When Religion Blocks Relationship
It was a day I will never forget. Our village had gathered at the local Synagogue to hear the word and receive teaching, to pray together, and to worship Yahweh, the one true God. On this day there was an unusual excitement in the crowd because we had a guest rabbi, the traveling one everyone was talking about. Yeshua was his name. I think you might pronounce it in your language as Joshua or Jesus. Everybody was talking about him. Rumors were flying about healings and miracles he had done. And that, when he taught, he didn’t teach like the rest of the rabbis, quoting other famous rabbis to make their points, but he taught as one speaking right for God. Crowds followed him everywhere, so it was no surprise to me to find our little Synagogue packed on this particular Sabbath.
Yeshua had just begun his teaching, drawing us into his words immediately, when all of a sudden he focused in on one of the women present. I remember her well, because everywhere she walked, she was always hunched over. For 18 years her spine had been so stiff that she could never stand up straight. Today you might label it as some kind of inflammation of joints in her spine. But we only understood it to be an evil spirit, since all diseases come ultimately from the evil one. It was terribly painful for her, but I always admired her, because she never let it stop her from her love for Yahweh and his people.
As Yeshua noticed her, the whole crowd became silent. What was going to happen? Was he upset with her? Maybe he didn’t want one with deformities in his presence? Then he motioned her forward, and she meekly came. I was standing just a few feet away, so I saw it all happen so clearly. Yeshua looked at her with eyes of love and compassion, and he said, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he reached out and put both hands on her slumped shoulders, and immediately she straightened her back and began to cry out praises to Yahweh! After a moment of shock, everyone else did, too. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life! 18 years of suffering and misery gone in an instant! The crowd was enthralled with Yeshua. Could he indeed be our long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One sent from heaven above?
But before we could celebrate for more than a second, our Synagogue leader demanded that everyone settle down. I could see from his countenance that he was not a happy camper. Once the crowed quieted, he calmly reminded us of the importance of keeping Sabbath, our day of rest, just as Yahweh had kept the first Sabbath on the seventh day following the six days of creation. Our leader asked us, in the future, to come on any other day of the week for healing, but to please refrain from doing so on the Sabbath, so we could keep it holy.
Before I could even think about this, I heard our guest rabbi speak up again. He looked right at our leader and said loud enough for everyone to hear, “You hypocrites! Don’t you all have farm animals that you set free from their tethers to feed and water on the Sabbath just like any other day? If you can set them free—mere animals—how much more should one of God’s people, a lady who’s been bound by Satan for 18 years of illness, be set free from her affliction?”
It was one of those moments where you could just see the truth cut like a knife. Our Synagogue leader, along with the Pharisees there, were silenced because they knew Yeshua’s argument was impeccable. Everyone knew that people matter to God. And here our leaders were putting their petty little regulations ahead of people’s lives.
The crowd was ecstatic. We sensed a freedom in Yeshua’s teachings, a way to know and be known by the God of Israel, to truly be his people and walk in his ways, not because we had to, but because we wanted to, out of love and devotion. May Yahweh be praised! And may the evidence of his great healing works let everyone know he is the one true God!
Thanks to our eyewitness for that firsthand account. It must have been truly an amazing moment. This wasn’t the first time nor the last that Jesus would argue with the religious leaders, and it wasn’t the first time nor the last that the subject would be his healing on the Sabbath. In fact, (a little Bible trivia here) an argument about the Sabbath recorded in Mark chapter 3 (Mark 3:1-6) is the only place in the Bible where Jesus is said to have been angry. As he looked at the Pharisees, he felt such an anger for their love for rules and regulations over people.
What is funny to me is that Jesus’ enemies always jumped on him for “working” on the Sabbath, but he never seemed to “work” to perform a miracle. Sometimes he would say a couple of words, as he did here. Once he spat into his palms, looked up to heaven with a sigh, then touched and healed a blind man’s eyes. And more than once he just told people, “You can go home. It’s already done. Your sick relative is now alive and well.” It doesn’t seem much like work to me. And yet Jesus’ enemies used the pretense of work to try to bring him down.
Let’s look at the original Sabbath commandment, and then see what these religious leaders had turned it into. The original is found in Exodus or Deuteronomy as part of the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:8-10 reads, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.”
This command was a way for the people to remember their God, who modeled a Sabbath at the end of his week of creation. On another occasion Jesus emphasized that, like all of God’s commands, this command was given for our own good (Deuteronomy 10:13). Mark 2:27 records him telling the crowd, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” It is a day for rest, a day to recharge our bodies, a day to focus on the Lord who gives us the capacity to work the other six days. It brings balance to our lives.
Now by the time Jesus walked the earth, the Jewish religious leaders had simplified God’s original 10 commandments down to only 613 regulations! The Sabbath is but one example of how ridiculous it got. The rabbis allowed animals to be tied up to prevent them from straying off, but they restricted the kinds of knots that could be used, as some might require too much “work.” They also found creative ways to water their animals without breaking the limits of Sabbath travel (which was about 6/10 of a mile). You could walk that far from your “home” without it being considered work. So to get around that, they would build a crude structure around a public well and pronounce it a “private residence.” Since the well was now a “home,” animals could be taken there for watering, provided [and I’m quoting now], “the greater part of a cow shall be within [the enclosure] when it drinks.”
Jesus used a typical “lesser to greater” rabbinical argument style to say: If we untie animals on the Sabbath to take them to water, why can’t I untie a human being from her spiritual and physical illness?” He actually made a word play on the Greek word for “untie” here. (The King James uses the word “loosed.”) He was basically saying, “Don’t humans mean more to God than mere livestock?
When it comes to the Pharisees and their criticisms of Jesus, here’s the principle I want you to remember: Relationship trumps religion every time. Did you get that? Let me say it again: Relationship trumps religion every time. The rabbinical law was all about “religion,” or how we can work our way to God. “If I’m just good enough, God will love me.” Every world religion is based on that premise of “works,” trying to work our way to heaven. But Jesus came along and said, “There is no one good, not one” (Mark 10:18, Romans 3:10). So all of our rules and regulations about what good Christians should do and should not do, they all add up to nothing. The Bible describes our best efforts without God’s help as a pile of filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6, Philippians 3:7-9).
In today’s story, the Synagogue leader was trying to do good, to keep things orderly and proper. And he and the Pharisees that day were in the presence of the very Son of God, and they missed it! Why? No relationship, only religion.
So if there is no one good, what hope do we have? We have a Savior, Jesus, who died for us as the perfect sacrifice for all our sin, so that the wrath of a holy God could be satisfied once and for all. We need to trust our lives to Jesus. We need to fall in love with the God who already loves us and who wants to save us. He is in pursuit of a loving relationship with us. God reaches out to us, much like Jesus reached out to this crippled woman.
We need a relationship with God like she did. We need to accept God’s FREE gift of salvation through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. We need to confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness, and THEN (and only then) do we do good works, fueled by the Holy Spirit within us and our love for our Creator, Sustainer, and Savior.
Christianity points us to Christ. It’s a relationship, not a religion. As I said before, we need to stop trying harder and start trusting more. And as we cultivate our relationship with Jesus, he will untie us from those things that bind us, and give us the freedom to grow in him, and everything else will fall into place.
Let us pray: Dear God, you know we try in subtle ways to buy your love, your approval. We think if we’re just better people, you’ll love us more. Help us to understand that your love for us is already complete, that you will never love us any more or any less than you do right now. Help us not to get caught up in religious acts that, apart from you, mean nothing. Help us to accept the death of your son on the cross to cover our sins. Please forgive all our sin and help us to live for you, fueled and led by the Holy Spirit. In the name of Jesus we pray, amen.