Pastoral Message – May 22, 2022
Rules or Relationships?
A couple of months ago, I watched a movie about the early history of the McDonald’s Corporation. It all started with a restaurant in San Bernardino owned by two brothers – Dick and Mac McDonald. As they began to expand from their original location with the help of Ray Kroc, they quickly ran into issues maintaining quality and consistency across the chain. Every restaurant was supposed to follow a strict set of rules and to serve precisely the same 15 cent hamburgers. Yet, some restaurants were also serving chicken while others were serving sandwiches. Franchisees thought that McDonald’s was being too rigid in enforcing the rules. They wanted to be able to build individual customer relationships by expanding and modifying the menu. However, McDonald’s management realized that the whole concept of a franchised business is that uniformity from location to location could only be achieved if each location adhered to strictly enforced rules. In this case, rules had to be at the core of everything that they did.
On the other hand, Christianity is the story of inter-related and inter-locking relationships which drive our behaviors and which hold us accountable. We have relationships with God, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, and with one another. While Jesus certainly established some rules that He encourages us to live by, He is far more interested in our relationships than in blind adherence to rules. In fact, He believes that if we love one another, we will strongly desire to be in healthy, loving relationships with Him, with God the Father, and with everyone else even if there are no specific rules that mandate that we have such relationships.
There is a great tension in any society between rules and relationships. The more a society attempts to use rules to create order, the less individual freedoms that each of its citizens can enjoy. In first century Israel, the Jewish leaders expanded the 10 Commandments into 613 separate rules regarding a wide range of behaviors. There were rules about washing, eating, working, sacrifices, purity, relationships, and idolatry. The goal was that every observant Jew was following precisely the same Code of Conduct so that infractions could be easily detected and order could be maintained. After all, without rules, society can slip into chaos. On the other hand, Jesus shifted the focus of honoring and obeying God from following the Commandments (and all of the other rules) to entering into loving relationships. He wanted (and still wants) his followers to respect and care for each other because they love one another, NOT because there are hundreds of rules governing their interactions.
In the first reading we hear about one of the most basic and cherished rules – circumcision. From the earliest moments of God’s covenant with Abraham, Jews were required to “circumcise the male offspring.” Thousands of years later, this rule was causing great stress between the Christian Jews and those Non-Jews who also wanted to become Christians. The crucial question was whether Gentiles had to become observant Jews BEFORE they would be permitted to become Christians. After much deliberation, the Church leaders decided that circumcision (which was established under the “old covenant”) was not necessary for those who were coming to believe in Jesus (the “new covenant”) from outside the Jewish faith. They very clearly placed relationships over rules: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities…” In other words, “we care more about you than our rules.” Therefore, the Holy Spirit and the leaders only wanted to impose “burdens” (rules) where were strictly necessary. They didn’t want the prevent or even discourage the Gentiles from joining the Church by making the requirements overly onerous.
In taking this approach, it seems as though they were adopting the comforting words of Jesus from this week’s Gospel, “Whoever loves me will keep my word…Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” Previously, Jesus told his disciples that the whole law can be summed up in two commands, “Love God and Love One Another.” In other words, keeping his word (following the rules) is as simple (and as difficult) as loving God and one another. Even though “love” is typically a word used to describe a relationship, Jesus calls us to love as a rule. He is intentionally challenging us to look beyond following well-defined rules and beyond choosing comfortable, convenient relationships. He wants and, frankly, expects much, much more from us. But, how can we ever achieve such a lofty goal?
Not surprisingly, the answer also comes from Jesus: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” On our own, we do not have the capacity to love those around us. We need God’s help to move us in the right direction. Some people reject “organized religion” (in particular the Catholic Church) because they believe that organized churches care more about rules than about relationships. There are also others who believe that they don’t need to belong to a church because they have a “personal relationship with their Lord and Savior.” Since Jesus has already saved them, they don’t need anyone else telling them how to live their lives. However, they are missing the critical instruction that they are not only to love God, but also to love one another. The thing about being part of a Church is that God is present in the members of a Church so that they can provide support to each other to actually accomplish the dual rules – relationship goals of loving God and loving one another. Jesus created the Church for this very reason. I used to say, “it’s not about rules, it’s about
relationships.” That may be true UNLESS the rules are actually about relationships.