Sermon – Seeing With Your Eyes Closed

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A Weird Way to Walk

Sometimes I succumb to boredom and do strange things to amuse myself. Most Sundays now, I come to church early and make sure everything is ready for the service. I adjust the temperature, make sure the soundboard is on. Set up the camera and things like that. One of the other things that I have taken to doing is get here about an hour or so early so I can walk around the gym.

This falls into my new personal health initiative where I try to eat better, exercise, and keep myself mentally healthy. Usually, I walk around the edge of the basketball court markings following the rectangle painted on the floor. One day, as I was walking around the gym, I started realizing that I was taking 31 steps to go around the long side of the rectangle and 19 steps on the short side. Almost every time I walked the marked path, I ended up with the same number of steps, a 31×19 step path.

Then, I got a weird idea—I can walk the path without looking—just count my steps and stay in a straight line. Sounds like it makes sense, right? It made sense to me, so I tried it. I closed my eyes and I started walking from the back corner near the door toward the sound booth. I managed to take about fifteen steps and opened my eyes to see how I was doing. At fifteen feet, I was two feet to the left of the line and drifting toward chairs. I moved back to the line and tried to get to the end, but I found myself opening one eye or the other because I felt off balance after realizing that I couldn’t walk the line straight. I tried it for one lap and could walk more than a short distance with my eyes closed without getting off track. Finally, I gave up and decided to bring a book and read while I walked.

What the Pharisees Couldn’t See

Pharisees were an interesting and often misunderstood lot. They came into existence around the Maccabean period about a century and a half before Jesus was born. They were a group of devout Jews who wanted to keep the entire will of God. These Jews rejected the Greek and other external influences around them and insisted on knowing and obeying the Law (Torah) of God.

One of the difficult things about that is dealing with the ambiguity of the Torah. For instance, the Torah says to remember the sabbath and keep it holy, but it doesn’t say what that means. Is it work to walk? How far can I walk before I begin working? If I carry something while I walk is that work? The Pharisees became the group that devised rules to help people answer these questions and keep the Torah.

Over time the laws of the interpretations of the Pharisees became a tradition which indicated what people could/should do or not do. They became a sort of ‘oral’ Law that was set alongside the ‘written’ Law of Moses. The idea was that if you kept the oral Law you would most likely keep the written Law as well. Some theologians see the Pharisee as a closed group. They only ate with, lived with, hang out with these who were like minded and refused to accept those unlike them. They had some religious authority among the people but no real political clout with the Roman authorities. They were, however, aware of the fact that they needed to be careful of the Roman authorities who saw any unrest as a reason to become stricter with the people they conquered.

Jesus, like John before him, was challenging the people to live in a way that the religious leaders thought could be construed as insurrection. Jesus was drawing crowds and making a name for himself in a similar way to others before him—others who started revolutions that were put down by Roman authorities. I believe the Pharisees and Sadducees were both afraid of this, for themselves and for their way of life.

What the religious leaders of Jesus couldn’t see was that the people were not willing to live under Roman rule. They had continually risen and revolted behind one person or another and were not going be held down by what they saw as an oppressive regime no matter how well the religious leaders got along with Rome. Even without Jesus teaching, a sense of nationalistic pride drove a large enough population of the Jews that more intense conflict with Rome was inevitable, Jesus or not, something that would come to a head in 70 CE with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. This destruction was the cultural and societal backdrop for the Jewish writers who penned the first three gospels of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Whose Authority

When they come to Jesus with a question of authority, I think they were hoping that they could find put an end to Jesus ministry. Maybe they thought they could turn the people against Jesus or get him to say something that would considered treasonous and have him arrested by the Roman authorities—something that would happen later and lead to Jesus crucifixion. But for the moment, Jesus decides to spring their little trap for them and ask a question of his own,

I have a question for you. If you tell me the answer, I’ll tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things. Where did John get his authority to baptize? Did he get it from heaven or from humans?

And now the trappers are trapped,

If we say, ‘from heaven,’ he’ll say to us, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But we can’t say ‘from humans’ because we’re afraid of the crowd, since everyone thinks John was a prophet.

 In other words, affirming John’s authority will also affirm Jesus’ authority. So, they answer that they don’t know, and Jesus says he will not tell them whose authority he does these things by.

Then Jesus goes on to tell a parable about two sons, each is asked to go into the vineyard and work for their father. The first refuses at first but then goes into the field. The second son says he will go into the vineyard but then chooses not to go. Jesus asks the religious leaders which son did the father’s will and they answer the first. Jesus then goes on to say that the prostitutes and tax collectors—the socially undesirables, the outcasts, the lowest of the low—heard John’s message and repented. They had originally led lives that we against the will of God but changed. The religious leaders on the other hand, claim to be hearing and following the Spirit of God and the direction of the Law of Moses but instead create loopholes and burdens with their ‘oral’ Law interpretations. They are trying to lead people to walk after God with their eyes closed, using the ‘oral’ Law to blind the people to Spirit of God.

Are Your Eyes Open

We too find ourselves with the same choice of the first and second sons, the choice of religious leaders who dug into their traditions and rules and those outcasts who changed their lives and truly followed after God following John and then Jesus. Many of us have chosen the rules and traditions because honestly, they are easier. It’s easier to have a set of dos and don’ts that seem to be spelled out for us. But relationships are not rule based. They are messy and unpredictable, and they take work. Engaging God in the Way of Jesus isn’t about following rules but about spending time with a person, learning about that person, and learning to imitate that person not with certain rules but with a certain way of being a person.

And now we must ask ourselves: do we chose the way of ‘oral’ Law and traditions that rob us of a relationship or do we choose the relationship and the Way of Life that is messy, difficult, but worth it in the end.

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