About two weeks ago, the BBC screened a documentary film by Louis Theroux called: “My Scientology Movie”.
I must confess that I knew very little about Scientology. I had heard they had had some interesting (some might say strange) beliefs, but I didn't really know anything deeper than that.
In the film, Theroux interviewed ex-Scientologists, some of whom who had occupied very senior positions and who had subsequently become disillusioned by it. The Scientologist organisation itself would not make anyone available to be interviewed.
The movie was quite revealing. It didn't delve into the specifics of the belief system, but gave insight into a religious organisation that had become abusive, oppressive and seemingly money hungry.
Clearly there are some who have found benefit in Scientology. It would not be possible to maintain an organisation for so many years without it providing some practical benefit to people. One of the early stages of Scientology is the process of emotional and psychological auditing. Using a basic lie detector machine to measure emotional responses, they seek to help people talk through trauma and emotional blockages until they find emotional and psychological freedom. For some this is clearly beneficial.
But as the film depicts, the more people progress within Scientology, and the more deeply involved they become, the more oppressive and controlling the organisation becomes. Rather than promoting inner freedom as they claim, they seem to become more and more life-denying and life-controlling.
The evidence of this is how ex-Scientologists who have spoken out against the organisation have become targets of intimidation. In addition, Scientologists are encouraged by Scientology to cut ties with family members who have left the organisation in much the same way that Jehova Witnesses are encouraged to dissociate themselves from their ex-Jehova Witness family members.
In the end there are two kinds of religious systems: those that enable people to grow to greater wholeness, enabling people to take responsibility for themselves, to grow towards true freedom and play a positive role within their communities and in the world, and those religious systems that become restrictive, inhibiting life, inhibiting growth to wholeness, humility, responsibility and compassion.
This has perhaps been the history of religion throughout the world.
We don't have Netflix, but I have seen that in recent weeks there has been a drama series based on Sri Baghawan Rajneesh, and Indian Spiritual teacher who later took on the name Osho, but was otherwise known as the Sex-Guru, partly because he often spoke about sex, but also because he had a reputation of sleeping with his female devotees.
What had started as a group promoting love and spiritual awakening in the early 1970's, by the early 1980's had become dysfunctional and toxic. One of the devotees from Scotland who had been part of the inner circle, recently reflected that he decided to leave the group when he realised that they were no longer about love, but rather the group had in his words, 'become a monster'.
But this doesn't only happen with extremist cults. It also happens within more middle of the road religious traditions as we see in Jesus day...
In Jesus day, Jewish religion on the whole had become life-diminishing rather than life-enhancing. In the early parts of Mark's Gospel, we find Jesus bumping heads with the religious establishment of his day. Their religious traditions had become ends in themselves. One particular example was the Sabbath. According to Jesus, the original intention of the Sabbath was that it should be at the service of humanity. It was meant to enhance the life of human beings.
For the Hebrew people who had once been slaves in Egypt, a law that enabled them to rest for a day was a law that was life-giving. No longer were they to live as slaves of other human beings working 7 days a week without a rest or a break. The Sabbath law was a gift that enabled them to feel like human beings once again, creating space for rest, recreation and joy.
But over-time, the religious traditions of the Jews had turned the Sabbath into a monster. Over-time, something that was meant to bring life was now an obstacle to life and an obstacle to compassion.
For Jesus, human beings were not created to be the victims and slaves of the Sabbath. The original intention of the Sabbath was meant to enhance life, not to diminish it, to celebrate freedom, not to restrict and oppress people.
And so In our passage then, we find Jesus and his disciples ignoring the Pharisees rules and regulations governing the Sabbath. When Jesus and his disciples were walking through the cornfields, the disciples began to pick ears of corn to eat them. As William Barclay writes, on any normal day, what the disciples were doing would have been ok. As long as a traveler did not actually take a sickle to anything in the field, they were free to pluck corn and eat it.
But the disciples were doing this on a Sabbath day, and with years of tradition and rules piled one on top of another, it was classified as work and therefore forbidden.
As the Pharisees launched into an attack upon Jesus and his disciples accusing them of being law-breakers, Jesus countered their accusations by referring to the story in 1 Samuel 21:1-6 in which David was fleeing for his life. At the tabernacle of Nob, when David found no food to eat he ate of the Show-bread on the altar. The show-bread was an offering to God and was considered holy and sacred. No-one was allowed to eat it, except the priests after it was removed from the altar. Yet in his moment of hunger and need, David took the bread and ate it.
Jesus was pointing out a precedent in scripture in which human need took precedence over what was regarded as sacred and holy.
In other words, for Jesus, there was nothing more sacred and nothing more holy than meeting the real human needs of others. The Sabbath was made for the sake of humanity and not the other way around.
For Jesus, sacred things are only sacred when they are used for human benefit. True religion is religion that is at the service of humanity. True religion is meant to bring life and enhance love.
Does your faith bring joy and life to you? Or does it bring fear and guilt? Does it diminish your life, or does it enhance your life bringing wholeness and fullness?