Blog|Brendan and Evan Deocariza-Nee
Today’s Gospel reading illustrates that we can’t always depend on the law to determine right action: Jesus defied the sabbath prohibition against working in order to heal a man who had been ill for thirty-eight years. Similarly, the history of civil rights in the U.S. is rich with holy rule-breakers who refused to accept injustice. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Chattel slavery was legal. Jim Crow laws were legal. The Federal Housing Administration refusing to back loans for desegregated housing was legal. Racially motivated differences in the prosecution of the War on Drugs were legal. Breonna Taylor’s murder was legal.
The law is not the final arbiter of morality. As followers of Jesus, we cannot exempt ourselves from the arduous work of building the Beloved Community because unjust laws would prevent its full realization. The events of 2020 laid bare the racial inequity that continues to plague this country. The high-profile killings of Black Americans by police followed by escalating police brutality at peaceful protests was bitter proof that, still, we must labor to secure justice and peace for all people.
It’s easy to use a 21st-century, Western lens to assess the Jewish leaders in the Gospels and find them wanting. We do well to remember, however, that these were highly engaged, committed members of the community. Avoiding work on the sabbath day, including the act of healing, was widely observed as a moral as well as legal imperative. Their response to Jesus highlights the difficulty of interrogating laws when the very standards outlining moral conduct are incorrect — and yet, this discernment is a necessary component to healing ourselves and the world.
Where there is suffering, what are the laws that enable and perpetuate it? What moral frameworks have we accepted as justification for these laws? Jesus defended himself against the Jewish leaders by saying, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” Following the example of Jesus, we will continue to work toward Beloved Community. There are no easy answers, but the contemplative spirit of Lent offers space to evaluate our assumptions and revisit our received wisdom.