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Rules are rules or are they?

Rules are rules or are they?

Psalm 146, 147 (Morning)

Psalm 111, 112, 113 (Evening)

1 Samuel 14:36-45

Romans 5:1-11

Matthew 22:1-14

The very last sentence of our 1 Samuel reading is the one that sticks out for me today: “So the people ransomed Jonathan, and he did not die.” In yesterday’s reading, we learned that Jonathan had placed himself in quite a catch-22 for a little bit of nourishment from a roadside honeycomb. His father, Saul, had laid down an oath that any of the troops eating anything before the enemy had been vanquished would be cursed. Jonathan had not heard his father’s words, and had accidentally transgressed. Of particular note here is that Saul, anguished as he is about the situation, is ready to put Jonathan to death, well…because rules are rules, and how would it look if he made the exception on his own son?

Jonathan’s community, however, is the voice that tips the balance. Not Saul. Not the voice of God booming from the clouds. What’s interesting, I think, is we don’t hear God personally weighing in on whether this was the “right” decision. God was certainly getting the Holy .02 Worth immediately prior to it–we see Saul divining through the use of the Urim and Thummim. We see the people looking at the evidence around them and discerning that, indeed, Jonathan was, at least how they understood it, following that nebulous thing we call “God’s Will.”

This is one of the earliest glimpses we have into the notion of community discernment, and it illustrates both the wonder and the discomfort of it. The wonder is that God is perfectly agreeable to let our communities be a part of this process. The discomfort arises when we really look at what the whole of what this discernment is. The people definitely “get it” in one way–that Jonathan’s cunning and bravery outweigh his transgression in partaking of a few bites of honey, contrary to Saul’s oath. Yet they totally miss the boat in that they think “God’s will” includes annihilating the Philistines. God’s will is for a whole army and its people to perish? Really?

I’ve thought a lot about the pros and cons of community discernment in light of a very disappointing decision recently made locally. At one level, I’m glad that the issue of non-discrimination and human rights in terms of city government is an issue of state, not church. Yet, if we are “of the church”–if we are one of the people who dare to publicly be identified as Christian–then for us, as individuals and communities of Christians, we are called to make our best attempt at understanding how to make room for the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. It was clear to me that different Christian communities in town were led in diametrically opposite ways.

These few days following the decision have been very painful days to watch, and to live out. I’ve watched a great deal of acting out on Facebook and people throwing some very hurtful things at each other. I’ve watched the response following the resignation of a dear friend from a volunteer city committee. I’m seeing how some of the people I had hoped might find a way to become closer to God, push further back instead because of what’s been said “in the name of God.” Some of us have seen some “de-friending” going on without having even engaged the de-frienders in a conversation of the topic–some of it simply seems to be about “I know where I am, and I know where you are, and that is no longer tolerable to me.” Some of us have been reminded how “not theologically alike” we are, although we share various community ministries with other churches. It’s raised questions such as, “Would these same people I work with, that have seemed so passionate about this good work we do together–would they exclude me if…” and “Does this person really think I’m headed straight to Hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200, but they’re just polite enough not to say so?”

This week has been a reminder to me that this story in 1 Samuel is probably the Cliff’s Notes version. This voice from the community probably wasn’t as unanimous as it appeared in print. There were probably some folks who still grumbled and insisted, “An oath’s an oath! Saul took an oath! Jonathan transgressed! Who does he think he is, getting off the hook like that? Oh, sure, the high muckety-mucks in this place get to do as they please.” Perhaps there were some people with a couple of Philistines lurking in the gene pool that weren’t all that confident that God’s will was to wipe out a bunch of Philistines, but said nothing because Jonathan was an okay sort of guy. Perhaps still, there might have been some of the people who were so deeply grieving the loss of their own loved ones in the battle, they were deaf to what was happening with Jonathan, and too mute with sorrow to even voice an opinion. This story looks a little too perfect, and the reality is that we, even when a community discerns something that’s reasonable, right, and good, we still need to be cognizant that history is written by the victors and prevailing opinions are expressed by the majority.

What grounds you when you struggle with the dilemma between “the rules” and what your perceive as your higher authority? How do you discover the ways you’ve been ransomed in your own community, when the discerning voices seem to be in turmoil?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid


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Maria L. Evans

Thanks, Kitty, for your comment. I think you’re spot on in noticing that an individual taking an oath is more inwardly focused and may not see the community picture in terms of how this oath affects it.

You reminded me of that day in 1991 when I held up my hand to take the Oath of Geneva in the Jesse Hall Auditorium at Mizzou. What I was promising, certainly involved me, but it was aimed mostly at protecting the community of patients, and affirming the brother/sisterhood of all physicians one to another.

Your story reminds me of the oral exam we had to take as 3rd year med students on obstetrics. The examiner, a crusty old obstetrician, would lay out one impossible situation after another, and would not let the poor student out of the room until he/she blurted out, “I’d deliver the baby.” That was all he wanted to hear you say.

Your last paragraph also reminds me of one of Elizabeth Kaeton’s blog posts a few months ago:


One thing that strikes me about the reading is that like the story of Jeptha’s daughter, we have to be careful about oaths, especially oaths we take that have an effect on others who might not be taking that same oath.

I think rules have to be constantly re-examined to see if they actually do what they are intended to do or whether they have become counterproductive. Reading one blog this morning I was cut to the quick by the story the blogger told of anointing her mother herself with massage oil becuase the hospital chaplains and lay visitors wouldn’t anoint the mother becuase she wasn’t Roman Catholic. They have their rules to protect their purity of faith, I guess, but how much more could they do to show their faith than reach out to someone beyond their walls in a moment when they are most needed? Rules? Sometimes they are and should be broken.

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