We often talk about rules in the Bible. How many times have you heard someone say or read where they wrote, “These are Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions?” Earlier we looked at two great exceptions given in Scripture. Today let’s look at two classic passages on the subject. In Matthew 15 we are told of some Pharisees and scribes who came from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him, “Why do your disciples break the traditions of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat?” Earlier in chapter 12 beginning in verse 1 Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grain field on the Sabbath and the disciples were hungry. They began plucking heads of grain and rubbing it in their hands and eating it. The Pharisees saw it and said to Jesus, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” So they were challenging Jesus for the actions of his followers both in failing to follow tradition and in following the Sabbath Law. It is still quite common for people to challenge the followers of Jesus on the basis of these two things, breaking traditions and breaking a law. How did Jesus respond?
In chapter 15 his response was to point to their own failures in following the Law and making exceptions that God rejected. “He answered them, And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your traditions?” He pointed to the law, “Honor your father and mother.” The command was clear but they had invented an escape clause. If a person said of their goods that they are dedicated to the temple, then they were released from the command to honor father and mother when they were old, disabled or unable to care for themselves. “So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” An important principle is laid down here by Jesus with regard to exceptions. It is that when we try to get around doing what God clearly commands us to do by making some religious way around it, we are completely wrong. Jesus went on to tell them that what defiled a person wasn’t what entered the body from the outside but what came out of the heart of a person.
In chapter 12 when they are accused of violating the Sabbath, Jesus turned the challenge around with a question. “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presences, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
Consider several things in this. Were Jesus’ disciples violating the Sabbath? In light of a story found in Numbers 15 when a man was stoned to death because he picked up sticks on the Sabbath, we would have to say they were violating the Sabbath of not performing any work on the Sabbath. What then do the answers Jesus gave mean to us? Notice he pointed to two exceptions to Laws that they were familiar with and agreed with. David and his men were running from Saul and were famished. The only bread available in the house of God was the holy bread only the priest could eat, but it was given to them to eat. Their hunger was more important to save their life than to maintain the sacred bread. His second illustration was that the priest violate the Sabbath every week by doing the work God requires of them but it isn’t held against them because it is God’s command. It is then that Jesus laid down another huge principle as it relates to rules and exceptions. He said if they had understood the meaning of statement, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Notice as it relates to laws of God and priorities we must remember that God has greater concern for mercy than for fulfilling the legal requirements such as sacrifices. The people in Micah’s day had felt that as long as they were going to the temple, fulfilling the requirements of the law in their tithes and offerings to God, then it wasn’t so important how they lived each day or how they cared for the hurting among them. God told them they had their priorities mixed up.
As it relates to the Sabbath law that was extremely important for the Jews in their devotion to God, Jesus made several points that matter. First, He is Lord of the Sabbath. He was the one who gave the law and knew the purpose so it is under his control. Second, he noted that the Sabbath was made for man not the other way around. It was intended to do good by giving us a time for rest and focusing of our lives on God and His will. It had been turned into a huge legal mess that one had to take extreme care to be certain he hadn’t missed some detail. If you got every detail right, did not work and didn’t lift anything too heavy but failed to take care of a person in need right before you, it wouldn’t matter how well you had observed the Sabbath. Mercy trumps sacrifice.
Churches can become so focused on making certain we do everything just right in worship and praise to God that they loose sight of the purpose of the worship and the mission of the church. When we are so focused on doing the five items of worship that we walk through them in rote without even considering the significance of each and how it relates to our worship to God, we have missed the point entirely. When our whole spiritual life is centered around things like attendance and giving, but we aren’t doing anything to share the message of good news with anyone or to lead anyone to the Savior we have turned the church into a chaplaincy and lost our mission. Every rule or law of God has to be looked at from the stand point of purpose rather than just a rule that God has given so that we can check off our obedience each day. Sabbath has a powerful purpose. Give people rest and time to medicate and worship God. But when it is reduced to a set of rules that make it a miserable burden, it has been abused.
Notice that Jesus immediately after his statement about Sabbath went on from there and entered their synagogue. “A man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath,’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.” In healing the man Jesus fulfilled the mission of the Sabbath to do man good, but he broke the rules that were surrounding it in the process. Did he do wrong? Absolutely, not. He knew the goal of the Sabbath and reached for that goal rather than getting lost in the details of the law.
Think of the command to Honor father and mother. What if your father is abusive, and sexually assaults you from the time you are five years old? What if your mother is a prostitute who sells you as her daughter for sex to men who come to see her? In my years of working with people, I’ve seen this very situation played out numerous times. Do these people need to honor their parents or get away from them and learn different models on which to base their life? A wife is to be true to her husband and keep the marriage vows to be there in sickness, health, wealth or poverty and so on. But what if that husband is sexually abusing the daughter he fathered and you as his wife brought into the world? What if that abuse has gone on since she was a baby and now you find out when she is three years old? Should you stay in that marriage and try to make it work or should you put your child’s safety ahead of the marriage vows and get out? When faced with that question from a young mother my answer was, your daughters safety should have priority. She is dependent on you to protect her and show her a right way to live. Get out and do it now!
With the rules there must be a look at the purpose of the rule and are there other teachings that are even more important that apply?