If a pastor wants to start a row, he needn’t preach heresy. All he needs to do is change the color of the carpet in the church nursery or bring a drum set onto the platform. People might not notice the heresy, but everyone will notice the carpet and the drum set.
Churches are famous for their “we-never-did-it-that-way-before” mindset, though, in fact, churches are no more prone to such thinking than the Kiwanis, the Chamber of Commerce or the United States Senate. It is a human condition.
And that is why organizations have such a hard time with change. People can do the same thing a thousand times, as long they know that what the result will be, and it is moderately good (or, at least, not bad). But investing time and resources in uncertainty is disconcerting — even painful.
When Jesus burst onto the scene in the Palestinian region of Galilee in the mid to late-20s (A.D.), there were a lot of people saying things like, “We never did it that way before.” In a world where tradition was not only ingrained but celebrated, Jesus’s new way of doing things (based on new ways of seeing things), made people uncomfortable, defensive and increasingly combative.
In first century Judaism, religious people refused to eat (or have “table fellowship,” as it is often called) with the irreligious. When Jesus flouted that custom, religious people didn’t know what to make of him. His explanation (that sinners need help too) didn’t satisfy them.
In many first century religious communities, fasting was a weekly practice. It was a sign of one’s deep seriousness about spirituality and reverence for God. Jesus was reproached because his disciples, unlike those in other religious communities, did not fast. Though Jesus explained the reason to his critics, they simply couldn’t comprehend it.
St. Mark tells these stories in a section of his Gospel devoted to conflict narratives. The most serious involve misunderstandings regarding the Sabbath Day, which Jews had been commanded to “keep holy.” Many of Jesus’s contemporaries believed the long string of disasters that had befallen their country were divine punishment for their failure to keep the Sabbath holy, and had devised elaborate plans to so do. Over 600 Sabbath Day regulations had been legislated since the end of the Old Testament era.
Jesus ignored many of those regulations, and insisted that the Sabbath was meant to serve people, not people the Sabbath. After a string of conflicts, some of which had to do with proper Sabbath conduct, Jesus found himself in a synagogue on the Sabbath in the company of increasingly adversarial religious leaders and a man whose hand was deformed.
St. Mark tells the story: “Jesus said to the man with the deformed hand, ‘Come and stand in front of everyone.’” Then he turned to his critics and asked, “Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?” But they wouldn’t answer him.
“He looked around at them angrily and was deeply saddened by their hard hearts. Then he said to the man, ‘Hold out your hand.’ So the man held out his hand, and it was restored. At once the Pharisees went away and met with the supporters of Herod to plot how to kill Jesus.”
The Evangelist makes a point of telling readers that Jesus’s critics had hard hearts and that Jesus was deeply saddened by their condition. He knew hard hearts lead to closed minds and blind eyes. It is a condition we are all too familiar with in our day.
Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, liberals and fundamentalists all accuse one another of refusing to think. But it’s not so much that they refuse to consider the other side’s views as they are incapable of doing so: Their hard hearts have left their minds closed and their eyes blind.
It is fear and sin (with its myriad expressions of selfishness and deceit) that harden hearts, and hardened hearts will generally not soften until they break. Perhaps this is the reason God “will not despise” a “broken and contrite heart”: It offers the promise, or at least the possibility, of an open mind, seeing eyes, and a sympathetic soul.
— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County (Mich.). Read more at shaynelooper.com.