Civil Disobedience


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, Proverbs 8:1-21, 2 John 1-13, Matthew 12:1-14

The Gospels contain several examples of Christ breaking the Law to serve a greater good. In today’s reading from Matthew he hits the Pharisees with a double whammy. First, he and his hungry disciples pick heads of grain to eat while they are walking through a field, though the Law forbid harvesting on the Sabbath. Then Jesus healed a man with a withered hand (also work forbidden on the Sabbath) and justified it by asking his critics if, had they only one sheep and it fell into a ditch on the Sabbath, would they lift it out?

As followers of Christ we understand God “desires mercy and not sacrifice” yet many civil and religious laws attempt to bind us to legalism over mercy. When are we called to civil disobedience – that is, disobeying the law out of Christian conscience? Without respect to their merit, some examples include conscientious objectors during wartime, refusal to sign marriage certificates for gay couples, and passing out food to homeless people despite local ordinances forbidding it. Further complicating the matter, Paul tells us in many scriptures to obey the civil authorities because they have been appointed by God.

What can we learn from Jesus’s examples of lawbreaking? Jesus breaks the law to show mercy to others – the sick, the hungry, and the outcast. He doesn’t do it to benefit himself, or to make a show of his piety. To the contrary, his actions compelled religious leaders to seek his destruction. Even when he cleansed the temple by driving out the money changers and livestock dealers, he was confronting a system that was technically legal but exploiting the disadvantaged. That’s the flip side of the coin: pretending our adherence to the law excuses our unethical behaviors.

We can’t opt out of society’s laws altogether – that’s simply anarchy – but when the law compels us to do something contrary to God’s desire, we must stand for mercy. Like Jesus we must be willing to suffer the consequences of obeying that higher law. And we must do it with the humility of a king whose only crown was thorns.

Comfort: You don’t have to fight every little aspect of society that doesn’t dovetail with your faith…

Challenge: …but you should be willing to stand up in the face of injustice.

Prayer: God of wisdom, teach me when to humbly respect authority, and when to humbly confront it. Amen.

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