Being religious is a very dangerous way to be.
That’s good news for some. From time to time I get talking to someone who tells me that they enjoy coming to our services even though they’re not very religious. If that’s you, then this is good news. Being religious can be a real stumbling block. A hurdle. And it’s a hurdle you don’t have this morning.
But for most of us here it’s bad news. Most of us here are religious. We’re here because we like coming to church. You may be more or less religious. There are different ways of being religious – we’ll come back to that. But most of us here are religious.
Which means that if being religious is a very dangerous place to be, than most of us here are in a very dangerous place.
Let me explain. The early chapters of Matthew’s gospel are about the authority of Jesus. We see the authority of his teaching in chapters 5 to 7. We see the authority of his miraculous deeds in chapters 8 and 9. We saw him share his authority with his disciples so they can spread the good news – that was chapter 10. And then in chapters 11 and 12, Matthew is showing us Jesus’ authority being rejected.
It’s been rejected by John the Baptist. It’s been rejected by the cities where he did his miracles. And in today’s reading it is rejected by the Pharisees.
They were the extra religious people of Jesus’ day. They took their religion seriously. And, as we’ll see today, their religion was what got in the way. It was their religion that meant they rejected Jesus and his authority.
Which means we need to take great care. You’d have thought that the more you are religious, the closer you are to God. That can be the case, but these verses are warning us that the more we are religious, the greater the risk that we end up rejecting the person of Jesus and ending up far from God.
Jesus and the Pharisees clash over the matter of the Sabbath. God made the world in 6 days. Then he rested on the 7th day. So to help his people remember that they are made to worship God, not to work, he taught them to rest on the 7th day.
Then God rescued them from being slaves in Egypt. So to help his people remember that they were rescued to worship God, he repeated his command: Rest on the 7th day.
Matthew gives us two stories where Jesus and the Pharisees clash over the Sabbath. In each case, the Pharisees end up rejecting Jesus’ authority.
Worse than that, they miss out on rest. If you glance back up to the end of chapter 11, you’ll see the words we looked at last time. Verse 28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”.
The Sabbath day only gave a taste of rest. Jesus is the one who came to bring true rest. Follow him, and we’ll find the rest for which we were made. Follow him, and we’ll find the rest for which we were rescued.
So there’s the big irony. The Pharisees are obsessed with the Sabbath. But by being so obsessed, they reject the authority of Jesus. By doing so, they miss the ultimate rest that Jesus came to give us. By doing so, they miss out on the very rest that the Sabbath itself looked forward to.
We don’t want to miss out on true rest. We don’t want to miss the authority of Jesus. But most of us are religious. So we’d better look at these clashes, to learn from the Pharisees’ mistakes.
Traditions, not Bible
The Pharisees’ first mistake was their focus on traditions, not Bible. Traditions, not Bible.
The story comes in verses 1 and 2. Jesus and his disciples are travelling. They find themselves in a cornfield. The Pharisees were there too. It’s the Sabbath, when you weren’t allowed to walk more than about half a mile. So they must have been just outside a town. The disciples are peckish, so they start foraging. Scrumping. Call it what you like – only it was perfectly legal back then.
And the Pharisees pick them up on it. There was only one thing wrong with what they were doing: They were doing it on the Sabbath.
The trouble is, it’s hard to see what they were doing wrong. The Old Testament was clear that this was perfectly allowed. But the Pharisees had left nothing to chance. They wanted to make sure that they did no “work” on the Sabbath. So they’d developed a list of 39 types of activity that you couldn’t do on a Sabbath. And in that list were reaping and threshing. Boy were the disciples in trouble now!
So Jesus takes them back to the Bible. If you want to know what’s allowed, and what’s not, on the Sabbath, why not look at the Bible itself. He takes them to a story from the life of King David. It’s not even a story about the Sabbath. But it’s showing the disciples how the Bible works. The narratives, the stories, in the Bible are designed to illustrate what the laws mean.
All laws have scope. Things they do apply to. Things they don’t apply to.
It’s true in this country. You can’t drive faster than the speed limit. 30 miles an hour in built-up areas. 60 miles an hour in the open. 70 miles an hour on dual carriageway. But ambulances regularly drive faster than that when they’re being called to an emergency. Why? It’s not because ambulances are allowed to break the law. No. It’s because the law itself clarifies that the rules are different in the case of ambulances on a callout.
So with the laws in the Bible. There’s a law that says: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” There’s another law that says that only the priests were to eat the bread that was put on show in the temple every week. David didn’t break the law. Rather that story is there to help us understand the limits of that law. And the same with the next example. The priests in the temple had to work on the Sabbath. They’re not breaking the Sabbath law. They’re guiltless. The laws about the work the priests did help us understand the limits of the Sabbath law.
But the Pharisees were living as though the Old Testament didn’t work like that. They were looking at just one command in isolation. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Then they thought it was their job to develop a system of what that meant in practice. It wasn’t their job. It was God’s job. And God had done his job. If they read the rest of the Old Testament, they’d have found that God tells them what that command meant. If they read the rest of the Old Testament, they’d have found that the disciples were doing nothing wrong.
They weren’t breaking the Sabbath command at all. They were only breaking the traditions they’d invented about the Sabbath. Traditions, not Bible.
Which meant they missed Jesus’ authority. Jesus ends by saying that “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath”. If they wanted the real expert on the Sabbath, he’s right there in front of them. He could have told them exactly what it meant to keep it. He’s the expert on how to understand the Old Testament. King David of old could see that his royal role meant he was also entitled to the temple bread in his particular circumstances. And Jesus is greater than David. And he’s greater than the temple where the priests worked on the Sabbath. He’s Lord of all. He’s Lord of the Sabbath.
But the missed that. They didn’t want to submit to the Bible. They didn’t want to submit to Jesus. They wanted to keep the traditions that they had made up instead. So they missed Jesus. And tragically, they missed the rest he came to bring. They missed true Sabbath. They were into traditions, not Bible.
Regulations, not Mercy
Their second mistake was their focus on Regulations, not Mercy. Regulations, not Mercy.
That story comes in verses 9 to 13. It’s still the Sabbath, and now Jesus is in the synagogue. There’s a man there with a paralysed hand. The Pharisees are watching for Jesus to trip up. So they ask him if healing someone is allowed on the Sabbath.
He simply points out their sheer hypocrisy. If a sheep fell into a pit or a well, they’d help it out. They’d take pity on a sheep. They’d rescue a sheep. But they’d say that a man would have to wait. Surely they’ve answered they’re own question.
In fact, the question of a sheep in a pit is an interesting one. It illustrates the mind-set they approached the Sabbath with. Records of this debate have survived. Some said it you had to leave it, but it was OK to throw food down. Others said you could throw a rope or some cloth over so the sheep had some way to get itself out. Others said you could actually lift it out. It’s petty. It’s ridiculous. And it seems that the more compassionate approach was winning over by Jesus’ day.
And then Jesus heals the man. Simply. With no flourish. And the Pharisees are furious. They want him killed.
How have they gone so wrong? The key is in verse 7. “If you had known what these words mean, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the innocent.”
That’s a quotation from Hosea chapter 6. God is saying he’s more interested in mercy than in sacrifice. Mercy means helping people. Being kind to people. Sacrifice means following the minutiae of the law. Following the detailed regulations. And God would far rather see people helped and rescued than have his detailed law for worship followed. That’s not to say that those laws don’t matter. They do. But the laws were always about God’s love for his people, so the moment they become an excuse not to love people something’s gone very wrong.
And the man with the shrivelled hand was a case in point. They were so obsessed with their regulations for Sabbath that they’d deprive this man the chance to have his hand fixed today.
Regulations, not mercy.
The tragedy is that this man very nearly missed out on the rest that Jesus came to bring. Jesus stepped in and healed him anyway, taking his own life in his hands. If it had been down to the Pharisees, their love of religion would not only have seen them lose out. The man could have lost out as well.
Regulations, not mercy.
Let’s bring this back to our own day.
It would be easy to point at the Pharisees. We wag our fingers at them. We look up to heaven, and thank God that we’re not like that Pharisee over there.
It would be easy to find people who are more religious than we are. Easy to find people who we think take their religion too seriously. And point our fingers at them. When all we’ve really done is find people who are different from ourselves.
It would be more productive if we look deeper into our hearts, and ask how we might be like the Pharisees in these stories.
The key is that there are different ways to be religious. And any of them have the potential to leave us more wedded to our religion than to the person of Jesus. More interested in our traditions than in what God actually says. More committed to regulations and doing it right than we are to seeing others blessed by God’s mercy.
So, let’s take some examples. Maybe you like traditional choral music with an organ accompaniment. Or maybe you like modern worship songs played by a band.
Maybe your favourite church service is a celebration of Holy Communion, quiet and reflective. Maybe you don’t look forward to those weeks, and prefer a service without.
Some people find church buildings, with pews, stained glass windows – deeply helpful when it comes to worshipping God. Maybe you find this building a hindrance, and would prefer to worship somewhere more contemporary.
It could be you like the crowd. You like coming here on a Sunday, with 50 or 60 people. You like it best when we have the combined service, and we’re pushing 100 to 120. But even better is to be somewhere even bigger, a cathedral, a mega church, a Christian convention or conference, with many thousands. But not everyone likes that. It’s too big for some. Others prefer the intimacy of a home group. 7 or 8 people, in someone’s front room, opening up the Bible and praying together.
The point is that these are all preferences. And we all have different preferences. For some of us, they’re our preferences because they’re what we grew up with. Or discovered in our teenaged years. For others, we’ve come to faith in adulthood, and so we cherish the forms of worship in which we first found the risen Jesus.
They’re preferences. They’re not commands of God.
And there are two big dangers that this story warns us to be careful of.
The first is missing out on the loving authority of Jesus. Missing out on the rest that Jesus came to bring us. If we are really in love with church done the way we like it, and not in love with the Jesus we’re here to worship, then we might miss out on what he wants to bless us with. We might miss out on true and lasting rest.
The second danger is of others missing out on what Jesus came to bring. Which matters more to us – our worshipping life being done in exactly the way we like? Or mercy? What if changing things allowed others to discover the Jesus we’ve got to know? Would we embrace that for their sake? Or would we leave them languishing in their pit, so that we don’t have to throw the rope over to get them out?
Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” Will we come? And will we help others to come? Come and find rest. Are there any ways in which we’re so wedded to our religious customs and traditions, that we might prefer them over coming to Jesus ourselves, or prefer them to seeing others come to Jesus too?