Ezekiel 47:1-9,12/Psalm 46:1-8/John 5:1-18
Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a festival of the Jews because he was, of course, Jewish–and going up to Jerusalem was what you did. Jesus and his disciples were Jewish and thought of themselves as such—the divorce between church and synagogue was still some decades away. Jesus and his followers were still very much grounded in the Jewish tradition.
And, yet, Jesus could be subversive of that tradition, deliberately violating received norms. And he would not have been alone. Within any society there are going to be those who conform and those who push the envelope—and those who do both. The Pharisees, by the way, are not given a fair shake in the New Testament. They are a caricature of observance to the point of absurdity as a foil to Jesus’ more sensible approach to things. But, like in any other social entity, there surely was in first century Judaism a range of observance from strict to lax. And a range of temperaments from strict conformists to rebels and subversives. People are people, after all.
A range of temperaments—looking at things from an anthropological point of view—a range of temperaments probably has survival value. A society made up only of rigorous conformists will develop “hardening of the categories” and find it difficult to adapt to any new realities. A society made up only of firebrand rebels and subversives just won’t cohere. (A rebel needs something to rebel against; a subversive needs something to subvert.) A healthy society needs something of a mix of both temperaments for stability, on the one hand, and progress on the other.
In most societies, there will be extremists on either end of the spectrum, but the majority will be found clustered near the center of the distribution curve. Most of us will have some tendency to conform and also some tendency to push the envelope. Jesus would be somewhere near the average, I suppose: he embraced some conformity to Jewish norms and also a certain willingness to subvert the norms. As in this story: he observes the Jewish festival by going up to Jerusalem; but he violates the strict Sabbath observance by telling the man to take up his pallet and carry it away.
Christians have always thought of Jesus as, among other things, an example, someone in whose footsteps to walk. And so, it makes sense for us to be grounded in some level of conformity to received norms—but, at the same time, allow for some subversion of those norms. Growth and progress require some subversion of accepted norms. In the church, like in any other social entity, we can well imagine a healthy mix of a few radicals at either end of the spectrum and the larger number of average types in the middle. A few dyed-in-the-wool conservatives on one end of the spectrum, a few flaming liberals on the other—and most folks somewhere in between. A good mix gives us both stability and adaptability. Growth requires both stability and adaptability.
Regardless of where we find ourselves on the temperament spectrum (radical conformists, radical subversives, radical middle-of-the-roaders)—regardless of where we find ourselves, we need some kind of ultimate standard. We need some standard by which to gauge our approach to things. What is that standard?
The Gospel story offers an answer: the standard is life and health. The life and health of human beings. The healing of the lame man on the Sabbath is about bringing him to life and health. As Jesus says elsewhere, “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” [Mk. 2:27] There is a general principal articulated here: human health and well being are the standard by which our religious observance is measured. The well being of flesh and blood people trumps everything else, including religious observance. Even religious observance has, or should have, as its goal the health and well being of people.
The strict conformist needs to ask, does my conformity lead to health and well being? The rebel needs to ask, does my subversion lead to health and well being? The average Joe needs to ask, does my middle-of-the-road approach lead to health and well being? It takes all kinds, as they say—and the church is no exception. It takes all kinds—but the standard is the same, the question is the same: does this lead to life, to health, to well being?
As Jesus was grounded in his Jewish identity, but not rigidly bound by particular norms of piety and practice, so we Christians can be grounded in our identity, and not rigidly bound by any particular norms of religious practice. We can be grounded, but not bound. We can, and should, be ready to reach out in freedom toward that which is more life-giving, more conducive to health and well being.
As the Body of Christ, we do this together. And in this corporate movement, this corporate growth we do well to cherish the range of temperaments we see in one another. There is survival value in incorporating into any body a variety of temperaments. With one provision: that all recognize a common goal. And that would be, if I understand the Gospel, the health and well being of people. Religious observance is not, if I understand the Gospel, about appeasing a potentate God on some celestial throne. If I understand the Gospel, God is most pleased by the health and well being of people.
Does this way lead to health and well being? To justice? Love? Compassion? Will the lame walk? Will the blind see? Will the deaf hear? Will the poor be fed? The naked clothed? Does this way lead to life?
This is not always an easy question to answer. There is abundant paradox in the Christian life: the way to life can pass by the way of the cross. Poverty can be the way to riches. Giving can be the way to receiving. Loss the way to gain. Being last can make us first. And people will not always agree what leads to life. What is believed to lead to life in Massachusetts may not be what is believed to lead to life in Nigeria. And divorce can still happen, just as in the first century Jewish/Christian split.
But even as we stumble forward toward life in its fullness, we lean upon a merciful savior who holds us even if we take all the wrong turns. He reminds us to keep our eyes on the prize: life itself. The fuller life of our earthly humanity and the still greater life of eternity. As St. Irenaeus put it in such a beautiful nutshell: The glory of God is the human being fully alive.
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