When religion goes wrong

If our religious rules get in the way of doing good, something has gone horribly wrong

At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck ears of corn and eat them. When the Pharisees observed this they said to him, ‘Look here! Your disciples are doing something that’s not permitted on the sabbath!’—Matthew 12:1-2

The sabbath is undoubtedly a good rule, both embodied by God after day six of creation, and then, later, officially validated by God as part of the Ten Commandments given to Moses. But even good rules can become barriers to good if interpreted and then implemented badly. More specifically, a good rule can actually become harmful if that good rule gets separated from the giver of that good rule—and from the people it’s meant to benefit. Further, if a good rule is put ahead of doing good itself, then we have moved dangerously off piste.

This issue is what we see Jesus addressing in chapter twelve of Matthew’s gospel. Without in any way undermining the sabbath rule his father established, Jesus responds to the challenge from the Pharisees (a hyper-legalistic sect within Judaism) by challenging the way they have put the sabbath rule—and their own additional interpretations of it—before both God and people. He draws on the Old Testament example of David and his men eating holy bread from the temple when they, similarly to his disciples, were hungry, essentially making the point that, sometimes, needs must.

But for the Pharisees, rule-keeping was the be-all-and-end-all. There was no flexibility and no ability to see the bigger picture—all they could see was the rules. They’d lost sight of God, of people, and of doing good. And, tragically, one of the inevitable outcomes of this rule-keeping-above-all-else was hypocrisy. The Pharisees had a habit of harshly enforcing the rules, adding to the them, but then, behind the scenes, having numerous ways in which they broke them themselves.

So Jesus takes these Pharisees head on. It’s they who first approach him, questioning the manner in which his disciples were going about gathering food to eat, but he turns the tables on them. Jesus’ hungry disciples are eating food because they’re hungry, and all the Pharisees are able to see is a sabbath rule they think they’ve broken. Talk about missing the point.

The sabbath was about setting aside one day each week to focus on God and abstain from work. It was a holy day, set apart from the other six days of the week. But this God-given sabbath rule wasn’t enough for them. So religious leaders amongst the Pharisees kept adding to it. At it’s best, this was a way of fleshing out what the rule meant in practice, but while sometimes this was helpful, more often it was a hindrance—and harmful.

And when the Pharisees interpreted Jesus’ hungry disciples ‘plucking ears of corn’ as breaking the sabbath by working, it was a sure sign they had moved way beyond the original intent of the sabbath rule. While ‘plucking ears of corn’ would of been work for some, it’s abundantly clear to anyone who hasn’t become blinkered by rules that the disciples were not working. They were hungry, had no other food available to them, and so they were gathering food to eat. Hungry people getting food to eat is clearly a good thing—and it’s not breaking the sabbath. But the Pharisees couldn’t see this. Their religion and their rules had got in the way.

As soon as any religion or rule starts to get in the way of doing good, it is no longer a good thing. If we are adhering to religious rules without knowing why, and putting them above God and people, we are on a very dangerous course. This is why Jesus so often seems harsh in his dealings with the Pharisees. They were genuinely dangerous and their teaching was harmful. People who put rules above all else are a risk to humanity—they push people away from God, leaving them bound and hopeless. In other words, everything Jesus was against.

The lesson from all of this is to steer well clear of those who are enslaved to rules but have disconnected from the heart of God and the betterment of others. And for those of us who are part of any religion with rules and laws, we must make sure we never lose sight of this simple truth from the mouth of Jesus himself that, ‘it is permitted to do good on the sabbath’. Nothing must ever come before God and doing good to others.

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