Boundaries, Rules, and Guidelines

In my experience rules can be good at setting appropriate and needed boundaries and at other times rules can be little more than a way to hinder progress and good works. Rules can save lives and rules can prevent progress. I read a book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg some years ago and it was all about the influence of habits. The author shared stories about organizational habits and rules. One story that really left an impact on me was about the British subway system. Each part of the subway system had their own domain for which they were responsible. And the rule was that people from one department didn’t interfere in any way with the territory of other departments. Well one day there was a fire in the subway that was never reported because the people who noticed the smoke didn’t want to overstep their boundaries and interfere with another department’s domain. This resulted in the tragic deaths of hundreds of people and millions of dollars worth of damage. It became known as King’s Cross fire and it inspired an intense study into the function of rules in the running of the subway system. Rules can be good but when taken too far they can have dire consequences. Jesus lived his life for the good of other people, to lift up those beaten down by society and life. To him rules were less important than making sure that people were not suffering and dying. He continuously flaunted the Sabbath rules to help those who were in need. The woman from today’s passage was not the first and she was not the last to be healed on the Sabbath day. Jesus was calling people to really think about what the rules were truly about, the intentions that were behind them. The observance of the Sabbath was intended to help people connect with God and to have time for rest which is incredibly necessary for everyone’s emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing. But God never intended those rules to be used to control people or to prevent the care of his children. Jesus encouraged people to see them more as guidelines and not hard and fast boundaries. Jesus called the people to use common sense. When we see someone in need, we cannot determine that someone else will take care of it, or that they have been suffering for this long what is another day. When someone reaches out for help then it is part of our worship of God to respond to that need as best as we are able, to do our best to alleviate their pain. Religious obligations and rules should not get in the way of God’s work. The rules of Sabbath were meant to free us from the obligations of secular life, to establish a boundary between the secular and spiritual. They were not meant to free us of our obligations to one another. We still need to care for others; we still need to worry about the needs of the people around us; we still need to offer fellowship, companionship, and nurture as best as we are able. The rules did not prevent people for caring for their livestock. Animals were still fed and watered. So it made no sense that those rules prevented the care of people. So we are called to evaluate, as the British government did the running of their subway system, our Sabbath practices and the rules that govern our lives. We need to ask ourselves, “Do these boundaries that are established, bring me closer to God, closer to humanity, and do they make me the best of who I can be?” Alice Walker, a 21st century American Novelist, wrote “Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week”.1 What makes the Sabbath holy is not about how closely we restrict ourselves. What makes our lives good lives is not about how closely we followed the rules in life. Rather it is about how we honor God, how we lift up his people and make a difference in the world around us. How we use the rules and think about them to make life in this world easier and better for everyone is what truly matters. Christ is calling us to think about the rules and boundaries that perhaps have become hindrances in our lives and to assess how we could better live into God’s care and compassion for humanity. We are called to perhaps see these boundaries more as guidelines than hard and fast rules. Remember the words of Jesus as he taught about his actions in the synagogue, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him”.2 So go forth placing the well being of God’s people first in your lives. Care for those in need, reach out and touch the life of another person because you just might be doing the work that God has called you to do. Your work in this world is the best way to honor God and when we leave it to someone else to be done, it may never be done and people might continue to suffer. So go forth and make a difference, touch a life, and use this as your way of observing the Sabbath each and every day of the week.

1 Alice Walker, 21st century novelist.

2 Luke 13: 15-17, RSV. Boundaries, Rules, and Guidelines Isaiah 58: 9-14 and Luke 13: 10-17