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Cover image: “The Pool Of Bethesda” by Nathan Greene.
1. Love the Lord, Keep His Commandments (not the other way around)
I tried not to let Rabbi Rosen see the exhaustion etched on my face as I sat across from him for lunch. I’d only just arrived in Tel Aviv earlier that morning. A handful of movies later (rather than sleeping—a mistake, I know), I sat blinking in the Mediterranean sun that streamed through our window. We’d come to what he assured me was the best burger joint in Jerusalem (it’s called Mike’s, by the way, if you’re ever in the area). Needless to say, after all that airplane food, I was more than ready for something a little more real, so the moment our burgers arrived I all but inhaled the first two bites.
As I readied myself for a third, I noticed Rav Rosen hadn’t touched his plate. Smiling, he excused himself, washed his hands three times at a nearby sink, grabbed his burger and said,
“Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam ha’motzi lechem min ha’aretz.”
(Blessed art Thou, Lord God, King of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.)
As he finished the last word, he took a ravenous bite from the burger, at least as big as my first two combined and, sighing with satisfaction, he closed his eyes and chewed smilingly as he sat back in his chair.
Matthew 15 describes a similar encounter, though instead of me, it was Jesus, and instead of a burger joint, we really don’t know where they were eating. When some of the scribes and Pharisees saw that the Savior’s disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating bread, they accused them of transgression. To this, the Lord made an almost unheard of reply. “Hear, and understand,” He said to the crowd that had gathered to hear the confrontation, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.”
I try to imagine what Rav Rosen might have done if I’d been a Jew and hadn’t washed my hands before biting that burger. I’m sure he would have asked me about it, just as the Pharisees had asked the Lord. It would have been unthinkable for my friend, as with the Pharisees, to have thought this pre-meal ritual unimportant. But the Lord’s point was clear: while following the commandments is certainly important, speaking kind words is more critical than washing your hands before you eat (remind me to tell my grandmother).
I can’t help but consider how we often separate ourselves from the ancient Pharisees in ways that are sometimes unfair. “We can’t possibly be anything like them,”we often tell ourselves. “They did this or that terrible thing.” But here’s what gives me pause. My friend Rav Rosen washed his hands and prayed before his burger with a sincerity and singleness of heart that I could only wish for. He truly was grateful to God for that bread. It wasn’t a spiritless law he followed, but one filled with heart. So, what’s the lesson here?
There are many, to be sure, but one might be this: we must love the Lord first and keep His commandments for love of Him, not love of His commandments alone.
Let me put it this way: what if the Lord came to us today and had some followers who took a swig of coffee now again? Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t really think He would. And I’m certainly not suggesting that the Word of Wisdom is anything but the law and word of the Lord. I have a testimony that it is. I’m just giving a stab at finding a parallel situation for us today that would be something like what the Pharisees were experiencing in this instance.
A rumored slurp of coffee might be the equivalent of not washing your hands before eating bread in the Savior’s day. And if He’d done that with us, then tried to teach us that the words we spoke were more important than the things we ate or drank, what would we think?
It was obvious what the Pharisees thought about it—obvious even to the disciples who, as we’ve seen before, weren’t exactly famous for being quick on the uptake. But in verse 12, they got it, saying, essentially, “Um, Jesus, you get that the Pharisees were way mad about what you said, right?” I don’t know if the Lord smacked a palm on his forehead in that moment or not, but it’s clear He was disappointed the disciples didn’t understand why He’d said what He did.
Obeying the Law of Moses was important. Keeping the commandments always is. But being kind in our words to others—there’s something special there, so we should do our best to make that a priority.
2. Peer Pressure: Maybe King Noah and Herod Should Have Chosen Better Friends?
Okay, let’s get real. Herod Antipas was a weirdo. He liked his brother’s wife, so he married her. Not weird enough? Well, buckle up, ‘cause we’re just getting started. You see, Herod’s brother and now ex-wife had a daughter, technically Herod Antipas’ niece. So, naturally, when the whole family got together, it was totally normal for him to ask his niece/step-daughter to dance for him. Wait, what??? Not okay. Still, it happened, and this is when things got even weirder. When Herod’s niece had finished her super-weird dance for her super-creepy uncle, he promised her whatever she wanted in return. Great idea! Importantly, he made the promise in front of all his guests, so if he wanted to save face, he couldn’t back down.
Consulting with her duplicitous momma (you know, the one who left her first husband for his bro?), she asked for something that, considering how messed up their family life was already, must have seemed completely normal: John the Baptist’s head (his actual head!) on a plate.
To this, Mathew 14:9 gives the understatement of the century: “And the king was sorry.” The next part of the story is one of the saddest of all. Verse 9 tells us that, because he didn’t want to go back on the oath he had made in front of all the people who were watching, he did as that crazy girl asked and had John killed.
King Noah did almost exactly the same thing in the Book of Mormon. When Abinadi had finished preaching to him and his wicked priests, Mosiah 17:11-12 says that, “king Noah was about to release him, for he feared his word…But the priests lifted up their voices against him, and began to accuse him, saying: He has reviled the king. Therefore the king was stirred up in anger against him, and he delivered him up that he might be slain.”
Ah! So close! Just like Herod, he might have let Abinadi go if it had been just him. But because of the peer pressure he felt from his priests, he hardened his heart and sent Abinadi to his death, just as Herod had done with John the Baptist. To King Noah’s credit, there’s no evidence that he had to have a creepy step-daughter shimmy him into submission, but I guess there’s really no way to be sure, so we’ll just leave it at this: Herod and Noah would have done well to either choose better friends or, as President Monson was fond of saying, dare to stand alone. May we have the courage to do so where, unfortunately, they did not.
3. Pool of Bethesda: Sometimes We Have to Wait a Long Time, but if We Look to Him, We’ll Live
I’m sometimes a bit confused by how this scene is portrayed visually. John 5 says there was a pool in Jerusalem where “a great multitude of impotent folk” would gather. Every so often, the water would move. Now, whether an angel moved it or not, people thought that the first one in the water after it moved would be healed.
Now, paintings and movies seem to only put a few people hanging around the pool. But the scriptures use the word “multitude,” or, in Greek, plethos (it’s where we get the word plethora). Elsewhere, this very same word is used to describe the number of people who followed the Savior around Galilee (some of whom were around for the loaves and fishes thing—5,000 men, not counting the women and children). It’s even used to describe the number of fish the disciples caught—so many that their nets began to break. Needless to say, there were a lot of people there, all waiting for the moment the water would move.
How did this work, on a logistical level? I mean, if it was, say, one of my sisters who maybe couldn’t walk or something, I would wait with her in my arms right at the edge of the pool and throw her right in the middle as soon as the water moved. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s thought of that method. Now, imagine a multitude of sick people, with still more there to help them into the pool, all frantically waiting to rush into the water at the first sign of movement. It must have been chaos—not exactly the peaceful scene we’re all used to.
Yet, there he was—the man from John 5—sitting or laying in what must have been the same spot for a long, long time. He’d had an infirmity for 38 years, the scripture tells us. That’s a long time. I mean, longer than I’ve been alive. I can’t even imagine what I’d have said if Jesus walked up to me and asked, as he asked this man in John 5, “Wilt thou be made whole?”
Maybe I’d have laughed. Maybe I’d have yelled at Him. “What do you think I’m doing here, waiting for a drink?” I might have shouted, losing my temper. I think it’s beautiful and harrowing that the number is 38 and not 40. 40 might have tempted us to think it was only a symbolic number, one that meant simply “a long time.” No, this one seems much more specific, and the chances of its symbolic meaning are, well, less likely.
At any rate, his response is heart-wrenching, saying, in essence, “Listen, man, look around. I don’t have anyone to help me. Whenever the water moves, someone else goes (or, in the case of my sisters, gets thrown) down before I can even get up.”
He’d even been there so long that he’d made a little bed for himself so he could stay there all the time. Whether he’d been there the entire 38 years of his infirmity or this was his last straw hope, we don’t know. But what we do know is the Lord’s mercy. Without fanfare, without further ado, He simply told him to get up, grab his little bed, and walk. Then, scripture says, the man was immediately made whole.
What is the lesson here? We could talk about the Pharisees who couldn’t see the forest for the trees and asked this guy why he was carrying his bed on the Sabbath when clearly he had just been miraculously healed. We could mention the equally miraculous value of patience in our tribulations, exemplified by the decades-long trial of this man’s wait. But I think I’ll mention what I love most. “I have no man,” he’d said, but he was wrong. He did have a man—the Son of Man, and the moment he looked to Him for healing and help instead of the rumored miracle of the angelic water before him, the hustle and bustle of the crowd melted away leaving only the Lord and His poor, unfortunate son. It’s easy to get caught up in the world’s frenzy to be healed, following the crowds to the next best promise of fulfilment or distraction. But whatever it is, if removed from the Savior’s power and grace, it is nothing. With Him, all things are possible. Without Him, we face, as Elder Holland put it, “a lot of long nights and empty nets.” For those struggling to be healed, find an answer, or receive a blessing long sought, I say this: we are all waiting in some form or other. Don’t give up, for in God’s good time, He will spring forth to the rescue and liberation of our soul’s sincere desire. Let us wait on Him, for He will surely come.