Message for 3 June 2018–“Reject Perverse Religion”

A beautiful teachable moment emerges from one of today’s lectionary readings (Mark 2:23 – 3:6). The scene begins with Jesus and his disciples strolling through a grain field on the Jewish sabbath, the weekly holy time. Jesus’ crew were picking and eating some of the grain along their way. So far, this scene doesn’t seem like too much of a problem—except to the rascal cadre of bureaucrats, a band of what we might refer to today as Gestapo-like “religious police.” Such zealous defenders of the religious establishment eventually had Jesus executed, with official support from the Roman occupiers of Judea.

Throughout his career, Jesus was plagued by pestiferous, tantrum-throwing critics. Today’s episode is just one among many, and the critics in this instance were upset that Jesus’ disciples had violated the religious law, presumably by harvesting a tiny amount of grain during the holy sabbath. Jesus didn’t deny that his followers had broken the religious law. Instead, Jesus prioritized the situation by elevating peoples’ needs above the literal letter of the law. Jesus summed this up brilliantly when he said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath . . .” (Mark 2:27). Let these words sink-in and blossom with possibility. Jesus is implying that it’s wrong to force people to follow arcane religious rules when it makes them go hungry.

There are aspects of religion that are broken and burdened by self-inflicted wounds, by the tendency to crush people under nonsense beliefs and practices. As with the form of Judaism that persecuted Jesus, so the tendency for religions to persecute people continues. History is littered by the corpses of religiously inspired violence, by the destructive effects of imposing rules and traditions which constrict and even extinguish life rather than enhance it.

Jesus’ stroke of genius lay in how he put religious law in its place. Then as now, religions institutions provide their officials power and prestige, often at the expense of human rights. In idolizing an organization over God, bureaucracies and the people who feed them threaten life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. By emphasizing the literal letter of the Old Testament law, cruelly misguided watchdogs like the critics biting at Jesus’ heels miss the truth behind the law they erroneously claim to serve. In their blind obedience, people who elevate religious law over human needs commit a greater crime by forsaking God and injuring humanity. You and I are called to take a stand against all such evil. As we follow Jesus’ example, we share both a responsibility and privilege to confront anyone who substitutes servile obedience for love and truth.

No sooner had Jesus silenced the critics about the food harvesting issue than he entered the Jewish house of worship known as a synagogue. Inside, Jesus encountered a man with a disfigured hand, which with miraculous compassion Jesus healed. “What could be wrong with this” you ask? As before, Jesus critics became outraged that Jesus may have committed a technical violation of that cursed religious law. Jesus proclaimed, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill? But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart . . . “(Mark 3:4-5b). God is similarly outraged when people elevate law over love, which is like an attempt to slap God from the divine throne. Jesus’ critics couldn’t accept that healing trumps religious law. Imagine denying a wonderful healing for the sake of elevating a silly custom. Like Jesus, we shout “No way!”

The example of the man’s healed hand highlights the puny-hearted legalists, drooling with anticipation hoping they could justify their salary by enforcing religious law (which seems to be their sad, misanthropic mission in life). It’s amazing that the critics of both ancient and modern times miss the miracle in front of them and instead focus on their maniac mission. This is what happens when a disabling religious law—perverse religion—raises its ugly head. God is calling truth and love seekers to avoid toxic faith, anything which suffocates souls under a dung heap of religious law. Love sets us free, but sometimes the price is high as we struggle against people intent on killing the soul one rule at a time.

In both the situation of harvesting and healing, Jesus’ critics ignored truth and instead focused on a misguided preference for hardness. Religion mustn’t build itself on such a twisted, legalistic foundation, of mimicking society’s secular legal system by constructing traditions, requirements and regulations that snuff life. May all who seek God form a life-enhancing personal connection, one that doesn’t deny the need for some rules and administrative structure but that relegates them behind peoples’ needs. Let us therefore allow the spirit of love and truth to transcend the critics’ unholy trinity of fear, ignorance and anger. Eat and feed your soul in God’s kingdom, and receive miraculous spiritual healing for whatever disfigures your life.    –Reverend Hoxey