They say “Rules were meant to be broken.” “They” are fools. Rules are meant to be obeyed unless there is some overriding reason not to. Let's take the rules which we nurses must follow. A nurse is supposed to wash her hands with soap before and after every patient contact. If she is doing a dressing change or taking blood or starting an IV or cleaning up any body fluids, she must also wear gloves. This is important to protect both the nurse and the patient from contamination. It is the breaking of those rules that have led to so many hospital-borne infections. (BTW, doctors are to wash and glove as well. Don't feel shy about asking them to do so before they touch you or a loved one.)
But one time at a nursing home I was taking care of a patient in his room when another patient, with a dementia-driven urge to walk literally every second she was awake, fell right at the door to the room. She sustained a scalp wound so it was bleeding profusely. Had I followed proper hygiene protocol I would have washed my hands with soap for at least 30 seconds, dried my hands and then gotten gloved up before going from one patient to the next. But there was an old lady bleeding from her head lying 10 feet from me! So I went right to her. I probably grabbed some paper towels to hold against her wound. And I yelled for my colleagues to come and help. I broke some rules but I knew which ones to break and why it was necessary. And as soon as I could I gloved and cleaned and dressed the wound using gauze instead of paper towels. We called 911 and sent her to the hospital and she was sent back in a few hours with stitches.
You have to know the rules and the reasons for them if you are going to break them for a better reason. If you see the very early work of Pablo Picasso, you might be surprised to find out he could draw well. Having mastered the rules of realistic art, he was able to decide which rules he could or should break in order to get the effect he was aiming for. I doubt "Guernica" would be as resonant a picture of the chaos of a civilian bombing during the Spanish Civil War had it been painted in the photo-realistic style of Norman Rockwell.
Jesus broke rules, notably the ones about observing the Sabbath. But Jesus wasn't just doing it to be a rebel like a teenager or a lovable rogue as in the movies. In fact, the rules he was breaking were man-made ones, not scriptural. The Bible simply forbids work on the Sabbath. It was the interpretation of certain Pharisees that this included healing others. And like me going to the fallen woman, Jesus broke the rules because something more important was at stake: the life or health of another human being. The prohibition about working on the Sabbath was not arbitrary. Its purpose was to dedicate the day to God. And what better way to dedicate the day to God than by healing and doing good to those created in his image?
In fact if you look at the rules Jesus is analyzing in our reading from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-37), you will see that Jesus is not so much laying them aside as bringing out the essence of each.
For instance, Jesus looks at the command prohibiting murder. On the face of it all it does is say you can't kill someone intentionally. It reminds me of a bit of dialogue in the TV series Firefly where the crew is mounting a rescue of their captain from the well-armed lair of a master criminal. And they are surprised to see the preacher on board arming himself. “Preacher, doesn't the good book say something against murder?” they ask him. “Yeah,” he admits. “But it is a might fuzzy about kneecaps.” True. But part of the reason we laugh is that we know the preacher is splitting hairs and ignoring the deeper teachings of the Bible. Jesus says that if you are angry at another person or call him names, “you will be liable to the hell of fire.” In other words, any enmity is that serious. And if Jesus says the commandment against murder applies to anger and insults, then we can assume it also rules out maiming and torture and bullying.
Why would Jesus make the leap from murder to badmouthing someone? Because in our anger we often leap the other way, from insults and curses to violence. In TV mysteries, murder is often meticulously plotted out and executed in cold blood. But in reality most murders are between people who know each other or between family members. And it usually starts with a fiery argument that escalates until one person kills another. Think of all the police reports that start out with loud voices being heard by neighbors and end with gunshots being fired. The roots of murder are in our anger with another and inflamed by our disgust for one another. Jesus is saying prevent the conflagration before the fuse is even lit.
It is so important that Jesus says it take priority over your duties to God. If you are about to offer a gift at the altar and you realize you have an unresolved issue with someone, leave your gift, reconcile with the person and then offer the gift. Why? As we said last week, the way you treat others reflects how you treat Jesus. The connection between these two things is organic.
Again Jesus looks at adultery and goes deeper, looking at its point of origin. And it is found in the act of simply looking at the person and imagining kissing or having sex with them. You plant the seed of adultery in the mind and then the desires and curiosity they give birth to will do the rest. Despite what bedroom farces show, nobody ever accidentally committed adultery. It is intentional. And if having sexual fantasies about your neighbor's spouse is off-limits, then so are flirting and oversharing and becoming emotionally intimate with that person. Jesus is simply seeking to prevent the moral and emotional and financial train wrecks that adultery inevitably leads to.
Next comes the only saying of Jesus that even literalists don't take literally. They don't tear out their eyes or lop off their limbs if they lead them to do wrong. Even Jesus says that evil comes from within, not from external things, so obviously he is not talking about amputating actual body parts or disfiguring ourselves. The rule of thumb for Bible passages is that if they are not meant to be taken literally, the imagery is nevertheless meant to point to a spiritual reality just as powerful. So what is the reality behind Jesus' hyperbole? That we should be willing to get rid of anything that leads us astray from God's love, no matter how much it seems a part of us. Those in recovery have to do this. By the time they are in recovery their addiction has taken over a lot of their lives. They have to cut out all that, including the associated habits and even associates who took up such a large part of their identity. Jesus says if we don't cut these things loose, they will drag us to hell. Again, those in recovery know this. They've been to hell. That's why they finally decide to give up the tempting but terrible things that entangle them. We must cut ourselves free from the instruments of our self-destruction, like so much unwanted ballast, if we are to soar.
In the same vein, Jesus wants to prevent the collapse of marriages for trivial reasons. In his day, some rabbis felt a man could divorce his wife for simply displeasing him. One rabbi said that burning the toast was sufficient grounds for divorce; another said finding a younger prettier woman was a good enough reason to divorce your wife. And divorce could only be initiated by the man. Jesus elsewhere quotes Genesis 2:24 where it says the man and the woman become one in marriage. Separating the joined lives through divorce is a surgery so severe that Jesus says it must only be attempted for the most dire of reasons, like when one half has already joined itself to another, and not for the kind of trivial conflicts that all couples must learn to conquer through love.
Speaking of vows, Jesus again goes to the root problem of false promises. It's not a matter of swearing by the right kind of powerful thing; it is a matter of always being honest. You shouldn't be the kind of person whom others believe only when a serious oath is made; you should be the kind of person whom others believe because they can trust your “Yes” to mean “Yes” and your “No” to mean “No.” “Anything more than this comes from the evil one,” says Jesus. We all know people who begin their lies with “Well, if you really want to know the truth...” or "If I can be frank with you..." If you always tell the truth, you won't need to preface it with such reassurances.
These are all good rules which make sense morally. But we also know that not everyone observes the rules. Almost everyone cheats a bit—driving 5 miles over the speed limit, taking home a few office supplies on occasion, playing online games when you should be working, rounding expenses up for reimbursement, overestimating your charity donations on tax forms, flirting with a coworker, skipping church for no reason other than you just want to goof off, etc. And some people really break the rules, not to save others but just because the rules are inconvenient for them personally.
Rules tell us what we ought to do; they can't actually make us do them. And they can't necessarily change a person. I know alcoholics who spend great swathes of time sober only because they are in jail. As soon as they get out, they resume drinking, even if it means they will be back in jail by that night. Being made to follow a rule doesn't mean you will make it a part of your personal life. You have to embrace it. And if the rule is too difficult, you need help to carry it out.
I'm starting to wonder how much recidivism is due to the fact that we release inmates from a totally structured environment into the chaos and overwhelming choices and demands of the modern world with little or no help. For months or years, all decisions were made for them—when to wake, when to eat, who to room with, when to shower, when to go to bed—and then one day, they are left largely to their own devices. Now you must find a place to stay; you must find a job that will hire someone with a record; you must get clothes and food and toiletries and transportation and the money to pay for it all; you must come up with a structure that will accommodate your work schedule and your need to see the parole officer at the appointed time without fail. And if you have spent years or even decades incarcerated or impaired or alternating between the two, the difficulty of now learning what people on the outside mastered in their 20s can be discouraging. Some people need rules and external structure to function.
Some need rules because they lack the ability to intuit them naturally. I recently read Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by M.E. Thomas. That's a pseudonym for a law professor who had herself diagnosed in her 20s when her promising career and significant relationships came crashing down due to her actions. Like all sociopaths, she cannot empathize with others and while she is a shrewd observer and good mimic of human behavior, she really doesn't understand why people do things like make sacrifices for those they love or refrain from doing the wrong thing when they stand to benefit from it or not take exciting risks because of foreseeable negative consequences. She never feels guilt or regret or fear. She likes clear rules, such as those provided by her Mormon faith, because they help her stay within the bounds of normal human behavior, something for which she is morally tone-deaf. (By the way, only 20% of those in prison are sociopaths. And that's not all the sociopaths there are. Most, like Thomas, are good enough chameleons to keep out of jail, and even rise to high positions likes CEOs and politicians and lawyers. Food for thought.)
Another group of people who need structure and rules are children. Stephen King observed that children are very conservative. They like predictability in their life. Very early they pick up on the patterns their parents model for them and mimic them. Notice that they mimic actual behavior. If parents wish to have a child obey a rule, they have to do so themselves. Kids tend to chafe under rules that seem arbitrary and unfair and which others, like their siblings or parents, don't obey. Understand that and you'll see that Proverbs 22:6 makes sense: “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.”
That's one reason for the vows we have parents and godparents make when we baptize children. Though the children thereby become citizens of the Kingdom of God, someone needs to make sure they learn the rules of the realm. Though we are saved by grace, not works, we nevertheless need the teaching and examples of others living by grace. You may have a good singing voice but if you don't get decent vocal training you can ruin your voice. We have ample evidence that left to themselves kids do not automatically grow up into good and kind and productive citizens. They need loving guidance. And in a church made up of diverse folks committed to following Jesus, children will get numerous opportunities to learn to love their neighbors of different ages, races, cultures and perspectives.
But you can't confine it to merely 1 hour 1 day a week. Studies show it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill or subject. If you went at it for 40 hours a week, it would take about 5 years. If you only work at it for one hour a week, it would take 192 years. So it's not enough just to come to church and learn and practice your faith for one hour. You must take what you learn home and put it into practice. And since following Jesus involves every aspect of your life, you're not going to get everything down in this life, especially in the areas where you are most tempted to fail. Fortunately you are not in this alone. God gives us at our baptism his Holy Spirit to help us along. The Spirit is always there to nudge us, to empower us, to help us pray, to help us resist temptation, to help us discern and do the right thing, and to help us to become more faithful, more hopeful, more loving and more Christlike day by day.
The ultimate goal of God is that we become so driven by his love, so filled with his Spirit, so completely a new creation in Christ that we will not need rules. As he said in Matthew 5:18, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished,” But when the old creation passes away, when all is accomplished, that is, the new creation is unveiled, the law will pass away. We will not need it. We will be like Jesus, doing good and God's will without rules, without crib notes, without reminders but out of the goodness of our new and transformed hearts.