Christian Teachings We Rarely Ponder: Law vs. Heart

Mark 2:1-12, 23-28
February 2, 2014

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’
 One Sabbath he was going through the fields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.’

            Back when I went to seminary, I had a big shock. Actually, I had a lot of big shocks, but one of the biggest was an ongoing shock as I discovered that there’s a big difference between what Christianity teaches, and what people teach that Christianity teaches. What I mean is that we are so used to hearing certain ideas we’ve been taught are what Christianity believes, that it’s a shock to go to seminary and find that many of these teachings are folk teachings that aren’t really Christian.

            For example, why do we do good deeds as Christians? It’s to get into heaven after we die, right? Wrong! Actually, what Christianity teaches is that your invitation to get into heaven is already before you. God delivered it when you were conceived because God loved you. We do good deeds because we’ve already got heaven in us, and our good deeds are letting it out and sharing it with others. Our good deeds are a response to God’s love, not a procurement of God’s love.

            Another question: what do we have to do to get into heaven? See what I said above. The invitation is already there. According to Paul, we are justified (saved) by God’s grace that we accept through faith. So the question isn’t so much what do we have to do to get into heaven, because God’s already taken care of that. The question is, “what do we need to do to get heaven to grow more in us?”

            Why do we go to church? Is it so that we can get into heaven? No. Church is a response to God’s love. Sunday worship, regardless of what we may think about it, is there to help us devote one or more hours a week to opening to God’s Spirit and grace, to praying, learning, praising, and becoming prepared to live as the expression of Christ throughout the week. Going to church doesn’t get us into heaven when we die. Church helps us to share heaven as we live.

            You can see that a lot of the misguided lessons we’ve learned center around how to get into heaven when we die. Another question that revolves around what gets us in to heaven and how we live centers around the question, what is the role of the law and the Ten Commandments? Does following the law, and making sure that we are faithful to the Ten Commandments get us into heaven?

            Growing up I always thought that the point of Christianity was to teach us to follow the Ten Commandments, to learn follow the rules, so we can get a pass into heaven when we die. It wasn’t really until I got into seminary that I realized that what Jesus taught actually was quite different. It’s not that Jesus was against the Ten Commandments and the Law. It was that Jesus knew that the Ten Commandments and the Law had become God-substitutes. In other words, people had become so focused on following the law to the nth degree that they were more interested in serving the law than in serving God. It is possible to do that. It is possible to be so focused on doing right that we actually do wrong. It is possible to become so focused on being obedient to the law that we quit being obedient to God.

            Back in Jesus day, people of faith were constantly focusing on doing the right thing instead of focusing on loving God and loving others. Jesus understood that when we love God with mind, heart, soul, and strength, and others as ourselves, we fulfill what the Ten Commandments were intended to lead us to do. He also understood that it was very possible to follow the law and the Ten Commandments and have no love. Why? Because the law is external, while love is both internal and eternal—it resides in our hearts and in God’s kingdom at the same time.

            Basically, Jesus recognized that it was very easy to follow the law to a T, and in the process to violate the law by violating the love of God for humans, and vice versa. In fact, a large part of what Jesus taught was that we are called to live the intent of the law more than by the law itself.

            Jesus recognized that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were obsessed with the law, and in the process were missing God. The Sadducees cared mostly about Temple sacrifices to God, which they thought would appease God. But that didn’t mean that they were leading people to love God or each other. All that mattered to them were the sacrifices. Meanwhile, the Pharisees cared a lot about Holy Scripture and living out the law in daily life. They published book after book after book on how to understand the law and apply it to every area of life. But many were missing love.

            Our passage for this morning is a great example of this very problem. There’s a lot embedded in our passage that most people don’t get. Let’s start with where Jesus is. He is in a house doing healings. How does everyone know he’s there? In ancient Middle Eastern houses, people opened their doors in the morning and left them open all day long. Hospitality matters greatly. From sunup to sundown, it was common to welcome anyone who stopped by into your home. To have a door shut during the day when you were home was considered rude and inhospitable. Jesus had been welcomed into a home, and someone with an infirmity saw him and asked for healing prayer. Others walked by and saw the healing. Soon the whole village knew, and people brought their sick and infirmed to be healed.

            The paralytic and his friends knew that they’d never be able to get through the crowd, so they hauled their friend and his mat onto the roof. Middle Eastern roofs were flat. The roofs were constructed of wood and clay. The house would have been built with beams that cross the ceiling at a space of about 3 feet apart. They would stuff the space between with brush and branches. Then clay would be pushed in so that eventually it formed a solid roof. Often families would plant grass or plants on top of that. The roof then became a place that people would sit on in the evening or morning for a cool breeze.

            Dragging him onto the roof, the paralytic’s friends would have dug through the clay and brush to lower him down. While irritating to the house’s owner, this was easily repaired, so it was not a great hardship for the host. In fact, it was seen as clever, and it became a sign of great faith on the part of the man and his friends. So Jesus forgave the man of his sin.

            Now that’s odd. Why would he forgive the man? Shouldn’t he have just healed him? In those days the Jews saw physical illness and infirmity as an outward sign of sin. They believed that God punished sinners by afflicting them with physical harm. To the Pharisees outside, this man would clearly have been a sinner, or at least his parents were, which meant that his paralysis was justified. But Jesus was saying to him that his sin was washed away. Of course, the law-abiding and obsessed scribes (Pharisaic lawyers who spent their days interpreting the law) were outraged. According to scripture and the law, only God could forgive. Jesus’ forgiving his sins was punishable by stoning because he was acting as God. Jesus was now a blasphemer.

            Jesus knew what they were thinking, so he asked a simple question: is it any easier to heal a man than to forgive his sins? He knew that they wouldn’t be able to answer because they could do neither. So he then healed the man. That set the scribes over the top. He had blasphemed, and then swayed the crowd against them by healing the man, therefore showing everyone there that Jesus could forgive sins. They considered him to be of the devil. They were now looking for any infraction of the law. Jesus had acted toward the paralytic in love, but all the scribes cared about was law.

            They soon found another infraction on the Sabbath. Jesus and his disciples were going through a wheat field, plucking and eating the grains. According to the law this counted as work, which was against the law on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was to be kept holy. People rested on the Sabbath by law. You could not cook a meal between sunup and sundown. You could not feed a horse. You couldn’t clean your house. You couldn’t do anything that could be interpreted as work. Plucking grain and eating it was considered to be work. Jesus was breaking the law.

            Jesus’ response? The Sabbath was made to refresh humans. Humans weren’t created to obey the Sabbath. In a way, he was saying that the law was created to guide humans, but humans weren’t created to serve the law. They were created to love and serve God.

            Ultimately, these stories teach us that Christian faith is more about love, not law. And you can see this teaching in the one magi who failed to visit Jesus. You know about the fourth wise man, don’t you? You may know about the other three: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar. Did you know about the fourth, Artaban? No? Not many have.

            There is an old story about the fourth magi. He was supposed to meet up with the other three to make their way across the desert. He was to bring with him a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl of great price. He managed to procure them, but he was late getting to the meeting point. He had found a man dying on the side of the road, and knew that he must care for the man. Much like the story of the Good Samaritan, he ended up paying for the care of the man. He did so by selling the sapphire. By the time he reached the rendezvous point, the other three had left without him. With the extra money he had to purchase a caravan for himself to travel across the waterless void of the desert.

            By the time he got to Bethlehem, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had fled to Egypt to escape the edict by Herod (who had been told that a new king had been born) that all first-born children were to be killed. Knowing that Jesus was now in Egypt, Artaban made plans to go there. Suddenly there was a knock on the door of the house where he was staying. It was the Herodian guards come to kill the first-born son of the host. Artaban felt he had no choice. He gave the ruby to the guard as a bribe to save the young child.

            Artaban travelled to Egypt, but could find no trace of Jesus. From there he wandered for another 32 years, seeking out this new king, but always finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Finally, while visiting Jerusalem, he heard that Jesus, the man who would be king of the Jews, was being crucified. He knew that this was the king he had been seeking all along. He quickly moved to Golgatha, thinking that he could use the pearl as a bribe to procure Jesus’s release

            On the way he heard a scream. It was a young girl running toward him: “Please help me! My father is in debt, and they are going to sell me as a slave to pay his debts.” Artaban tok his pearl and gave it to the authorities to pay off the father’s debts and to save the girl. He was ashamed. He spent his life bearing gifts for the king, and he had squandered them.

            Suddenly there was an earthquake as Jesus died on the cross. Tile from the building he was in fell on Artaban’s head. It was a mortal blow. As the young girl cradled his head in her lap, he started speaking: “When, Lord? When did I see you hungry and give you food? When did I see you thirsty and give you drink? When did I see you naked and clothe you? When did I see you in prison and visit you?” Suddenly, the girl heard a loud voice responding, “Whenever you did these to anyone, you did them to me. You did it to me when you sold the sapphire to help a dying man. You did it when you sold the ruby to save an imperiled child. And you did it now when you sold the pearl to save this girl. Each time you did this, you shared your gift with me.” 

            Artaban smiled, exhaled, and died. He had been seeing Jesus his whole life.

            Ultimately what this teaches us is that the law is there to give us guidance, and to show us what loving God would lead us to do. But following the Ten Commandments, following the law, and even doing the Golden Rule, is not the same as loving others.

            Basically, we are called to live by our hearts—to live by where God lives in us—not just by following the law. Life isn’t so much a matter of how well we followed the rules, but by how well we let God’s love rule in our hearts, minds, and souls.