Sunday, August 25, 2013

Rule Breaking as an Act of Obedience

I am a lover of rules.

I don't always follow the rules, particularly if I believe they are foolish, ridiculous, or designed to make my life more inconvenient. This, however, is rarely the case. Most of the time, I ask for more rules. Or perhaps not more rules, per se.

Rather, I have a habit of wanting clarifications to the rules. Leave nothing to chance. Make sure everything is crystal clear. Even if it seems completely obvious to everybody else in the room, if there exists any possibility whatsoever for misinterpretation, I clarify. Obsessively. To the point of driving others to distraction.

I do not do this for the sake of frustrating other, regardless of what they may believe. For me, knowing where the boundaries lie is a matter of knowing what is expected. If one knows the expectations are, one can either meet them or they cannot. But they are prepared for the reward or the punishment if they know.

In my life outside of the church, I work as a technical writer. I began this job 9 months ago. I really, really, really love some aspects of it.

What is surprising about this is that the thing I love most about this job is the thing I initially believed I would dread. The thing I initially found most intimidating is the thing that I now find comfort in.

HTML coding.

HTML is the back-end coding of the computer world. Say you send an email to a friend. You open up a new message and begin to type. You highlight some words and bold them, others you might italicize, some you may change the size and color. You do all of this with the click of a button.

What those of you who are not familiar with code do not know is that your email is writing in a completing different language. Every time you change some aspect your font, there are a whole string of things going on in the code that make it look the way you want it to.

Now, knowing HTML is not necessary for my job. In fact, of the ten or twelve people who work as technical writers for this company, I think I'm the only one who prefers to write exclusively in HTML rather than the layout format you would see on a typical webpage.

And it's totally possible to do the job of a technical writer with little to no HTML knowledge. It's really only necessary on occasion, when things don't show up quite right on the page, and you have to go into the code to figure out why. When that happens, there are a ton of online sites that will either give you a tutorial, or (if all else fails), my co-workers and I have the option of forwarding the code on to someone trained in HTML to "clean up" the code and make the layout look the way we want it to.

Never one to shy away from learning a new technical skill, when it came to cleaning up HTML codes, I dived in full force. I would stare at the code, going through it line by line, character by character, doing what I could to figure out why something didn't work quite the way I had anticipated when I wrote a document in the layout format.

After six weeks of this, I moved to writing in HTML code all the time.

And this is the reason: HTML coding is language that is dominated by rules, perfectly logical, and totally consistent. There is no derivation from the rule. Whenever you open a characteristic, you eventually have to close that characteristic. Everything between the opening and the closing will be defined by the specified characteristic. And the rationale behind defining those characteristics makes total sense.

You want something italicized, you open the < em(phasis) > tag and close the < /em(phasis) > tag when you've reached the end of what you're italicizing. You want something bolded, you open the < strong >  tag and close the < /strong > tag when you've reached the end of what you're bolding.

Want to build a table?  We can do that! We'll open a < table > tag.  We'll define the border, the spacing, the size of the cells, the orientation of the contents. When we're done, we'll close the < /table > tag.

We have perfectly logical, totally consistent rules which we use to define the parameters of our document's content in the language of HTML.

HTML might be the single most beautiful language in the world.

At least in the very humble opinion of this woman who really, really, really loves rules.

And who really wants all rules to be defined to the point that there is no room, whatsoever, for misinterpretation.

This leads me to believe that I would have been a truly awesome and extremely successful first century Palestinian Jewish boy.

If ever there was a group of people portrayed as loving rules and loving to define the exact parameters of every rule, accounting for all possible contingencies, that group would be the religious leaders as portrayed in our gospels.

You see, in the Jewish religious context, there are certain rules that one is to follow: Have no other gods before God, do not make any graven images, do not take the Lord's name in vain, remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy....  On the list goes. To a count of 10.

Ten commandments. Ten rules to govern Jewish religious life. There are other laws, 613 in fact, that deal with daily life.

However, when it comes to the big ones, there are ten.

But what do those rules really mean?

And so, beginning early in Jewish history and continuing throughout, an oral tradition has been a part of Jewish religious life.

This oral tradition was essentially discussions, carried on by the religious authorities, defining, clarifying, and establishing the parameters around the Law. Arguing, refining, and making sense of any law that left room for interpretation. Codified to the point that there could be no question as to whether or not specific actions violated the rules.

And this is where we meet Jesus in the text today. At the point of conflict with the religious leaders who see his act of healing a crippled woman as "work" on the Sabbath. After all, the commandments are clear: remember the Sabbath day; keep it holy; do no work; be imitators of God who spent six days creating and rested the seventh, blessing it and setting it aside.

What does that mean? Remember the Sabbath; set it aside; do no work.

What is work?

There are many schools of thought within Judaism about what constitutes work. The Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. In current times, among Orthodox Jews (the most conservative branch), anything that requires physical effort is considered work.

When I was a chaplain at a hospital in New York City, we had an elevator that was assigned Sabbath duty from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday every week.

This elevator was keyed to automatically stop at every single floor, beginning at the ground and finishing on the 12th floor. "Do not take elevator #6 on Friday nights or Saturdays!" my boss warned us during our orientation.

Why? Because the physical effort of pushing an elevator button is considered work. Orthodox Jews visiting loved ones in the hospital could not push the elevator button and remain faithful to the tenants of their religion. So, the hospital coded the elevators to stop automatically at every floor in order to honor their faith.

Now this might seem extreme to some, but I think there is something comforting about knowing exactly where the lines are drawn, knowing exactly what is expecting, knowing exactly what I can and cannot get away with. ;)

In first century Palestine, then, a time and place in which elevators did not exist, but physicians certainly did, healing was considered work. It was the work of a physician.

So Jesus shows up on the scene, on the Sabbath, is teaching in the synagogue, in front of the religious authorities, sees a woman who has been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years; he calls her forward and says to her, "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." Then, he puts his hands on her, and immediately, she straightens up and praises God.

Jesus healed her, with a word or a touch. The text is not clear if the healing came with his declaration or with his placing his hands upon her. What is clear, however, is that Jesus healed. On the Sabbath. He did the work of a physician. On the day when one is not to do any work.

Jesus broke the rules. He broke the clearly defined rules that the religious authorities had debated for centuries and decided that work included healing.

Rather than attack Jesus, however, the synagogue ruler instead chastises the people, telling them to come and be healed on any of the other six days of the week.

This does not sit well with Jesus. Here he challenges the synagogues leader's definition of work: you untie your ox or donkey and lead it to water on the Sabbath, he declares. If it is not work for you to unbind an animal in an act of basic care and stewardship, then how can it possibly considered work for Jesus to unbind a woman in an act of mercy and love?

This response, of course, shamed Jesus's opponents, while the people were delighted by the wonderful acts Jesus was doing.

But why were the religious authorities so concerned with the rules, with doing everything right, with so rigidly structuring every aspect of life they left no room for the possibility of breaking the rules?

Because the Torah (the Jewish scripture or what we call the Old Testament) is very, very clear about this: obey the laws of God and you will be rewarded; break the laws of God and bad things will happen.

And in first century Palestine, the life of the Jewish people does not communicate reward.

This is the era of Roman oppression. A foreign government has come in and declared themselves the ruler. They have set up their own government, commerce, and rules. They have set up their own worship, which does not honor God. They have created a peaceful system of government and civil life that remains peaceful so long as you follow their rules.  And their rules are not God's rules.

And this follows years of being captured, ruled over, made slaves to other foreign nations. At this point in their history, the Jewish people are likely wondering, "What have we done wrong and how can we avoid any further mistakes? How can we return to following the rules so that we might, once again, enjoy God's favor?"

And so we have rules to govern the rules that were created to explain the rules that defined the rules that God first established.  Because in following rules to govern the rules created to explain the rules that defined the rules that God first established, you will eliminate any chance, whatsoever, that you might even accidentally break God's commands. And if you can eliminate any chance of breaking God's rules, then in keeping the rules, you will find favor with God.

If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on [God's] holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord's holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and [God] will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob. 

Keep the Sabbath and you will ride in triumph.

How does one find favor with God in first century Palestine? Follow the rules.

How does one make sure they're following the rules? Put more rules around the rules so that you cannot risk breaking the rules established by God.

Does this work? As one who likes to clarify and define things to a point that is often frustrating to others, I'd like to say yes. This is a beautiful example of how to follow the rules. It's simple, clear, direct, logical, makes rational sense, and it's easy to follow. Just don't do work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

If you're unclear on what work is, let's define it! Let's come up with a definition so specific and so clear that no one is left in any doubt as to what is meant.

Let's create hard and fast rules that are always consistent, always clear, always logical, perfectly rational. Let's create a religion, more than that, a complete life that functions like HTML coding....

Open the < Sabbath > tag Friday evening and close the < /Sabbath > tag on Saturday night.

Do no work between these tags!

Not sure what qualifies as work? Play it safe!

Untying a yoke? Might be work. Best leave people bound.

Feeding someone who cannot feed him or herself? You're lifting a spoon. Might be work. Best leave people hungry.

See someone who is being oppressed? Fighting injustice is work. Best leave the oppressed in dire situations.

Why? Because it might be work, and we cannot do work on the Sabbath, because if we do work on the Sabbath, we may never regain the Lord's favor.


Except that whole part where God defines what is expected of us.

Not the rules around the rules that are designed to keep us from breaking the rules.

This is what God has to say:

If you do away with the yoke of oppression, if you do away with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. Then the Lord will guide you always; then he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. Then you will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. 

Is healing work? Is removing the yoke of oppression work? Is caring for people work? Is loving one another work?

Oftentimes it can feel like it.

Loving people, caring for them, seeking justice, seeking healing is not always easy. But it is always worth it.

Sometimes it means breaking the man-made rules that surround us and order our lives -- rules which be the laws established by local, state or federal governments; social mores; family or cultural expectations. But it also means a deeper obedience to the laws of God.

Sometimes it means sacrificing ourselves and it may seem as though there is no reward. But it comes with the promise that God will guide us, satisfy our deepest needs, and strengthen us -- particularly when we our own human weakness and frailty would leave us defeated, empty, and lost.

Sometimes breaking the rules is an act of obedience. One which requires discernment and wisdom.

Do we find excuses, religious or otherwise, not to do the will and work of God? Or are we willing to break the rules in obedience to God's laws?

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