A man leaves a local grocery store and notices two cub scouts, perhaps six or seven years old, selling candy bars to raise money for their pack. Well, the man wants to support the youngsters, but, being a diabetic, doesn’t eat any sweets. “I’ll buy a candy bar from you on one condition,” he tells them. “You have to eat it for me.” The boys’ eyes become as big as saucers: “Mister, you have deal.” They hand him a candy bar and he hands them a dollar. Then he gives it back to them. One of the boys looks very apprehensive and whispers something privately to the other. They agree on something, turn to the man, and announce they can’t take it from him. “Why not,” the puzzled man asks? “Because our mother taught us never to take candy from a stranger.”
Rules. They matter. Lee Iacocca was taking about business when he said, “Start with good people, lay out the rules, communicate with your employees, motivate them and reward them. If you do all those things effectively, you can’t miss”. He could have been talking about religion just as easily. Religion and rules seem to go hand in hand.
Think about how the 10 Commandments lay a foundation for a morality and civility. Our society counts on religion to instill in its adherents the values necessary for common life and cohesion. We expect our places of worship to teach its members not to lie, not to cheat, not to steal, and not to harm. We expect them to teach the importance of respecting authority and doing one’s duty. And we expect these places to castigate those who don’t. We don’t expect the main point of the sermon to be “If it feels good, do it.” It should be something like, “God is watching, so you better behave”, only perhaps a little more nuanced. Again, religion and rules go hand in hand.
Jesus puzzles the religious leaders of his day because his actions are not oriented toward the accepted rules of his society. Think about the times he lands in hot water with holy rollers. He does things on the Sabbath he is not supposed to do. He doesn’t require his protégées to observe accepted customs and traditions. And, as we find in today’s reading from Luke, he associates with people who don’t obey to the rules – tax collectors, prostitutes, and other known sinners.
How can someone who is supposed to uphold the rules be so comfortable with those who do not follow them? Jesus’ actions and those who criticize him raise a fundamental question about religion: Which is more important… rules or relationships?
The Pharisees and the Scribes answer this question unequivocally. First and foremost, you have to follow the rules in order to be a good person. If you follow the rules then you can be included in the group. If you don’t, then you are excluded, shunned, and sometimes even stoned to death.
By his words and actions Jesus demonstrates a belief relationships matter more than rules. It’s not that he is against the rules per se, but he rejects the idea one’s goodness is determined by them. For Jesus, each person has value, each person deserves respect, and each person is loved by God. A person is not good because he or she follows the rules. Each of us is good because God creates good.
If this is true, you may ask why even bother following the rules? Well, it is important to do so because they guide us toward healthy and whole relationships with ourselves, with others, with God, and with all of creation. The function of rules is not to determine who is good and who is not. They function to guide us on a path toward happiness.
Susan Hanyes, one of our candidates for bishop, impressed me when she shared her thoughts about the immigration challenge facing our nation. She described how her ministry has led her to meet with immigrants as well as ICE workers. She described learning first-hand the terrible plight of those desperate to flee horrible conditions in their own country and the tremendous challenges faced by officials tasked with overseeing the immigration process by maintaining our policies and procedures. Rev. Hanyes said her experience has helped her to see the immigration crisis is a tremendously complicated problem not easily solved through solutions being proffered by folks on the extreme left and right.
It is an example of how being in relationship with people – especially with those who differ most from you – has a way of opening your eyes and seeing the world in a whole new way. Do this and you will find easy answers and “black and white” perspectives no longer seem so sure and solid.
Years ago I served as rector in a parish where a retired priest carried a great deal of influence. Reared and trained in a different era, he was dead set against the ordination of women, which the Episcopal Church had been doing for about fifteen years by the time I met him. He spoke freely in the parish about his objections and more than a few traditional-leaning folks followed his lead. Then something unexpected happened. Meg – a young woman who had grown up in the church – discerned a call to the ordained ministry. I remember visiting with the retired priest one day when he said, “Well, I don’t believe woman should be ordained, but if ever there was one who should be, it is Meg. She is a fine person.”
Relationships open us to new realities. They help us see people in a whole new way. They broaden and deepen our understanding, perspective, and positions. Relationships challenge us and change us.
I find it so interesting how Jesus explains why he befriends folks the religious leaders describe as rule-breaking sinners. He shifts the imagery from good and bad to lost. He sees tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners not as bad people, but as sheep who are lost. They are not being guided toward wholeness and happiness by the rules set forth by God to serve as guide posts for the way.
The only way to find people who are lost is to go out and search for them. You find someone who is missing not by shouting “You are a bad person” but by being willing to look for them… going to where they are and being with them to lead to safety.
And one thing I have learned over my years of interacting with people in the church. Each of us is lost in some way at some time. That retired priest against the ordination of women was lost in a way. Me, I am lost in ways at times I don’t even see or understand. Rev. Hanyes realized she was lost only when she began to meet people from all points of our immigration crisis. None of us is a bad person because each of us is loved and valued by God. We are just lost. Jesus came to be in relationship with us. The question is, do you want to be found?