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09.06.15 Our Limited Free Will Mark 3:1-6 Sermon Summary

by on September 8, 2015

One tiny three-word question is poisonous to religion. We’ve heard it since the creation of the world, and it’s a question we’ve asked ourselves ever since. But when Jesus came, he replaced the poisonous question with an antidote.

Summary Points

  • Origin and evolution of the poisonous question
  • How Jesus changes the poisonous question
  • The Psalm 8 view of life
  • The true freedom of the follower of Jesus
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

The question most poisonous to religion finds its origins in the beginning of the Bible. As the second creation story tells it, God placed the human couple in a beautiful garden. They were allowed to eat of any tree in the garden except the one in the middle, which had fruit beautiful to the eye. A serpent tempts the couple to eat from the tree with the question, “Did God really say you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” From there, the question evolved into, “Is it lawful?” And this one question has poisoned Christianity ever since.

Eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil made it possible for us to choose good or evil; we became ethical beings. From there, the goal of the human was to acquire “wisdom,” that is, the accurate practice of discernment. This would then become a new Tree of Life, as Proverbs 3 says, “Happy are those who find wisdom, she is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her.” In other words, happy are those who can discern between good and evil, and choose good. This was the good intention of the Pharisees.

Pharisees were specialists on the Law. Despite how they are often portrayed in the Gospels, they were well-intentioned. They mostly wanted people to be faithful to the commandments, and especially the Sabbath commandment of “rest” on the seventh day. So they constructed a network of sub-laws, interpretations and applications of the Law, as a sort of “fence” around the Law, to ensure that no one broke the Law.

And so when Jesus wants to heal a man with a withered hand who had shown up at the synagogue on the Sabbath, he asks them, “Is it lawful to do good or to harm on the Sabbath?” The Pharisees would have heard, “good or harm to the Law.” And when Jesus continues, “to save life or to kill?” they would have thought, “it is the Law which saves.”

The man also might have been a specialist of sorts. For as long as his hand was withered, he would have been an object of the Law. As a deformed, defective, non-kosher human, the Law forbade him certain activities. And on this Sabbath, he would have the special object of the Pharisees on this Sabbath. Mark tells us that, as the man with the withered hand entered, “They watched him, so see whether Jesus would cure him, so that they might make an accusation out of him.” When the man heard Jesus’ question about doing good or harm, about saving life or killing, he might have said to himself, “I’ve never thought about the Law that way!”

What Jesus is really about here is changing the question, from “Is it lawful” to “What is lifegiving?” The Gospel of John says, “The Law came through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17) Jesus is refocusing our intentions from discerning between “good and evil” to pursuing what leads to “life.” He wants us to move beyond gaining wisdom to giving grace.

Jesus understood the limits of our free will. We understand some things about good and evil. And it is helpful to pray for wisdom. But ultimately what matters isn’t “what is good and evil,” but rather “what is good and lifegiving.” Brian McLaren writes, “God’s judging is always wise, fair, true, merciful, and restorative. But our judging is frequently ignorant, biased, retaliatory, and devaluing. So when we judge, we inevitably misjudge.” (We Make the Road by Walking, p. 9.)

What would happen, if instead of worrying about what is “good and evil,” instead of asking “is it lawful,” we instead asked “what is good and lifegiving?” We have many laws—about labor, guns, fundraising, welfare, charitable giving, abortion, capital punishment, marriage, and immigration. What if we started our deliberations not with “What does the law say?” but rather, “What is most lifegiving?”

Here Jesus seems to take the Psalm 8 view. From the creation stories, the Pharisees emphasized seventh day Sabbath rest. Psalm 8 is no less concerned with worshiping God: it starts and ends with, “How majestic is your name!” But in the middle it marvels at God’s interest in humanity. From the creation stories Psalm 8 emphasizes human “dominion” over creation. It calls us to worship God and to stewardship of all of life. Jesus does likewise.

This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It’s not a matter of obedience to laws—whether they are federal laws or religious ones—but to be a giver of life. Here we will be truly free, as Karl Barth reminds us, “A being is free only when it can determine and limit its activity.” (as quoted in Sleeth, Matthew 24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life p. 191) Laying aside the heavy burden of judging good and evil, Jesus calls us to take up the easy yoke of following the Lord of Life.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • How often do you ask the question, “Is it lawful?” In the world, we ask, “What do the courts say?” In the church we ask, “What does the Bible say?” Do you agree that as Christians, we should instead ask, “What gives life?”
  • Have you ever been the object—or the victim—of the law like the man with the withered hand? How might you have been treated in a more life-giving way?
  • Do you share Jesus’ Psalm 8 view of life, worshiping God and stewarding creation out of gratitude? What would you need to change in order to do that?
  • Do you feel called to move from gaining wisdom to giving grace?
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