From healing on the Sabbath, to eating with unwashed hands and unclean people, to allowing his disciples to swipe food from another person’s field, to declaring himself God, Jesus flouted rules, violated taboos, and promoted behavior nightmarishly wrong in the eyes of the establishment. Jesus would break the rules to bless you.
Jesus wasn’t just terrible at keeping the Sabbath; in the eyes of the religious establishment, he sinned against the God of the Sabbath. A Jesus world was a world turned upside down, as frightening to the powers that be as nuclear fission and fallout. No wonder the authorities began to track every move he made.
Jesus broke not only religious rules but also cultural rules. Jesus would have scandalized his town by not being married. You had a duty to your ancestors and your family to marry and reproduce. Later rabbis said, “Seven things are condemned in heaven, and the first of these is a man without a woman.”
Jesus didn’t break rules just to be a rebel. Jesus had something even greater to show us and tell us every time he pushed the envelope. For example, Jesus revolutionized Sabbath keeping with three affirmations:
- Sabbath is made for humans, not humans for Sabbath.
- Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath.
- It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.
Jesus had an overriding, wild-card rule: break any of the rules of the Sabbath sooner than do anything outright unkind or unloving or unsupportive of life. Always support life. To support death, not life, may be the ultimate sin against the Holy Ghost. He didn’t so much reject the law as revision it the way God intended it whenever its interpretation by the institution did harm to people. What mattered to Jesus was not keeping the law but helping hurting people. Everything else was relative to that, including Jesus’ freedom to break the law when it was breaking the backs and spirits of people.
Not only did Jesus’ frequent breaks with tradition reveal a lesson, but they pointed to the truth of who Jesus is—the Son of God, who creates the rules in the first place. Who to know God’s intent better than Jesus?
If I want to play chess, I must obey the rules. If I don’t play, the rules have no authority over me. Since Jesus opted out of playing the religion game of the Temple elite, the rules of the game had no authority over him. But the cost of opting out was his life.
Some people are held together by rules. To be held by Jesus is to be held together by a relationship with God. No rules save Jesus. If Jesus rules your life, the Jesus Rule will cover every situation: Rules or Right?
God doesn’t play by the rules, at least not our rules. God sets the rules. Humans love rules. Hence Robert’s Rules of Order, which rules the church. We are addicted to the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of rules. God is love and life. God rules by who God is—Love and Life.
The Greek Orthodox Church reminds us of this in its many images of Christ Pantocrator, “Ruler of All.” The church will always sink deeper and deeper into a morass of inertia, desuetude, and despair when it forgets the key word that opens all doors and frees all souls: Jesus Christ Pantocrator. You don’t have to love Jesus to be enthralled by life, but life is immensely enriched and enchanted the more you know Jesus.
The Hebrew word for “know” is yada, a relational word of great intimacy. This word doesn’t mean to know about something but to be in intimate relationship with something or someone. To know Jesus is to be in relationship with Jesus. You can know about Jesus’ life and times. But that’s not the same as knowing Jesus firsthand and face-to-face. God cares less about what we know than about how we love and whom we love. For God, relationships always trump rules.
The word economy has a family connotation. The Greek words oikos (home) and nomos (law) mean the law of God’s household. In God’s home, the house rules apply! And the only rule God has is the rule of love. And the rule of love leads to different worship than the red carpet, the White House, or Wall Street.
God does not love in theory but in action. The Creator did not send us a statement in the sky, simply saying, “I love you.” God sent a Savior to earth who showed God’s love by living with us, dying for us, and rising in us.
The law was written on stone. Love is written on the heart: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” A stony heart pumps icy legalism through the veins. But a new heart—a heart renewed by God—pumps pure blood and pure love.
You can’t hold your life together with the twine of rules. You can hold your life together only with the relational cords of grace and love.
Jesus’ bad habit of rule breaking is a lesson for our own relationships. To reject someone’s idea gets often conveyed as a rejection or condemnation of that person. Can we think someone wrong and still be in right relationship with them? Sometimes a relationship can be sealed simply with a handshake, not a harness or a rule.
Every child needs rules. You “grow up” by learning the rules. But there comes a time when you stop living by the rules and start loving from the heart.
Jesus had a real problem with those who lived only by the rules. In fact, the law keepers were some of the people Jesus had the most conflict with—those who look good on the outside but stink from the inside: “Get this and get it straight. The problem is not what goes into a person from the outside that defiles him, but what comes out of the person from the inside. From inside, from a person’s heart, come evil things that make a person unclean.”6 Jesus doesn’t want to control us from the outside but to guide and channel us from the inside. Critical and censorious spirits who view their mission in life to be yardsticks and scales run the risk of developing wooden and metallic souls. Those who have been forgiven much will love much, Jesus said. If your church is not loving enough, maybe there is not enough forgiving going on.
Today’s churches need to cultivate Jesus’ bad habit of breaking some traditions and rules and living in such a way that makes the heart sing and the mind dance. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”9 Don’t sink into the arms of despair; sink into the arms of God, which open the artillery of heaven. This bad habit of Jesus gets into our bones the flesh and blood and breath of Jesus until “dem bones” live again and “dem dry bones” dance.
Taken from The Bad Habits of Jesus by Leonard Sweet. Copyright © 2016. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
Leonard Sweet is an American theologian, church historian, pastor and author. Sweet currently serves as the E. Stanley Jones professor of evangelism at Drew Theological School at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and as a visiting distinguished professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon.