When I was eighteen, the car I was a passenger in swerved to avoid rear-ending another vehicle. Two other vehicles—a car and a truck—hit us. Devastatingly, an elderly woman in the other car had a heart attack at the scene and died. In an attempt to comfort my friend, who had been driving and was at fault, I said to her as we left the hospital, “God must have had a reason for her to die now.” My friend looked at me and replied, “I don’t want to know that God.”
New to the faith and so young, I didn’t realize at the time what I know now—my words not only didn’t comfort my friend, they made her pain worse.
How many platitudes have you heard people utter in the face of death?
When we’re uncomfortable or uncertain, awkward words tumble out. If platitudes are the best we’ve got, though, what do we have to say in the face of tragedy? Personal tragedy, like the loss of a loved one, or a national tragedy, like Uvalde? Does what we really believe about death change what we say when we face it?
A girl in the high school class I taught showed up one morning in a T-shirt that had Mickey Mouse emblazoned on the front. I paid it little attention. It never occurred to me that Mickey was a dangerous character, plotting a school coup. I taught the class, comprised of seniors, and sent them on to their second-period class without a thought about their attire.
That is until I found myself in trouble with the principal for not sending the girl home. You see, the school had a rule against screen-printed clothing, and Mickey was an offender. Cuff him. He’ll never see The Happiest Place on Earth again.
Discernment is a gift of the Spirit. It means to be able to determine right from wrong and not to be deceived by anything that would lead us to foolish choices. As we spend more of our time creating rules about whom we associate with, what is acceptable to believe, and whose group is “in,” we’ve lost the skill of discerning guidelines created to help us flourish from barriers created for a false sense of security.
Luke narrates a story that helps us determine one from the other.
One Sabbath, as Jesus was walking through the wheat fields, his disciples were picking the heads of wheat, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. Some religious leaders said, “Why are you breaking the Sabbath law?”
Jesus replied, “Haven’t you read what David and his companions did when they were hungry? He broke the Law by going into God’s house and eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests can eat. He also gave some of the bread to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:1-5 NIV)
On two other occasions in Luke, Jesus healed people on the Sabbath. Rather than be overjoyed for them, the leaders “were furious and began talking with each other about what to do to Jesus.” They had their rules. No work—including good work—was to be done on the Sabbath.
These were not God’s rules. They were human additions. Originally, God commanded humans to observe a sabbath—a healing, restoring, reconnecting day of rest. It was intended to remind us that we belong to a creating, saving God who works while we don’t.
Somewhere along the line, leaders studied the words of Scripture, interpreting every detail and creating long lists of what was allowed and not allowed.
They did this with good intentions. Life was more jumbled and chaotic after the exile, so they were returning order, giving people a sense of comfort, stability, and identity.
Sabbath is one of the most important commands, so they parsed it out and asked themselves what, exactly, “work” meant. Deliberations went on and on, which is how we come to the notion that merely picking a piece of grain randomly in a field, swishing out the chaff between your fingers, and popping it in your mouth is illegal “work.”
By Jesus’s time, obeying these interpretations had become a source of pride instead of an expression of love for God. Rules had become a way to wield power over people rather than to give them safe community guard rails.
The Sabbath matters to Jesus because the whole concept was meant to free people. Legalism about it ended up burdening people, just as it does now.
While we may not have to decide our own Sabbath rules, we are in the position of having to figure out for ourselves, “What are my rules going to be? What principles am I going to live by? What are my guard rails? How does Jesus help me discern them?” Most of us don’t (or shouldn’t) have these dictated to us, like clothing rules in a high school. We have to exercise our own discernment muscles.
Jesus invites his listeners, and us, to explore these helpful questions:
Are your rules setting people free?
Are they giving rest?
Are they doing good?
Are they saving lives?
Are they helping others?
Are they bringing you closer to God?
Discernment is not a gift for only a few. It’s a requirement. We’re all told to be wise as serpents. We’re all instructed to be responsible for our own choices and the voices we choose to hear.
Mickey Mouse rules don’t bring about the flourishing God planned. Wisdom does.