If I learned one thing from Jesus, it’s that rules are for breaking. That’s what Jesus did, really. He broke just about every rule in the book–I mean, in the Torah. And there are a lot of rules in the Torah.
In many churches, we’re taught as children that Christianity is about following rules, about obeying the 10 Commandments and not swearing in church, but that’s not true at all. Rules are arbitrary and blind. Justice is self-aware and gracious. Rules are universal and justice is always situational. For Jesus, rules were useless. Well, rules can be useful, but they are only useful as a reference for knowing when to break them.
In Matthew 12, the disciples break one such rule, picking wheat on the Sabbath because they are hungry. When the Pharisees tell Jesus, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful!” Jesus replies, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread–which was not lawful for them to do…. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”
Jesus’ response is: “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” If the rules serve no good, rules be damned, even holy rules.
This is not Christianity as moral relativism or Milennials and feel-good Christianity. This is narrative theology and situational ethics. There are consistent principles. But they depend on the plot of the story. If the principle is “Do the right thing,” the right thing depends entirely on the situation. The story always points back to the same moral principles–but they cannot be codified as rules, because those principles are applied differently in different situations. If your disciples are hungry, feed them what was set aside for God, for God already has enough.
We often tell children–either directly or indirectly–that sin means breaking rules. But that’s not the case at all; rules have no being, no compassion and no feeling. They can be broken without doing violence to relationships. Sin means violence, means breaking people, breaking the Earth, and breaking God. When rules force us to break people–as in the story of the Good Samaritan–the rules become sins. If the rules no longer enable us to love, they must be broken.
When I was s freshman in high school, one warm March day, I skipped school. I skipped school because the previous afternoon, George W. Bush had declared war on Iraq, open-ended war in the name of some rule called Freedom. To stay in school–to follow the rules of an ordinary day–was an admission that everything was business as usual. But war is not business as usual. In the face of war, we break rules. Because war is a systematic commitment to breaking people, breaking Earth, and breaking God.
As a pastor, one of my most difficult tasks is encouraging people to break rules. It happens in big things, sometimes, but usually in smaller things. We have a rule at our church that you have to be baptized in order to take Communion. If you aren’t baptized, you can only have a grape, a knock off version of “real” Communion. The grape can be a way of declaring insiders and outsiders. And when a five-year-old approaches me and says, “Can I have a piece of bread?” I find it difficult to follow the rules. (I do follow the rules because I have bound myself to the community, but I wish the community had more room for grace here.) If I say back to the child, “No, you can’t, because it’s against the rules,” that’s a way of saying “you are outside this community, and your presence here is contingent.” It’s a way of saying “we are suspicious of your reasons for coming to this community, so until you follow another arbitrary rule (baptism), you are must follow this set of rules.” Jesus had no contingencies. He sat with criminals, with children, sinners, AND Pharisees. Rule followers and rule breakers, as long as they could be in his presence and suspend their own hate, he invited them into his odd company.
Yes, you could say this all comes back around to LGBTQ inclusion and breaking rules that break people. I will continue to break the denominational rules that break people. But what’s had me frustrated this week is a class of far more ordinary rules, rules that keep us bound to daily life when God calls us to radical living. In my town, we are not allowed to raise chickens. We’re not allowed to park our cars on the streets between 2am and 5am. We’re not allowed to plant flowers or food in the grass strip alongside the street. Town life is ruled by these arbitrary and apathetic statements that make no exceptions for environment, for hospitality, for poverty. These rules make me insane. These rules are worth breaking at any point that they break people or environment or God.
If we refuse to worship with those who we equate to tax collectors or prostitutes, whether they are Christian literalists or Christians who don’t identify with a gender binary, we write rules that Jesus never spoke. If we accept the status quo, we uphold rules Jesus intends for us to break.
Today, I was texting with a friend in Wisconsin, and she said, “I’m at a protest tonight. The officer who killed Tony Robinson had no conviction.” I almost responded “Stay safe,” but that is such a flimsy, racially bound statement. As if the only time my white friend needs safety is when she protests injustice against black lives. And “safe” was never something the gospel called us to. So I typed, “Stay demonstrating.” Stay breaking all the rules God calls you to break.
The only rule we need is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart; and love your neighbor as yourself.” All other rules, in every situation, must be tested against this one.
One thought on “Christianity without Rules”
My story is only tangentially related to rules. But it’s a beautiful story about communion and what I learned from the youth in your congregation – youth who were willing to accept the rules, and in the process demonstrate that they weren’t bound by them. I should say up front that I’ve never discussed this with them. It’s simply my perspective on what happened.
I was serving one Sunday. We happened to be gathering in groups around tables on that particular day, about eight or ten people at a time. As luck or whatever would have it, the youth all arrived at once. There was some small amount of tittering and awkwardness as they all realized that they would be receiving grapes. Nevertheless, we proceeded with the grapes and the blessing, as is the custom. As they received them, suddenly everyone was silent and somber. I saw them looking around the table – a recognition of community. In that moment, I saw communion with fresh eyes. In that moment, love and compassion were very real.