Have you seen the movie As Good as it Gets? It is one of my all-time favorite movies and I watched it on Friday night. It is the story of an obsessive compulsive man named Melvin Udall who is just crazy OCD. He can't walk on sidewalk cracks and he lives in Manhattan so he walks around like some lunatic dancer hopping from one foot to another. He has all these rules, like he has to lock his door three times, turn his lights on and off three times and use a new bar of soap every time he washes his hands. He is also the rudest man alive and he alienates everyone he encounters, mainly because his life of rules can only be lived alone. No one alive could possibly put up with his eccentricities. And, as crazy as it seems, his life seems to work this way. He has written 63 best-selling romance novels in his solitary and sanitary apartment and he is rich.
But then Melvin's life is flipped upside down. He falls in love with his waitress and he realizes that he has to get well if he stands a chance to be with her. "She has evicted me from my life!" He screams to his neighbor. And calmly, his neighbor asks him, "Was your life really that good, Melvin?"
The Pharisees were rule-followers. Today, perhaps the worst of them would be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. They were scared, like all of us are, scared of the chaotic side of life and so, in order to gain a sense of control and to be faithful to God, they got really strict with the religious laws. They got really strict. It was almost impossible to live a Pharisaic life perfectly, it was just too hard. And they would spend hours and hours debating the laws of Judaism.
And Judaism was set up for this kind of OCD rule-following. The Hebrew Scriptures have no less than 613 commandments! It could take a lifetime just to learn them all let alone follow them. When we think of the commandments, we think of ten. Most of us have just blocked out the other 603.
But even still, not all Pharisees were bad, remember that. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and he ended up loving Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea was also a Pharisee and he gave his tomb to bury Jesus. So, just like following laws with simplistic devotion is not adequate for God, neither should we generalize about this religious sect. There was some good among them.
As Carl mentioned last week, this gospel continues a long conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. These Pharisees and some of the Saducees have challenged Jesus to a duel of the laws, a debate of sorts. They plan to trap him in his words and expose him as a fraud. He must be a fraud. He could not have been a teacher, a rabbi, because occasionally, he broke the rules. So they ask him, "Which commandment is the greatest?"
Now, I have a Jewish grandmother, so I think it's OK to tell you this joke about the Jewish grandmother. I loved my Jewish grandmother dearly but sometimes, she drove me crazy. And there is this great joke about the New York Jewish grandmother that captures mine. It goes like this...
The Jewish grandmother gives her grandson two shirts for Hanukah. He carefully puts on one of the shirts and comes down to eat. His grandmother looks up, frowns and says,
"So what? You didn't like the other shirt?"
The Pharisees were prepared to criticize Jesus for whatever commandments he did NOT say were the most important. No matter which commandment he chose, he could not please them. But he outsmarts them by giving them the most important underlying commandments of all...Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself. These two simple commandments are not rules so much as they are a way of life, a lens through which all rules can be observed and all judgements made. Jesus was teaching them to not get attached to rules and regulations but to think of the underlying relationship with God that illumines all our behavior. He was, quite literally, trying to evict them from their way of life.
We are all afraid. It is part of the human condition. These days, we have new words for it like anxiety and stress, but the feeling is timeless. As human beings, there is so much that we do not know...where will we be for sure tomorrow? Will we die tonight? Will our health hold out? Will we have enough? There are no secure answers to these questions. When someone tells you, out of great kindness, that everything will be OK, they are not telling you the truth. We don't know that everything will be OK, not in this world. Ebola may spread. Wars may increase. This world is chaotic and unpredictable. And, hear me on this, it is a NATURAL response to be afraid.
Melvin Udall was terribly afraid, but he tasted love and this love evicted him from the safe life he had created. He was changed. In order to find love, he had to walk on cracks, unlock doors and touch people. He made the choice to turn himself over to love and risk loosing everything in order to find something worthwhile. He had to break all his rules for love.
Today is Ingathering Sunday. As you approach the altar, you are invited to make your financial pledge to the church by placing a pledge card in the offering plate. Some of you have pledged online and you can just place a blank card in the basket or fill it out again. But as you approach the altar, I want you to pray about something. Pray with me that you and I can offer our whole lives, our whole selves to God. Pray that our fear, our stress, our anxiety and our busyness will not prevent us from offering everything to God. Allow God to evict you from the safety of your life and into a life of risk and purpose for Christ.
Jesus ends the debate finally by asking the Pharisees a question that they cannot answer. "If the Messiah is David's son, then why, in the Psalms, does David call him Lord?" The Pharisees have no answer. They are silent. After chapters of debate, they are finally silent. Jesus shows them that they do not have all the answers, that they never were safe. There will always be things that they cannot understand, questions that go unanswered.
We are all lost and afraid and no amount of rules and regulations will protect us from the vast unknown. Only in Christ can we all find our safety, our home.