The Christian band Jars of Clay has a song called Rescue Me that begins, “Change the shape of my heart, so it becomes more familiar to your eyes.” It’s a prayerful plea to God to make our hearts more familiar to, more like God.
Between my junior and senior years of college my friend Eleanor and I gathered our pennies together and decided to take a trip backpacking through as much of Europe as possible. We were very thrifty. We eliminated most of our housing budget by finding people who knew someone we knew to stay with or by sleeping on trains. We stayed in a number of youth hostels too which are often very inexpensive. Toward the end of our trip we went to Budapest. At the time we entered Budapest, travelers like us had to do one of two things. We had to either stay in a State-approved accommodation or register with the police, go find a hotel, and then come back and report where we were staying. We opted for the first choice because it seemed so much simpler and of course picked the cheapest choice on the list. We stayed with a woman in an apartment, a teeny tiny apartment, for the equivalent of $ 1.50 each. This woman, whose name was Aggie (we could tell from the information we had been given on how to find the place) spoke no or very little English. She lived with a gray cat in a very humble and small apartment and had this extra little room that she rented out. It was fine. It was clean enough, comfortable enough, and definitely cheap enough. It was fine.
When Eleanor and I were leaving in the morning, the door closed behind us and then we heard a click and a slide - - Aggie opened a little peep hole of sorts in the door and we could see her eyes and part of her face looking out. “Dollars?” she said? She was asking us for more money.
* * *
Jesus and the disciples were traveling on a Sabbath Day and they walked through a field of grain. The disciples started to pick the grain and rub it in their hands to take off the covering and then they ate the grain. The Pharisees were shocked and upset by this, demanding of Jesus why he was allowing the disciples to break the Sabbath law.
It was not illegal to take the grain - - travelers were permitted access to food if they were on a journey. But it was harvesting and threshing that was prohibited in the Law (Leviticus). And to eat the grain they had to both pick it and thresh it. Jesus responds to them by citing a time when King David was hungry and the only food he could find was the bread in the temple that only the priests were to eat. But David and his companions ate it anyway. Jesus knew that the Pharisees would not challenge him after a reference to King David, THE king, whose throne was to have no end. But anger builds in the Pharisees.
On another Sabbath day Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and the Pharisees and Scribes are there just waiting to see what he might do. There is a man with a withered hand present. Jesus calls the man to him. He does not ask the man if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Instead, he asks “Is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath? Is it lawful to save life or to destroy it?” Without waiting for an answer he tells the man to stretch out his arm and the withered hand is healed. Will you save life or destroy it? Which is lawful? The Law of God is about life. Giving life. Saving life. Nurturing life.
Often times this passage is viewed as an inter-faith disagreement - - a Christian versus Jew interpretation. But it is not. It is an inner-faith disagreement - - Jesus the Jew and the Pharisees. Jesus is very schooled in the Law, he has faithfully lived it throughout his life and existence. The Pharisees, of course, are the professional faith people - - the clergy of the day. Obviously they know the Law well. So Jesus and the Pharisees argue. Not about what the Law says, but about what it means. If I am to fulfill the Law and be faithful to God, how then do I live?
This was more than just a theological argument. These questions and this particular struggle hit a nerve in the faith community of the time which was struggling to preserve itself in a non-sympathetic environment. The Roman Empire dominated the landscape. At times religious practice was outlawed and persecuted. The Sabbath was central to their identity, to who they were and how they lived as a people of faith and they were clinging tightly to preserve it, to hold onto it, to control it. They thought that rigidity was the way to protect it. They thought that if they controlled it tightly they could preserve it
But the Power of the Law and the Word of God is not in the control of any of us and it is not in the control of us. It is not in rules we bind one another with or the judgements we place on those outside of our community who are not like us. The Power of the Law and the Word of God comes from and is defined by and is given to us by God. And that Power and that Word is LIFE. A restored hand. Food in an empty stomach. Changed hearts that look more and more familiar to God! An empty tomb. Resurrection and life!
God is on the side of life all of the time, every time. Sabbath or not. Life, life, life. What is more lawful on the Sabbath? To do good or to do harm?
The Pharisees and Scribes are angry. They are filled with fury and begin to think about what they can do to Jesus rather than face these hard words. They refuse them. They do not want their hearts to be changed.
* * *
As Eleanor and I left the apartment in Budapest that day, Aggie asked us for money. “Dollars?” she said? We had fulfilled all of the rules. We had followed the law and stayed at an approved place. We had paid our bill in full. We had been good guests – not loud, not messy, cleaned up after ourselves. But it wasn’t about what was required. It was about doing good or doing harm. About life or not life. Would we let our hearts be changed that day?
We were getting low on cash and were near the end of our trip. If we gave money away would we have enough? We worried. We could have skipped a meal or two or three. We could have done a lot of things in order to give her $ 20 or $ 40. But we didn’t. We chose to not give and we walked away.
Which is more lawful? To do good or to do harm? To save life or destroy it?
My failures stay in my mind much more than the times when I did the right thing. I think I will be able to see that woman’s face forever - - even though that has been 30 years ago. And I think about standing before Jesus and explaining that decision. What can I say? I blew it.
I wonder if that face stays in my mind as a reminder to help my heart change. Maybe as I remember Aggie I will be more likely to choose differently next time. To see the Law and my faith and my life as life and good news and to give generously to someone else whose need is greater than mine.
Change the shape of my heart, O God. If that is what we seek as Christians, what will we do today?
How will we do good and save life among one another in this place? And how will we do good and save life as God’s people when we go out from our pews into the world that longs for hope and light and grace?
May we be wise and courageous and full of trust in God. And may our hearts be more familiar to Him this day and every day.
All glory be to You O Lord. Amen.