It is illegal to eat a hamburger in St. Cloud on a Sunday. Why? …I don’t know. My guess is at one point in time there was some legitimate reason for such a law, though I could never guess what that might be. Laws generally don’t just happen—most often there is a reason.
My guess would be that if you were to go to McDonald’s in St Cloud on a Sunday, there wouldn’t be an officer waiting outside the door saying, “Excuse me, I’m going to have to see what you have in that bag.” The law carries no benefit. Avoiding hamburger on Sundays will not make a person into a better citizen of St. Cloud.
In the bible, we see that the Jewish religious leaders made up many of their own rules to help them keep God’s laws. For example, God’s law said, “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”. The Pharisees added 1500 other laws to this one in order to help them keep the Sabbath holy! But here is the problem: those rules became so important to them; they became equal to scripture itself. They missed the heart of God’s law, and reduced it into a bunch of rules that if followed, would make them better than the next guy.
In John 5, there is a man who lies on a mat by the pool of Bethesda. For 38 years he has been lame, unable to walk on his own. The bible doesn’t reveal much about this pool, but apparently it was believed to have healing powers. For this man to be so close to this pool, yet unable to walk to its waters must have been an unbearable heartbreak. And then, one day, he meets Jesus.
“Would you like to be healed? … Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!”
After 38 years, to stand once again, to take your first steps, to feel the ground beneath your feet--what an amazing moment! But somehow…the Pharisees missed it. This man had picked up his mat and was carrying it. By the Pharisees rules, that’s work, and you cannot work on the Sabbath! Their self-righteous rules blinded them to the miracle of Christ! A man who hadn’t walked for 38 years was standing right in front of them, and all they saw was the mat in his hand.
Do you see the irony? The original intended purpose of their rules was to help them be close to God, but their rules prevented them from accepting the Son of God who was right there amongst them! After all, why would they need Jesus to make them holy if they could do it on their own by following some rules?
We may look at these laws and laugh at their foolishness, but I think it would be wise to ask ourselves—do we do the same things? It is pretty easy to cast a judgmental eye on those who don’t fit the mold of our North American Christian culture—those who don’t bow to our churchy rules.
The issue is not obeying a bunch of rules; it’s honoring and loving Jesus Christ. We must always remember that nothing we can do—no rules we obey; no customs or traditions we practice—can ever earn us right standing with God. When we think that, we become like the Pharisees who missed out on the one who came to save them. They were too busy trying to do it themselves.
Let’s not stare at the mat and miss the miracle.