wide gap of legalism | John 7.21-22
21 Jesus answered them, “I did one work, and you all marvel at it. 22 Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. 23 If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well? John 7.21-22 | ESV
Unfazed by their protest of innocence, Jesus plowed right on ahead into some recent history. “The lame man I healed on the Sabbath really got under your skin, didn’t he? I gave you one sign. A miraculous deed. Everyone was stunned with amazement! Moses also gave you something: the covenanting rite of circumcision (okay, circumcision goes back further than Moses, but he’s the one responsible for making it a sticking point) and you faithfully practice this rite, even on Stop Day (the Sabbath). If a man can have a part of his body lopped off on the Sabbath so that Moses’ law can remain unbroken, then why all the fuss and bilious fury over me restoring all of a man’s parts in fully functioning order on the Sabbath – what more appropriate day is there to do that?” MAV
We absolutely adore Jesus when he lays into legalists.
It’s one of our guilty pleasures.
And, of course, everyone who disagrees with us and is more restrictive than we are is a legalist – just as everyone who disagrees with us and is more permissive is a liberal. Because Jesus lambastes liberals less in readily available word-bites, we have less Jesus-ammunition to launch in their direction – but we still find some, of course.
The much harder challenge for us is dealing with the legalist (and the liberal) within ourselves. And we each have one. We all do it (just raise your hand now and get it over with). In fact, we can all be quite legalistic in our battle against legalism, can’t we?
Definition: legalism = a philosophy of focusing on the text of written law to the exclusion of the intent of law, elevating strict adherence to law over justice, mercy, grace and common sense.
The gap of legalism is the gap between intent and letter; the heart of the Lawgiver and our handling of the letters that Lawgiver used in expressing that intent. It’s the classic scenario of missing the forest for the trees. Instead of being inspired by the wondrous forest stretching out before us and empowered for living with vigor and passion, we’re stuck in the muck at the base of a tree. Like Bilbo, we desperately need to climb to the top of the canopy of Mirkwood to take in the larger view, to see the way forward beyond the confusing legalistic word webs and darkened dead ends below.
That is essentially what Jesus is doing as he reasons not merely with a group of legalists, but an inherently legalistic culture (yes, they look just like us).
The intent of Sabbath was rest-oration and wholeness that could only be achieved by ceasing from our frenzied pace, and stopping, breathing, relaxing. And what do we do? We become so uptight and frenzied in our efforts to make sure everyone is making a proper stop, that we miss the whole point. We become so obsessed with the letters S T O P and R E S T that we end up unable to see that giving a lame man his legs on the Sabbath so he can for the first time in years actually go home and rest is what the Sabbath is all about, regardless of what rules we might have in place to protect the Stop Day.
Jesus is simply trying to get our heads above the canopy of trees to see the expansive landscape of God’s heart, empowering us, not to rebel against rules, but to alternately run or rest with the heart of the Lawgiver, wherever he may lead us.
How alive and well is the legalist in your own heart – how wide is the gap of legalism in your life? What do you find is most effective in dealing with him/her?
Abba, I long to have my head lifted above the canopy of life to see the sweeping vistas of grace you would show me. Free my feet from the webs of my own legalistic tendencies. Free me from kicking at all rules or being obsessed with them – dissolve each of those webs so that I can run free with you where you would lead. Through Jesus.