Self-righteous people can be very frightening, don’t you think? And they’re usually filled with negative goodness. They don’t smoke or don’t drink or don’t swear or don’t ever pop to the supermarket on a Sunday. And they make you feel incredibly guilty if you succumbed to any of those things. The trouble is that they portray religion as something life-restricting and negative, rather than something than sets us free and gives us joy. ‘I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’ Jesus says in St. John’s Gospel (10.10).
In today’s Gospel reading we meet religious people who are opposed to Jesus and what He does; in fact they are out to kill Him. Jesus is wounded well before Good Friday. The Jesus of St. Mark’s Gospel is a man who is constantly being watched. They watch Him eat, they watch who He eats with. They watch Him in the synagogue. They watch Him walking through the fields. Every inch of the way He is under observation. One step out of line – the line drawn by those who pride themselves in their strict interpretation of the law – and He is immediately attacked. How must that have felt?
The thorns, the spear and the nails are yet to come, but in the meantime we shouldn’t minimise the pain which the professionally pious inflict on Jesus by their wilful refusal to recognise that God is doing a new thing amongst them. We read that He is angered and distressed by the hardness of His opponents’ hearts.
It begins in a cornfield. As the disciples are going through the field, they pluck ears of corn and eat them. It’s a moot point as to whether they are actually contravening the law, but it is the Sabbath day, and the act of plucking the corn can be interpreted as work - they are not supposed to work on the Sabbath. Clearly they are being spied on. The Pharisees point out the error of their ways to Jesus in the expectation that He will tell them not to do such a thing. But if He were to give in to this sort of pettiness, how could He claim to be leading people to freedom? Jesus replies by telling them how David, when hungry, ate the sacred bread that only the priests could eat.
The action then turns to the synagogue. The religious leaders wait to see what Jesus will do as there is a man with a withered hand. Jesus doesn’t play for safety. He asks the man with the withered hand to come forward. ‘is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath?’ he asks. ‘To save life or to kill?’ Jesus opponents have no answer. They are already plotting the death of Jesus. Jesus is sad and even angry at their hardness of heart. Like Pharaoh dealing with Moses and the people of Israel, hardness of heart is a practised art. The more you do it, the harder the heart becomes. Jesus heals, giving new life to the man with the withered hand.
Jesus’ answers to His critics provide a window on to His mind in how the Mosaic Law should be interpreted. Whether or not Jesus and His disciples were actually breaking the letter of the law is not the point. Jesus’ interpretation of the law is, in modern church-speak, liberal. The point Jesus is making is that religion is not primarily about rules and regulations, but about a relationship with God. It’s no use keeping the rules without a loving relationship; in fact, it’s the worst sort of hypocrisy, because rules without love are cruel and despotic. God wants our obedience, but not as slaves. He wants us to do His will out of love.
Paul’s extraordinary testimony in his letter to the Corinthians is that what he has suffered, what he carries with him in his body, is the death of Jesus. And it is this very death-like suffering for the sake of the Gospel that, in fact, brings life. So although death is at work in all of us, through it we have life and can bring life to others, because of Jesus. It’s called atonement, and it’s absolutely extraordinary.
Paul gets very frustrated with the Corinthians because of their endless schisms and scandals. They are slow to learn the ways of Christ. Jesus, too, is distressed by the way His opponents put the observance of the minutiae of the law above love of God and neighbour. We can all think of examples from within our own experience of church and community where the application of the rules has been put above the law of love. Sometimes it’s easier for us to follow and apply a set of rules than it is for us to love those who we don’t like, or whose lifestyle or habits are not conducive to us.
At the end of our Gospel passage today, the Pharisees and the Herodians form an unholy alliance in order destroy Jesus. Normally they hated one another, but now they conspire together in order to get rid of Jesus. For those who live only by the law, the freedom offered in Christ seems hugely threatening.
Rules and regulations are necessary both in society and as part of the governance structure of the Church, in order to avoid chaos and lawlessness and to help us to live in love and peace with each other, but as soon as they become an end in themselves, we need to be worried. And especially we need to be worried if we find ourselves watching other people in order to try to catch them out. This is what Julian of Norwich had to say on the subject, and she was a very wise woman :-
"The soul that wants to be at peace must flee from thoughts of other people’s sins as though from the pains of hell..for the consideration of other people’s sins makes a sort of thick mist before the eyes of the soul, and during such times we cannot see the beauty of God unless we regard the sins with sorrow for those who commit them, with compassion and with a holy wish for God to help them; for if we do not do this, the consideration of sins harms and distresses and hinders the soul."
Julian believed that looking at another person’s sin clouded the eyes of the soul, unless compassion was the sole motive for the looking, and I’m sure she was right.
The Sunday next before Lent