Last Sunday’s Gospel, the Paralytic at the Pool who was healed by Jesus after 38 years of patient and fruitless waiting, contained a reference to one of the accusations brought against Jesus by His enemies. He was accused of breaking the Law of God by breaking the Sabbath rest and encouraging others to do so.
In this case, it was His command to the paralytic to pick up his bed and walk. Not long ago, ultra-orthodox Jews in the Sydney suburb of Bondi successfully campaigned for traffic lights that responded to pedestrians wanting to cross the road without them having to push that button. They consider pushing a button to be ‘work’ and thus prohibited on the Sabbath Day. Clearly, not much has changed in 2,000 years:
This brings up the whole issue of how literally to take God’s commandments. Jesus’ approach to Sabbath rest question cut right to the heart of the subject: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Another time He reminded the Jews of the Old Testament quote, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
One way to interpret this might be a sort of hierarchy, a ‘pyramid’ of moral principles. Those principles that are higher in the pyramid overrule the lower principles. If you were asked to create such a pyramid, what would you have at the top? I wonder if your pyramid would agree with mine…
As a general rule in my pyramid, I would always put people higher than things. “People are more important than things” is a great motto that has saved me from awful mistakes many times, and I have always regretted it every time I ignored this concept. Should I go off my head about the valuable vase that my friend’s child accidentally broke? People are more important than things. That makes the decision relatively simple, doesn’t it?
At the top of my pyramid, I would have one single word: Aghape. Not just ‘love’, mind you, for the word can be twisted and misused too easily. By Aghape Love I mean the pure, unselfish, giving, and self-sacrificial love that comes from God; the love so poetically described in I Corinthians chapter 13.
In the lower levels of the pyramid, I would put the more ‘exterior’ virtues; observance of very specific rites such as how exactly one should stand when praying, knowing the tunes of all the hymns of the Church, and so on. All these are no more than tools we use to help us reach God, and it is dangerous to mistake them for goals in themselves, rather than just a means to a goal. This of course was the very mistake of the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time; their pyramid was upside down, and not carrying a bed was considered more important than celebrating the miraculous healing power of God. No wonder they didn’t recognise Jesus as the Messiah. He would have probably pushed the button at the traffic lights, just to cross the road and save a soul!!! Humph!
In between would be all the other principles and virtues such as mercy, repentance, practical acts of charity, spiritual exercises and methods, social service and so on. I would try to arrange them such that those that relate to my personal relationship with God were higher, those that relate to the welfare of those I interact with beneath them, and those that relate to the welfare of those I have never met below them.
Isn’t that a bit selfish, putting myself at a higher priority than others? Not if the priority is my own spirituality, my own relationship with God. If you are not a good swimmer, and you see someone drowning in a deep river, you are not really going to do them a lot of good by jumping in to save them and ending up drowning with them! In the same way, I am unlikely to do anyone any good if I am not well connected to God. It is not my own powers and abilities that bring goodness into the lives of others, it is the grace of the Holy Spirit working through me. The best way for me to facilitate that grace is to be as well connected to Him as I can, and then let Him do His work as He sees fit.
As a newly ordained priest, I recall one wise bishop telling me that the best service I could possibly offer to my congregation was to personally be a genuine Christian. The years have shown me the wisdom of those words. It is one of the devil’s favourite tricks to engulf the servant in doing things, keep him or her so busy that they lose their focus, forget their real goals, and lose their connection with Christ. That is the road that ends with becoming a ‘whitewashed tomb’, looking smooth and clean on the outside, but being filled with death and decay on the inside.
I have also put the welfare of those I come into direct contact with above those who are distant since genuine love must seek to serve at every opportunity presented to it, and most of those opportunities are with those closest to us. There is no need to go looking for someone to help among strangers when my own family is in desperate need. You don’t think so? Is your wife falling apart over those unfinished bits of housework? Are your parents freaking out because they think they are losing you? Would a kind word and a little smile from the heart have made any difference to the bloke who sits at the desk opposite you and looked so down this morning? If these or any similar situations apply to your life (and they almost certainly do) then you have more than enough material around you to share God’s love.
That’s not to say it is wrong for us to go further afield to serve. As a community, it makes a lot of sense to delegate some servants or some portion of time to serving those who are far away from us but are in great need. It is quite possible to do the one without neglecting the other. Harder, I grant you, but still quite possible. But to travel hundreds of kilometers to comfort the suffering while there is unresolved suffering in my own home is a bit hypocritical.
So, there’s my Pyramid of Principles. How does it compare to yours?