When I was at theological college, as part of our training for the ordained ministry, we were all required to link up with a local parish, where we were based every Sunday. By assisting with the services in that church in various ways, we were able to broaden our experience as worship leaders
Now it so happens that in my first year, I was one of a group of four students who were all allocated to a rather lovely parish church in the village of Benson in Oxfordshire. And, the good news was that one of our number had a car, so was able to drive us there each Sunday morning.
The bad news was that the particular student whose task it was to transport us there, was an absolutely appalling driver. Not because he was careless, or reckless. Quite the opposite. He was so hopelessly over-cautious, and anxious to obey the highway code to the letter, regardless of circumstances, that he was an absolute liability on the road – he should never have been allowed behind the wheel of a car. I have seldom been so stressed about being a passenger in a motor vehicle as I was on those journeys to and from Benson.
On one particularly memorable occasion, we were driving there along a very straight and clear stretch of road, without a single car in sight – when, on the horizon, I saw something that brought a chill to my very soul. There was a pack of cyclists ahead of us, travelling in the same direction that we were going, whom we were rapidly approaching.
What was it that brought fear into my heart? It was the fact that running down the centre of the road were two continuous white lines. And I knew – I just knew, without any shadow of doubt, that nothing – but nothing – would induce our student driver to commit the felony of crossing those white lines. He was simply genetically incapable of doing it. But, looking ahead at our pack of cyclists, happily cycling along, two abreast, and occupying half of our carriageway, I realised with dread what was about to happen.
Mercifully nobody was either killed or seriously injured, as our driver rigorously and dutifully stayed inside the double white lines – but he drove so close to the cyclists that one of them actually hammered on the roof of our car as we went past, and several of them ended up in the ditch. He was such an obsessively law-abiding motorist that he was an absolute menace on the road.
And, more than that, he was not even correct, as the seasoned motorists among you will doubtless know. According to the highway code, you must not cross or straddle continuous double white lines, unless it is safe and you need to do so – in order to overtake a stationery vehicle, a pedal cycle, horse, or a slow-moving maintenance vehicle. Which just goes to prove that just as good ideals in the wrong place can actually be very dangerous – so can strict adherence to good rules in the wrong circumstances.
The World War II flying ace, Douglas Bader, was left with artificial legs after being shot down. When he was informed by the RAF that he could no longer fly because the regulations didn’t permit it, he famously retorted: ‘Rules are for the obedience of fools, and the guidance of wise men.’
And it seems to me that these stories are actually quite helpful in enabling us to understand what is going on in our second lesson this evening. The Pharisees confront Jesus, outraged that his disciples are plucking grains of corn, and that he himself has the temerity to heal a man with a withered hand – on the Sabbath – in breach of the Jewish rules and regulations.
And Jesus simply points out, as he does in various ways throughout the Gospels – that actually such regulations are there for a purpose – they are there to help people to observe the holy day of rest – but they are not ends in themselves. And, by implication, to elevate obedience to religious rules above the basic demands of human compassion – is little short of idolatrous.
On the whole, human beings need rules and regulations, which is why every society of every kind ends up creating them. We need them to enable us to live together in an orderly way. But it is so easy to forget that they are tools to enable us to flourish. Sometimes they will outlive their usefulness as societies change; sometimes an exceptional situation, or a higher demand requires that we set them aside for the greater good on that particular occasion.
And it seems to me that that was exactly what Jesus was critiquing in the obsession that the religious authorities of his day with the rules and regulations of their faith. Because in the wrong place and used in the wrong way, something that should be a tool of liberation becomes instead a means of oppression; a mechanism to help us drawn close to God becomes instead something that blocks our way to him. And our ability to hide behind rules that serve our own purposes, can (if we are prepared to admit it) make us hard-hearted and erode our ability to feel compassion.
Jesus knew what he was about. He was no anarchist: he was an observant Jew. But he could tell the difference between true and false religious observance very keenly and very astutely. Which is why he divided people so radically and decisively: those who were not for him were against him.
So, I wonder where we are in relation to the trappings of our own religious observance? Are they a means to an end for us, or an end in themselves? Do they help us to draw closer to God and to one another – or do they bar the way? These are questions that I suspect we should all address from time to time.