Sunday, January 29, 2012

Our Weaker Brother's Keeper

The Scripture referred to is 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

You can tell if the computer program you have to use on the job was done by people who have worked at your profession and understand it or if it was done by computer nerds who were merely told what the program was supposed to do and let go about it anyway they chose. For instance, it might allow you to make errors that someone in your profession would have safeguarded against. Or an important or routine task might have to be accomplished in the most roundabout, if not actually perverse way possible. In radio, I worked with programs designed by folks who were clueless as to how radio stations work as well as programs designed by people who must have been DJs at some point in their lives. And in nursing…apparently, not a lot of nurses go into programming careers. At one nursing home they had a computer program that we had to create work-arounds for in order to do our jobs. For instance, it was set up for 8 hour shifts but we, like most nurses today, were working 12 hour shifts. So the nurse doing my orientation clued me in on how to avoid a major flaw in the program. I was working 7 pm to 7 am. But the computer had one shift ending at midnight. So even though I was working overnight, there were some tasks that had to be completed by midnight or the computer would irrevocably record them as not done and prevent you from charting that they were. So I was told, if I was still passing meds at 11:30 pm (which I would be, since I had more than 2 dozen patients and would be administering hundreds of pills, shots, creams, crushed meds, liquid meds, meds put in applesauce and spoonfed to people with swallowing problems and meds poured down feeding tubes) I must stop, click over to the list of treatments (dressing changes, etc), jot them down and then check them off as if they were done before midnight. The computer could not understand that these things didn't turn into pumpkins at the stroke of 12 and that it little mattered if I did them in the half hour before or after the witching hour. So Day One on the job I was being taught to game the system, not to avoid work but to make sure that neither I nor the nursing home would be penalized for not doing things that were in fact done. The only way to do it was to lie to the computer.

Computers can be forgiven for being rigid; not so much the humans who program them. One time when working for a different healthcare company, I was training a new office manager on how to enter hours a nurse worked and the computer would not allow us to do it the way the time sheet told us to. Frustrated I called Payroll and asked them what we were doing wrong. It turned out that we were entering the right code and we should be entering the wrong one. I kid you not. Either someone changed their mind at some point and swapped the meaning of the 2 codes, or, more likely, the person who made the time sheet template flipped the two. Either way, someone in I.T. should have changed it or sent a memo to tell us that the codes now meant the opposite of what the timesheet said. And what was really infuriating was that the person in Payroll telling me this was irritated with me, as if it should have obvious to anyone with half a brain that the stated definitions of the codes were completely wrong!

Computers are better today than they were 30 years ago when the hospital where I worked had just installed computers with a black background on the screen, green letters and a light pen to order a limited number of tests and supplies. Now if I misspell a simple word like "misspell" (I used one "s" instead of 2 when typing this) my word-processing program automatically corrects it. Browsers are so intuitive that I find it easier to locate a Bible verse by typing it into my browser in whatever form I remember it and let the search engine find it in whatever version my attempt to quote it is closest to. The Bible programs I have installed on my computer are several years old and require me to get the quotation right, word for word. But these days I rarely have to trick my computer into doing things the way I want it to.

I don't subscribe to the idea that rules were meant to be broken. There are reasons for rules. But they seldom take into account every situation that one will encounter and sometimes they need to be adapted. The religious authorities of Jesus' day understood that. The scribes and Pharisees tried to make every one of the 613 laws in the Torah relevant to everyday life and all the circumstances one might encounter when observing them. So some of the stricter laws had work-arounds. Avoiding work on the Sabbath could be a problem. Walking is work, right? So must you simply stay in bed all Sabbath? Of course not. Rabbis came to an agreement of how many steps you could take on the Sabbath, which should be enough to get to your synagogue and back. And steps taken within your home didn't count.

Ah, but what counted as a home, asked one rabbi. Could a tent do or a lean-to? Anything that can be enclosed by a string was the eventual answer they arrived at. I remember reading that after Hurricane Andrew hit an enclave of Orthodox Jews in Miami, one of their top priorities was to get the poles put up at the boundaries of their neighborhood. You see, they had to put up the string that encircled their whole neighborhood or on the Sabbath every time they walked out of their houses, they would have to count their steps and be constrained by the number the rabbis had arrived at centuries ago.

It may sound silly but the rabbis did recognize that some things were more important than these rules. You can violate almost every ritual law, except idolatry or denying God, to save a life. During the Holocaust, a lot of Jews owed their lives to Gentiles whose consciences were stronger than the urge to go along with society. Many of these people were Christians and they risked their lives breaking Nazi laws to hide and save their Jewish neighbors. The entire religious community of Assisi hid Jews in their cloistered monasteries and nunneries. Obviously, under those circumstances, it wasn't always possible to get kosher food. That's OK. If the kosher laws are standing between life and starvation, Jews are permitted to eat what would otherwise be unclean animals. Likewise on the Sabbath if a person needs to get to the hospital or if people have to work to free someone who fell down a well or who was trapped under rubble, that's OK. Only a fool lets rules take precedence over saving a life.

When Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, some Pharisees were outraged because they saw what he did as work. He saw it as the equivalent of saving someone who had fallen down a well or was trapped. I think most modern rabbis would agree. In fact, whenever Jesus appeared to break or change one of these rules, it was to make it less arbitrary and more reflective of moral issues. If the strictness of the law was cruel, as in stoning a woman caught in adultery (but suspiciously, not the man with which she had to be witnessed committing it) he made the rule more merciful. If the law had become so lax it was harming people, such as the laws that allowed a man to divorce his wife if she had burnt his toast or if he found someone prettier, Jesus made it stricter. Rules often take on lives of their own and people forget their original purpose. What Jesus said about the Sabbath could very well apply to most of these laws. They were made for humanity, not vice versa. They were made by God to help and heal us. If they are used to harm people, then they are being abused.

This brings us to the situation Paul encountered in the churches he planted. In most cities in the Roman Empire, the meat markets were run by the local pagan temples. A sacrificial animal was offered to Zeus or whoever, bits of it would be burned before a pagan idol and the rest was sold to the public. This put new Christians in a bind. Was it permissible to eat meat that had first been offered to idols? Some Christians felt this was a betrayal of their allegiance to Christ and gave up meat. Other Christians reasoned that there were no other gods, therefore any ceremonies performed over the meat were meaningless and they had no trouble buying and eating it. Apparently these "enlightened" Christians were pretty arrogant about it. They were brushing aside the scruples of their weaker brothers and sisters in Christ and encouraging them to do things that were against their consciences. And they were getting so conflicted about the matter, that it was destroying their faith.

Now Paul's approach to the controversy is interesting. He agrees with the Christians who see no problem in eating the meat offered to idols. Having been a zealous Pharisee and then coming to Christ after Jesus appeared to him, he realized that salvation was a matter of grace, of God's unreserved, undeserved goodness towards us. We are not and cannot be saved by trying to obey all these rules, but by simply trusting in God's love as embodied in Jesus, who died to do what the law could not. So, as I said, Paul sees that the more knowledgeable Christians are right in not worrying about what pagans did with the meat. Most of his converts were Gentile, and as such did not have to become Jews before becoming Christians. They needn't get circumcised and they needn't observe the Jewish food laws. So you would think Paul would go after the overly scrupulous, almost superstitious Christians.

But no, Paul gives the more enlightened Christians something else to think about. In this case, it's not a matter of knowledge but of love. If someone you love freaks out over something you consider trivial, what do you do? You accommodate the person you love. Kids have lots of rituals. You must always read a certain bedtime story the same way. Crusts must be cut off bread. Different foods can't touch on the plate. Most parents make concessions to their kids in these matters, especially when they are small because it means a lot to them. Were they adults you might tell them to grow up. On the other hand, you'd be a fool to tell that to your girlfriend when she insists you hunt down and kill a spider, which is trying to escape and not bite you. On "Car Talk" Click and Clack, the Tap-it brothers, often deal with spouses who question the validity of some driving ritual their better half insists on. They often tell them whether they should break it to their mate that their little rule doesn't actually work.

You often do things you'd rather not for the comfort of someone you love. And that's what Paul is saying here. Notice that Paul calls the more scrupulous in this matter "weaker" not right. But precisely because the matter here is so important to these weaker believers, the stronger Christians should accommodate them. Love is the more important principle.

Now can you think of anything today more likely to get people's backs up than that? "You're right but you should accommodate those who are wrong but whose faith might shatter if you press them too hard to change." Modern society would laugh at such a rule, if it didn't incite them to flame anyone who said such a thing. "If you don't like it, lump it," they'd say. Because we value a person speaking his mind even if it offends others. Heck, we love Dr. House who insults everyone, friends and foes alike, because he's usually right. He doesn't care who's strong and who's weak. He doesn't care whose life he wrecks. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Of course, House would more likely run over an entire henhouse with a bulldozer. (He is of course a fantasy character. You would not want your doctor to behave like House, any more than you would want real-life cops to shoot people as Dirty Harry does, based on his personal conviction that they deserved it.)

So we have an increasingly rude and deliberately offensive culture, one in which people don't care if what they say or do has negative effects on anyone else. We have, like the smarter-than-average Christians in today's epistle, taken our liberty to mean that we can speak the truth without love and do what we feel is right, ignoring how it affects other Christians. We act like the world does, arrogantly doing things because we can, not asking if we should or not. We do not cut the weak any slack. They need to get with the program. We needn't consider their feelings or listen to their concerns. We're right. And it's knowing we're right that distinguishes us from everyone else--right?

Jesus said the world would know we are his disciples by our love for one another. And Paul says if you let your behavior in a controversial but non-essential issue destroys the faith of other Christians, you are sinning against Christ. Paul would appear to agree with the old saying that goes "In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things love." Imagine what the world would think if Christians said to one another, "I disagree with you on this important but non-essential issue but out of love, I won't let it come between us." Why, they might think we actually are trying to follow Jesus!

No comments:

Post a Comment