Beloved, think back to when you were small. What are some of the simple rules you learned? One for me was, to avoid strangers, especially if they wanted to give you candy. Another was, never to interrupt my dad when he was talking. Always look both ways before crossing the street, wash your hands before dinner.
While those last two are still solid advice at any age, some of the rules I learned as a child I later would have to unlearn. I would have to learn to talk to strangers, to introduce myself to people I did not know, on many occasions. Instead of always perceiving others as a potential threat I learned to appreciate people as potential blessing. That simple rule no longer worked at all as a grown up.
The one about interrupting kind of stuck to me for quite awhile longer. It’s not easy for me to talk when others are talking, because of what I was taught as a child. This was challenging when I was first living in Argentina. There, interrupting and talking over one another aren’t considered rude really, especially among friends and in a lively conversation. Once I was having dinner with my friends, all of whom were Argentine and there were two or even three people talking at once and I had to interject and say please talk one at a time I cannot keep up! For Spanish is not my first language. But I had to interrupt all of them to do so. Otherwise I would have lost all of the conversations and been left out- which my friends did not want to happen. I had to unlearn that rule as something to always strictly follow, and see when it applied, and when it didn’t.
As we grow we have to sort through the simple rules we were taught as children and determine what still works for living in the world as an adult and what does not. We no longer blindly follow what was taught to us simply because “it’s the rule.” Rather we employ our own judgment as we learn about our environment and make adjustments to how we live.
It turns out that the Pharisees, which were just one subgroup of very religious Jews, had developed an idea for helping people live out Torah, God’s law, in their everyday lives. I’m going to quote from Alyce McKenzie because I am not an expert on it- Their way “took Jewish tradition and the Torah seriously and tried to interpret and live them in ways that touched daily life. The Pharisees taught the people to regard the gathering around the household dinner table as a community of worship. The handling of food and dishes were religious activities (Parables for Today, 57).
“Their goal was to “make a fence for the law”—in others words, to protect it from infringement by surrounding it with specific rules of interpretation and application to daily life. Their original purpose was admirable, to enhance inward faithfulness to the law in daily life. In practice they had a tendency to multiply rules to the point that keeping the law could become a burden rather than a celebratory response to God’s goodness. For example, tailors were not allowed to go out carrying a needle late in the day before the Sabbath, in case they were caught with it still in their pocket when the Sabbath began. They could go for a walk on the Sabbath day—provided it was not farther than two thousand cubits, roughly two-thirds of a mile, a distance determined by reference to the space between the people of Israel and the Ark of the Covenant when they first entered Canaan.”
And it is this way of multiplying the rules, making the law more complicated, that Jesus speaks out against in this passage. Not have a needle in your pocket or you have sinned? Jesus has already answered the question of how best to fulfill the law- by loving God and loving neighbor. And in a law that is love, there can be no fence. There is no one answer that is always the right one, like the time his disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath. No, harvesting as work is not to take place on the Sabbath, but if you are hungry and there’s some grain right there- God honors that. God does not desire for people to go hungry. The person is more important than the law in that case. The way of Jesus has no fence. No strictly defined do’s and don’ts. It is a much more flexible boundary but it always centers on love.
Jesus will go on in this chapter to rail against all the ways that religious leaders were hypocrites- two faced. He hints here in what we read that they say good things to follow but do not do them themselves. It seems that the way of Jesus is always a way of being authentic, or keeping it real.
I had someone ask me a question about sin recently. And I appreciate a desire to take sin seriously, to take seriously what God does and does not want us to do. But Jesus, if you notice, he didn’t really come up with new lists of what to do or not do in any given situation. A lot of people of faith today place their attention on a couple of things, and yes they mostly have to do with human sexuality, and say that is sin. But you might notice Jesus says really nothing about sex in any of the gospels, not really too much about “sin” itself- except to talk about forgiveness. Jesus’ way of following the law- hanging it all on the two great commandments, It is an approach that in some ways is much harder than a list of do’s and don’ts, because in EVERY situation we can ask, what is the best way to love God and love my neighbor as myself? And we might get stuck if we think we can’t figure it out. But on the other hand, it doesn’t place the burden of only following a strict rule all the time. You are not two faced, in other words not fake, but you be your real self, and as you are, you seek to love God and your neighbor as yourself.
This also means according to Jesus in this passage, that you not seek honor from others or at least not misplaced honor. Call no one Father except your father in heaven. Call no one teacher except the Christ. Call no one Rabbi. But the greatest will be the servant. That is a theme in the gospels- to be great is to place yourself low in regards to others- think of their needs first, not yourself. Think of how you can serve them, help them.
To know yourself as loved by God, and then with your unique gifts and talents, serve others around you, authentically, as you are. That is the way Jesus showed, and what is behind what Jesus says here.
Yet there are parts of the Christian church today where people are asked to hold parts of themselves back, and be less then authentic. People have taken rules that humanity “learned” a long time ago -and in certain cultures- and built a fence around them to say- that is sin, wrong in God’s eyes. And often it has to do with gender and sexuality. In some places women are still considered inferior to men and kept from this pulpit, for example, in the name of “a rule.” thanks be to God that is not the case here for me. In many places those who have found their authentic sexuality or gender expression to not be cisgender or heterosexual, they are told by the church to pretend to be something, someone they are not. A fence is put around them as somehow “less” and their true authentic identity is not celebrated as being God’s creation. They are asked to be fake or less than their true selves.
But taking Jesus’ words here suggests that asking someone to pretend to be who they are not is a heavy pack that we tell them they have to carry, and that they should not have to. What Jesus says suggests that that is not pleasing to God. It is a fence we have devised more than truly honoring what God wants, as Jesus says here, to be our true selves and to serve others. To consider first and foremost the great commandments of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. It is not a simple rule that is always the same, and there is no fence, we grow up as people and in our faith we can grow in our understanding as well.
When I was preparing to become a missionary in Argentina, I had to sign a paper for the volunteer program that said I would not enter any romantic relationship with anyone native to Argentina for that year. I signed it. At the moment I felt no qualms, this would be a year for me to focus on God and serving. Well it was not even a month into my time serving in Argentina that it was evident that I had caught someone’s eye and the idea that I was not supposed to be available for romance was also completely foreign to all of my new Argentine friends. What, are we like animals in a zoo to you, look but don’t touch? One of my roommates said. So I struggled mightily. I was used to following the rules. I was comfortable following the rules. But my heart was pulling me a different direction. Long story short Pablo and I have been married for 15 years.
That was a moment of growing in my faith- maturing as a disciple to be able to work through for myself that just following the rules is not always the right course. I was good at following the rules, I felt safe following the rules. But there came a time when I had to grow beyond that limit. Living authentically, loving and serving is the way Jesus taught, but not pretending that my feelings aren’t real or should be denied because of someone else’s rule. Later I found that I felt a kinship to LGBTQ persons because their situation was like mine only times a thousand. It’s not just one person one situation for one year; for them it’s for life that your true heart is off limits or your true self must be denied.
And there are other ways too that we are often taught to be less than our full selves that hurt us. Maybe there is something for you that you were taught was not quite acceptable or not up to others’ expectations. I think many people have been wounded in these ways by society and the church. But Jesus frees us from the rules that just don’t work anymore once you mature. It is a little bit of people lifting themselves up by putting others down, and Jesus speaks against that, too. I think if it’s happened to you, then it’s tempting to do it to others. But Jesus is warning us here. Don’t get lost in the trappings or someone else’s idea of what faithfulness to God has to look like. Don’t try to tell someone else they have to do it your way, either. Be fully you- not fake, not someone else’s idea of what you should be- but always humble and seeing others as equals, and always seeking to fulfill the law by loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.
Sure there are rules that are always good, but sometimes our authentic living out our faith and trust in God leads us to consider the person more than the law. Life is more complicated than simple rules can cover. We can always come back to what Jesus taught is at the center- Love God with your whole self, love your neighbor as yourself. May we learn from Jesus and grow and mature as his disciples, Amen.