’s gospel for today.
Jesus’ point, however, is for us to consider what the rules are for in the first place.  What are rules for?  Especially as people of faith, why does God give us rules like the Ten Commandments?  As Christians, we strive to follow the rules but not so rigidly that we forget why God gave us these commandments in the first place.  Jesus says in our gospel for this morning, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”  God gives us the command to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy as a gift for us, for our wellbeing.  Later on, after Jesus heals the man with the withered hand, Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  In the healing of this man, Mark says that he stretches his hand out and his hand was restored.  Jesus brings restoration and healing for a man who has not had use of his hand, we don’t know for how long, whether it is the sabbath or not.  If we think about the intent of God’s command to remember the sabbath day, it seems quite callous and hard hearted (as Jesus notes) for the Pharisees to be upset about a man restored to health.  
In our first reading from Deuteronomy, we hear how God commands slaves, resident aliens, and even animals to rest one day a week in God’s instructions about the sabbath.  This commandment was one of the first labor laws, in a sense, so that all of God’s creation including animals would have time to rest and be restored.  “Remember what it was like when you were slaves in Egypt, with no day for rest or worship,” God encourages the Israelites.  The commandments are given to us to preserve life, not to do harm.  The commandments, as Jesus summarizes them later on, are about loving God and our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus is not saying we should completely do away with keeping the sabbath, but think about how we are promoting life and restoration in our sabbath-keeping, reflecting not just the judgment, but the mercy of God in our daily living.
Our gospel for today points us back to the good news behind God’s law.  Living as followers of Jesus is primarily about living by God’s grace rather than by legalistically following the rules.  If we think about our friends and family who hold the church or religious life at a distance, some of the primary reasons people don’t want anything to do with religion or church are assumptions that Christians are judgmental hypocrites, or that being a Christian is all about a narrow understanding of following rules.  There are all kinds of ways in which we “should” on people. You should not get divorced.  You should not struggle with alcohol and drug addiction.  You should make a certain amount of money or dress a certain way.  You should not swear.  You should attend church more regularly.  You should be happier or healthier.  The judgment behind these “shoulds” is that something is wrong with you if you don’t do these things.  In the case of the man with the withered hand, most things “wrong” with someone were attributed to a person’s sin or their parent’s sin.  Instead, Jesus heals this man without judgment.
Of course, when we get right down to it, there is something wrong with all of us, not just a few of us, if we’re going to start judging.  The gospel is not that we are saved by being good and doing all the things we should, but that we cannot save ourselves; otherwise we have no need for Jesus.  We cannot follow God’s rules perfectly, none of us.  We are not good enough, and we don’t do what we should all the time.  We deceive ourselves if we think that we do.  The Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath, not us.  We are not in charge nor appointed judges of others.  As the saying goes, when you start pointing a finger at others, you have four fingers pointing right back at you.  For all the times we are tempted to think or say “You know what you should do is…” may we recognize our own need for God’s grace and forgiveness and strive to share that grace with others.  May we live first and foremost by the rule of God’s love and share a way of love and life, following Jesus’ example.
As Martin Luther put it, “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done.  Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.” Living our lives by “shoulds” is a constant hamster wheel where we never quite reach the goal, where we quickly disappoint ourselves or are disappointed and frustrated by others: “some people don’t know how to follow the rules!”  Instead, trusting in the love and grace of God, we start to see how God brings healing, new life, satisfaction for our hunger, rest, and well-being.  These are pure gifts of grace for us.  
There are so many ways we beat people down who are already struggling.  A friend of mine is struggling with her daughter’s eating disorder. Another friend’s son is being severely bullied to the point of him needing to change schools.  Others are coping with a chronic illness or death of a loved one or to care for aging parents.  When we reflect on the suffering and struggles of those around us and what we ourselves may be struggling with, it becomes pretty clear that the world needs something beyond the rules, which is God’s grace.  Jesus shows up on the scene and starts feeding the hungry, healing the sick, restoring relationships and forgiving sin.  May we, too, strive to be reflections of Christ’s good news for a world in need.  Amen.