While reading the Prairie Star the other day, I came across the traffic violations in Elk and Chautauqua Counties for the past month. I’m happy to say that none of you nor I were listed among those ticketed.
Now, there are those of us who are conscientious rule followers, and there is no doubt that these names will never appear on these rolls. But there are others of us – present company included – that fall into another group.
It may not be that this group doesn’t deserve tickets, but that we aren’t caught, or that we have learned how far we can stretch the limit without getting stopped. You see, every violation listed in the Star was for at least seven miles an hour over the limit.
Many of us have figured this out over the years and we use this window of tolerance to our advantage. Nonetheless there are limits, and when we push them too far, there are consequences.
Other examples that come to mind are missed classes at school, unpaid credit card bills, or deferred maintenance on the house or car. These things have consequences for us, but for whatever reason the consequences are not real enough, not pressing enough, or not bad enough to discourage our taking advantage of them.
Bottom line, some of us tests the limits of rules or prudent behavior when it suits our purpose. But what about when it suits the purpose of another person as seen from their perspective; are we so tolerant?
If this is the case, we may be inclined to draw a clear line in the sand and say no further or no faster, especially if we are not the one facing the consequences!
This is the setting confronting Jesus today in Luke’s account of his healing of a crippled woman in the synagogue. In this story Jesus stretches or tests the limits of a triple play of prohibited behaviors.
First, he heals a woman during a service of worship in a public space that is segregated by gender – he encourages her to cross the boundary.
Second, Jesus lays hands on a woman who is not a family member – he is putting his hands where they do not belong.
And third, he does all of this on the Sabbath – a day on which work is not permitted. How dare he?
The synagogue leader is infuriated by this violation of the rules that are intended to preserve the morality – the propriety – of the worship community.
As a worship leader, I really feel the synagogue leader’s indignation over the disruption of the worship service. But then Jesus’ reply of “You hypocrites” brings me up short. Am I really a hypocrite? Well – honestly – yeah, sometimes I am.
While pondering this, I realize that there is another way of expressing Jesus’ reply. “There but for the grace of God go you. Remember that you choose to bend the rules to your own advantage, but you hold others to a different standard.”
What is our own modern-day triple play of stretching the limits of moral behavior? Is it speeding, neglecting the common good, and exploiting a circumstance for our own advantage?
Perhaps we rationalize our behavior by saying, well if I’m not caught I can’t be found guilty – it’s a victimless offense. Or perhaps if we have enough resources, e.g., money, influence, and a good lawyer, we can beat the charge. “There but for the grace of God go we.”
We do live in a world full of double standards. But when we knowingly choose to exploit these double standards it is inappropriate. But there are far more situations that are less obvious, or of which we are blissfully unaware.
Jesus is speaking to these less obvious situations today – the social systems or structures that we are so accustomed to that we fail to see the offense; particularly if it does not affect the course of our daily lives.
In our comfort we can become blind or oblivious to the reality that these systems hopelessly bind others, who have neither the resources nor the privilege we take for granted.
If our circumstance has become one of blind comfort, Jesus is calling us hypocrites – not to insult us – but to get our attention – to draw our attention to those seemingly benign institutions or systems that perpetuate injustices such as, trapping people in circumstances that deny them the same liberties and dignity we take for granted.
If Jesus were to publish the list of hypocrites in Elk and Chautauqua counties in the Prairie Star we would be appalled by the names on the list. Thank goodness it is not a matter of public record. Nonetheless, we know well enough that we are all on that list from time to time.
But we also know that we have access to forgiveness. This is the reason we gather as a community every week. Individually we are incomplete – imperfect. But during this weekly immersion in prayer, sacrament, and the Body of Christ, we are – bit by bit – made a little more whole; we become a little more like the One we bless, praise, and offer thanksgiving to.
In gratitude for this grace, we become better about liberating other children of Abraham, who like the crippled woman, are bound by systems that we are blind to. Remember, there, but for the grace of God, go we.