One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way. Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” And they had nothing to say. (Luke 14:1-6, NIV)
This is merely another statement of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is it not? In that parable, we are often told of the pious motives of the priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side. It is not cold indifference that causes them to avoid the man in the ditch but a misunderstanding of the relative importance of mercy and piety.
Piety is good. Prayer is good, and we are commanded and counseled to do it. Studying the scriptures is good. Worship is good and necessary. But if mercy calls, then we are to lay aside piety for the moment.
John Wesley touches on this theme in his sermon “On Zeal.” He puts it this way:
But he should be more zealous for the ordinances of Christ than for the church itself; for prayer in public and private; for the Lord’s supper, for reading, hearing, and meditating on his word; and for the much-neglected duty of fasting. These he should earnestly recommend; first, by his example; and then by advice, by argument, persuasion, and exhortation, as often as occasion offers.
Thus should he show his zeal for works of piety; but much more for works of mercy; seeing “God will have mercy and not sacrifice,” that is, rather than sacrifice. Whenever, therefore, one interferes with the other, works of mercy are to be preferred. Even reading, hearing, prayer are to be omitted, or to be postponed, “at charity’s almighty call;” when we are called to relieve the distress of our neighbour, whether in body or soul.
I see such teaching of Jesus and such interpretations as Wesley’s sometimes get stretched to abolish all sense of the laws or commands of God. We are told that since Jesus requires mercy rather than sacrifice that the law does not apply or that any particular breach of the law of God that we can frame as a mercy issue is okay.
Here, at least, is Wesley’s response to such arguments:
Those, indeed, who are still dead in trespasses and sins have neither part nor lot in this matter; nor those that live in any open sin, such as drunkenness, Sabbath-breaking, or profane swearing. These have nothing to do with zeal; they have no business at all even to take the word in their mouth. It is utter folly and impertinence for any to talk of zeal for God, while he is doing the works of the devil. But if you have renounced the devil and all his works, and have settled it in your heart, I will “worship the Lord my God, and him only will I serve,” then beware of being neither cold nor hot; then be zealous for God.
For Wesley at least, the point here is that to go through pious motions while neglecting mercy makes all our piety an abomination:
Do you follow the example of your Lord, and prefer mercy even before sacrifice? Do you use all diligence in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting them that are sick and in prison? And, above all, do you use every means in your power to save souls from death? If, as you have time, “you do good unto all men,” though “especially to them that are of the household of faith,” your zeal for the church is pleasing to God: but if not, if you are not “careful to maintain good works,” what have you to do with the church? If you have not “compassion on your fellow-servants,” neither will your Lord have pity on you. “Bring no more vain oblations.” All your service is “an abomination to the Lord.”
This is a framework for a Wesleyan reading of these verses from Luke 14. My takeaway is this. Worship, prayer, fasting, study of scripture, and all the other spiritual disciplines that we commend and practice for good reason should never be used as an excuse to ignore the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of other people. Indeed, to pray with great fervor or fast rigorously while your fellow creatures are in need is to make your prayers repugnant to God.
This is not, of course, the only reading we might make of this text. But it is one that we United Methodists should not ignore, even if we ultimately disagree with it.