As a former police officer, I remember well having to memorize the rules of the road so that I could ENFORCE the rules. Of course all these laws were on the books for people’s safety, but I can’t tell you how tempting it was to reduce that central purpose to the mere enforcing the rules as a purpose unto itself. You can always tell the difference between an officer who gets the spirit of the laws and the one who only sees the letter of the law!
So why do we seem to find it easy to reduce life to mere “rule-keeping?” Confession time: We do this because it’s easier to say “give me the rules” than it is “help me grow up and internalize wisdom.”
Look at our Gospel Lesson today in Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-5:
At that time, Jesus was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.”
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch it out,” and his hand was restored. Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-5
The Lord is confronted by pious religious leaders who rebuke the Lord for allowing His disciples to “break the rules” of the sabbath, and the way the Lord deals with this instructs us in how to deal with our own spiritual growth and maturity. And they are furious when the Lord refuses to be “captured” by their reduction of the life of faith to mere rule-keeping AND they are upset that their own spiritual smallness is exposed to everyone! So, the Lord, lovingly attempted to correct their poverty and misapplication of the wisdom of God by making two very important distinctions about the Wisdom God has given humanity.
The first distinction is the “rules” were made for man, not man for the rules. Actually, it is instructive in our Orthodox tradition that we don’t refer to the directions or the disciplines of the faith as “rules.” We refer to this body of teaching as “wisdom.” The Lord makes it clear that the wisdom of the sabbath disciplines are meant to generally change our thinking and actions about priorities of our lives, not to become straightjackets that prevent us from doing good or loving our neighbors. Wisdom is exactly that; wisdom.
The second distinction is equal to the first. The Lord doesn’t say the wisdom is useless! Or that it should be changed or discarded! The Lord reminds these Jewish leaders that even King David allowed a higher wisdom to govern his behavior when he and his men were hungry. They ate the bread in the temple that was exclusively reserved for the priests. Then the Lord healed a man with a withered hand in the synagogue showing that being loving toward another is always a higher and greater wisdom than disciplines that might technically be obeyed to the detriment of others.
Today, we are called to be purposeful in our relationship with God and one another and, by being purposeful, we reveal the wise truth that we prioritize these relationships as most important in our choices and actions. And we are instructed by Christ to not take the “easy way” out for our spiritual lives by reducing our love for God to mere rule-keeping. That’s the only path that leads to a purposefully Orthodox life!