I have always been a student of human nature. I suppose that’s one reason I became a priest. I love trying to understand people and trying to understand the human condition. To contemplate the purpose for our existence and to at least attempt to grasp some understanding of the greater meaning of life
One of the most intriguing things I have noticed, is our surprising inability to look at ourselves with a critical eye. We seem to find it so difficult to step back and evaluate ourselves objectively. Of course, this is nothing new. Jesus’ disciples had the same problem, and it was often the subject of his addresses to them. In parable after parable, Jesus tried to get the disciples to understand that what he was teaching them about the Kingdom of God really had less to do with God and more to do with them. It had less to do with God’s laws and more to do with how they saw themselves and their relationships. It’s why Jesus asked so poignantly, “why do you seek to remove the speck of wood from your brother’s eye when you cannot even see the plank of wood in your own?”
And this morning’s gospel reading is no exception.
The story of the crippled woman being healed on the Sabbath is a perfect example of our inability to see beyond our need for order and answers and “getting it right” and to instead look simply at how God calls us to be in relationship with each other, and out of that relationship to build empathy for each other and care for and about each other.
This gospel reading got me thinking . . . do you remember Jesus’ story about the “narrow gate” into heaven? In that gospel reading, Jesus says that “many will seek to enter, but few will be admitted.” When we hear that phrase, we assume that Jesus is telling us something about God . . . namely, that God will judge us, and that many will be found unworthy to be welcomed into God’s kingdom. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was talking about at all. I believe the narrow gate refers is the narrow gates that we ourselves erect. It’s the restrictions on God’s abundant love and mercy that we construct for ourselves and thereby make our own journey into heaven more difficult. When we, for example, refuse to let ourselves believe that we are forgiven. Or when we refuse to open ourselves up to the love of God that we can know in community.
Now from that perspective, think again about the reading from this morning. Think about the people to whom Jesus was speaking (not just the woman who was healed, but the wider audience).
Jesus was always speaking to the wider community, and especially to the religious leaders. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day specialized in “narrow” living. The Pharisees told people that the 613 rules of the Mosaic Law were the answer to all of life’s problems. “Stick to these laws,” they said, “and God will love you.” Into that context comes this woman. She walks into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. For 18 years she had suffered from some unnamed infirmity. All we know is she was bent over and unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” He laid his hands on her and immediately she stood up straight and began to praise God.
This was an amazing, grace-filled moment in this woman’s life. But what did the Pharisees do? They chastised Jesus and this woman because Jesus had broken one of those Mosaic laws by healing her on the Sabbath. For centuries, the leaders of the synagogues had been telling people, “You come to God only by the narrow door of the law.” But do you remember another of Jesus’ teachings? “The sabbath was made for humankind. Humankind was not made for the sabbath!” What Jesus is asking is, “Who is serving whom?” He’s saying that God has no need of a law that puts something before the need to be in relationship. . . to reach out when there is need and to alleviate human suffering. Nothing comes before that.
I think about this almost daily now with the suffering that is taking place on our southern border. I know we have laws. And I know those laws are there for good reasons. But sometimes, even good laws need to be put aside for the sake of the sanctity, the preeminence of relationship. Because our relationships with each other is supposed to mirror God’s relationship with us. And what do you think God would do if we were suffering on one side of a wall and needed to get to the other side to relieve that suffering? Do you think God would let some law get in the way of acting to relieve that suffering? The God I know and love certainly would not.
God’s mercy, God’s love is as wide as the world is vast. It knows no limits. It has no restrictions. And we are called to live in the same way.
It was actually in the context of this experience with the woman healed on the sabbath day that Jesus said in an ironic tone: “Strive to enter by the narrow gate.” “Go ahead, just give it a try. See if you can crawl into the kingdom of God by a narrowly defined set of rules. You’ll never get there that way.”
It always amazes me how much Jesus understood the human condition! How he knew that we seem to have this need to control everything—even by setting up rules that we have to live by in order to receive God’s love:
“You can’t be healed on the sabbath, so come another day;” “God will not accept you if you continue this behavior, so you’d better change who you are”; “Make sure you come to church, or God isn’t going to forgive you.” Well . . . maybe that one’s okay.
You see, we’re masters at creating restrictions on God because by doing so we seek to control just how God can or will act. And when you control the understanding of how God acts, you control people. And when it really comes down to it, that is what restrictive living is all about. It’s about control. It restricts, it represses, and it blocks the flow of love and life. But that is NOT God’s wish for us.
Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that this would never be the case again. By his death and resurrection, Jesus closed the door on human efforts to restrict and control the mercy of God and He cleared the path for God’s mercy and love to flow unrestricted to everyone. All we are asked to do is to receive it.
Restricted grace is not God’s grace.
Grace is only restricted by the human ego.
Grace is only restricted by the laws we erect in front of one another and, ironically, in front of God.
They are the roadblocks that keep life and love and human generosity from flowing freely like a river rushing from a mountain top to the ocean.
The restrictions we put on our behavior need not be narrow like the laws that the Pharisees tried to use to criticize Jesus. But they will be if by enforcing those restrictions we block out the grace, mercy and tenderness of God.
So, why are the laws that we impose on others so restrictive? What is it about our nature that makes us want to set up roadblocks between people and God? Interestingly, Martin Luther felt this tendency is actually none other than the real root of sin. Luther felt that unlike what we think, which is that not living by God’s laws is the heart of sin, actually, it is not seeing God’s laws in light of human need and of our experience of God’s mercy and grace in the face of that need that is the true sin.
For whatever reason, we’re resistant and defensive instead of being willing to trust God’s openness and generosity. Which is a shame, because the only way to truly open ourselves up to God’s love is to trust in God’s grace. If we listen to what Jesus said, we will know that no law can restrict God’s abundant love. Because the knowledge of God’s abundant love breaks our human restrictions wide open, and in the process, it lets God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, and God’s welcome flow freely into our hearts. To both heal us and to empower us to love the world as God has loves us.
So, the next time you encounter a rule, a barrier, a roadblock that seeks to keep you from doing or feeling what you know in your heart is right—stop for a moment. Pray about it, step back and reflect about it, and listen for God’s voice in your heart. Because that barrier you encounter may just be one that you yourself have erected.