I’ve been accused of seeing everything that Jesus does as being about challenging the religious establishment. And while that is fair criticism, I also think it’s there. If you look at the broader context of what Jesus does, why he does it, where he does it, and for whom he does it, I think it’s there. The religious establishment is always lurking in the corner, and Jesus knows it, and he acts accordingly. To be fair, this is not the only reason he heals a woman who was unable to stand up straight, or affirms the faith of an outcast hemorrhaging woman, or tells stories of heroic Samaritans, but it does factor into why he does these things. These passages today are no different, and perhaps no more expressly present.
Much of what Jesus is getting at here is reformation. The religious establishment had become just that: established. It was no longer a movement. It was stagnant, had lost it way of shalom, and needed to life breathed into it. So Jesus calls for repentance. He doesn’t do so because God is an angry, controlling God. He does so, because a turning away from religion that describes God and back toward relationship with God is where life is. He doesn’t tell stories of cutting down fruitless trees because God is unforgiving, but because sometimes we do so lose our way that we simply don’t have any fruit anymore and the truth is that manure would be an improvement. And he doesn’t heal on the Sabbath because he doesn’t care about tradition and polity, but because restoration of life, soul, and body is better than tradition and polity.
I think there is a call in here for restoration. I think there is a call for the Church, the Church many of has known for decade upon decade upon decade to let hold our tradition, our polity, and even our theology loosely for the sake of what will connect people in relationship with God. I wonder if part of the reason for our decline is that we’ve valued calling people to a religion that describes God above calling people to a relationship with God. Maybe it’s time we started doing our own versions “healing on the sabbath”.
About a year ago I came upon a quote from the founder of my stream of Christianity, John Wesley. I think it sums it up pretty well:
“We see—and who does not?—the numberless follies and miseries of our fellow creatures. We see on every side either men of no religion at all or men of a lifeless, formal religion. We are grieved at the sight, and should greatly rejoice if, by any means, we might convince some that there is a better religion to be attained, a religion worthy of God that gave it.” (An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, par 2)