My cousin Francis is of my same age, we are a month apart; we have been very close for most of our lives. Francis about 20 years ago started suffering from back pain and started to have his spine bent, and treatment was futile, eventually his profile became in an L shape. His face always looking first hand to the ground when I saw him the last time, he had to struggle to be able to set his gaze upon me and it was difficult to embrace him. The whole scene left me feeling awkward and sad. We sat down to talk, sitting we could see each other face to face. During the conversation his situation emerged a few times, he was not bitter, nor cynical, often he made jokes about it and I tried to put a smiling face to it. One thing stuck in my mind, he said he felt bad that he has to see the floor at all times, peoples shoes, and he could not raise his eyes to see the sky, or the street, or his children and grandchildren faces now that they have grown.
I left my cousin heartbroken and powerless to help him and the experience left me terrified of catching a disease like that. When I came to this church, one of the first nights of being here I saw man just like him, in the driveway, trying to jump to see if the cab he has ordered was coming. I discover later that he was the husband, now deceased, of a dear neighbor that park here.
Would religion should be an impediment for his healing, if there was a minimum chance of his recovery? What kind of religion is that does not permit healing on particular days? Or feeding? Or restoring? Limited to special days. Limited to the right people.
Sometimes organized religion, and I am practitioner of it, becomes so separated from its founder, from the movement that gave birth to it, that does not resemble anything like it.
Having a bent back is a disease we all, straight walkers, can catch. It does not bend our spine but makes us unable to see beyond our two feet. Impairs our ability to see the other beyond his or her own shoes. It is an isolating disease that separates from each other and therefore separates us from God, since love of God, love of neighbor and love of self are part of one and the same commandment.
How can we be healed? It is difficult because we are under media’s barrage preaching the gospel of the Market: having is better than being. We are taught to escape from freedom from childhood; we are tamed to obey, and not to rebel. Our insecurity seeks appeasement by looking for authoritarian figures, as models to follow and imitate, engages in destructive behaviors and strives to conformity.
We have to understand where Jesus contemporaries were coming from. Jewish religion was the backbone of Jewish identity and that identity was under attack politically through the occupation of Palestine by Rome. Jewish religion was under cultural attack by Greek philosophy, which already by then has already penetrated the way of thinking of Jewish religious thinkers. Judea was small poor nation under attack by the Great Empire and by the wealth of Greek thinking, and what happened was what normally groups do under their circumstances: cling to their heritage, they become “conservative”.
The groups that represent better their adherence to this ideal mode of being were the Pharisees, many of whom had the means to be a “fastidious observer of the Law”. Most of the people, living everyday not knowing if they were going to eat at night when they come home from work, could not.
Law of God was to rest one day in seven, they have saddle this law with so many interpretations; they came up with 39 activities that will be considered work on a Sabbath therefore prohibited. The interpretation was so dense that forgot what the purpose of the day of rest is. What is the purpose of the day of rest?: to restored the tired, to allow healing to take place, to provide families with time to reconnect, to restore to wholeness whatever was lost or damaged during the week.
The Pharisees because they had the time and the means could speculate, argue and interpret the law that was proclaimed by Moses and that stipulated the Sabbath, a whole day of rest. No interpretation is by definition unbiased, so they will make sure that their interpretations will fit and will be possible for a life style focus on study and discussion. Their prestige was enormous and therefore their interpretations unassailable by the uneducated and their verbal arsenal unmatched by the slowwitted peasants and fishermen, women folk and small merchants.
The result was that they had separated the common people from God by creating barriers that were unsurmountable for all of them and securing at the same time their own standing in society. They have converted the Law of God, so fixed and unchangeable that it was cruel, since no one can anticipate life with all of its complexity and variables.
That is why we have Jesus, who came to bring folk like you and me, gentile sinners and ignorant of God, closer to Him. That is why we have Jesus, who came to proclaim that God love us without us meriting it, without effort on our part, without meditation or special diet or standing on our heads, he just love us because. Loving God and loving neighbor and loving self was the now the Law.
The whole mountain of stipulations emerging from the debates of the educated, the well to do, the satisfied will be subsumed into this sentence: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
That is why Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, because he came to restore the tired, to heal relationships in families, to bring to wholeness whatever was lost or damaged. Jesus is the Sabbath and he knew better than the educated bellicose Pharisees, the monopolists of religion of the Temple structure, the collaborationist Sadducees, and the lawyers of the Law what was the Sabbath for: To restore, to rest from toil, to heal the damaged, to reconnect relationships.
Jesus sum this up on one sentence in the gospel of Mark, the Sabbath was made for the human race not the human race for the Sabbath. Life principally it is of the nature of the Sabbath, the disciples picking up wheat to eat, or the healing of the man bent, is always first. So religion, specially organized religion, can never become an end into itself, but a means to better life for all.
Religion without compassion, that is to be in the shoes of the suffering ones is no religion, it is ideology looking for validation. Religion with exclusion, as in some are in and some are out, is no religion, it is social club. Religion that blesses tanks and refuses to bless the love of two people, is no religion, it is a pretext in the name of God for power and control.
Sister Joan Chittister OSB of Dead Man Walking fame said:We talk religion in a world that worships the bread but does not distribute it, that practices ritual rather than righteousness, that confess but does not repent.