“Big Brother is watching.” If you’re thinking that that phrase wasn’t on the “Bible or Not” quiz, you’re right. One of the side effects of doing this sermon series is that I keep thinking of phrases that might or might not be in the Bible. That happened when I read the lectionary text for this week. In the very first verse, Luke says, “When Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees…they were watching him closely.” And, immediately, the phrase “Big Brother is watching” popped into my head.
Of course, this phrase is not in the Bible. It was coined in 1949 by George Orwell in his book 1984. The story is set in the fictional land of Oceania, which is controlled by a mysterious figure known only as Big Brother and where everyone is under constant surveillance. Since the book came out, we’ve been using the term “Big Brother” any time we feel like we’re being observed by someone or something over which we have no control, whether it’s government, or big business, our employers, or snoopy neighbors.
We have something of a love-hate relationship with the idea of being watched. For the most part, we don’t like to feel that Big Brother is watching. Being watched suggests that we can’t be trusted to be honest, or to work hard, or to live our own lives without being supervised—that if we’re left to our own devices, we’ll cheat on our taxes, help ourselves to the office supply closet, or let our dog dig up the neighbor’s lawn. Being watched means that Kroger knows our favorite ice cream flavor, and Google knows where we want to go on vacation. My mail carrier once asked me to offer an opening prayer for his union meeting. I said yes, but I asked him why he asked me? He said he knew I was a pastor because I get mail addressed to the Rev. Williams-Young. Big Brother is watching.
We may say we don’t like being watched, and yet many of us are perfectly willing to expose our private lives to hundreds or thousands or even millions of people. Have you ever watched the CBS reality show called “Big Brother”? The show features a group of people living together in a house outfitted with 94 cameras and 113 microphones that record their every move, 24 hours a day. Each week, one of the contestants gets voted out of the house, and the last remaining “houseguest” wins the grand prize of $750,000. According to one source, more than 30,000 people apply to be on “Big Brother” every year. But, even if we’re not planning to join the cast of “Big Brother” or any of the other so-called reality shows, many of us regularly share the personal details of our lives with dozens or maybe hundreds of people on social media. Big Brother is watching.
Regardless of how we feel about being watched, we don’t mind doing the watching. I confess I’ve never watched “Big Brother,” but plenty of people do. In fact, it’s CBS’s highest-rated program. It debuted in the year 2000 and is currently in its 24th season. It airs three nights a week, and two weeks ago, the Wednesday night episode had more than four million viewers. Some researchers say people watch because they enjoy watching others be humiliated. Some say that they watch because they empathize with the contestants; they’re regular people, not Hollywood stars, so it’s easier to identify with them. Or, there’s just plain old voyeurism—a thrilling but seemingly harmless peek through a keyhole at what we aren’t usually allowed to see. Even if you’re not a fan of “Big Brother” or other shows like it, can you honestly say that you pass by the scene of an accident without trying to see what happened? Sometimes, we’re the Big Brothers who are watching.
Our passage tells us that Big Brother was watching Jesus, too. In his case, Big Brother took the form of the Pharisees and some religious lawyers who were with them. Jesus was on his way to the home of a leading Pharisee, where he had been invited to share a meal on the sabbath and, Luke tells us, “They were watching him closely.”
This is not the first time Jesus has been a guest at a Pharisee’s house, and it’s not the first time he’s been observed. Earlier, Jesus had gone into a synagogue, where there was a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees had already challenged Jesus about breaking the Sabbath, and they knew about his healings. So, there in the synagogue, they had watched to see if he would break the sabbath rules again. If he did, they could add another complaint against him to their list. Of course, Jesus didn’t disappoint. He healed the man then and there. The scribes and Pharisees were furious, and they started to talk about what they might do to Jesus.
Now, here they are again on a sabbath and Big Brother is again watching. Jesus isn’t in a synagogue this time; he’s on his way to the home the Pharisee for dinner. As he makes his way to the house, a man with dropsy appears in front of him. Dropsy is what we know as edema, and I know many of you have experienced it. Clearly, this man is suffering from some kind of medical condition. Along with the swelling, he may have had difficulty walking, or he might have been in pain. He may have been suffering from other symptoms from whatever condition was causing the edema.
This man who is so clearly ill appears in front of Jesus. Luke is a little more dramatic in Greek: more like, “Behold! Look at this man!” And, Jesus does look at him. The man says nothing to Jesus, but Jesus sees him. He sees the condition he’s in. He sees a fellow human being who needs help, who needs relief from his discomfort. And so, Jesus does what Jesus does. He heals the man, but not before he asks a question of the Big Brothers who are watching: “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath or not?”
These men who had committed their lives to paying scrupulous attention to the law certainly believe it’s not. But they also are probably pretty sure that Jesus has another idea. So, they say nothing, not willing to commit themselves. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. After healing the man and sending him on his way, Jesus ups the ante with another question: “So, if your child or your ox falls into a well, wouldn’t you pull them out immediately, even if it’s the sabbath?”
Now, Luke tells us, the lawyers and the Pharisees don’t just silently keep their opinions to themselves. Now, they don’t even know how to respond. Because, there was more than one answer to this question—more than one interpretation of the law. Some Jews thought you should just leave an animal where it was on a sabbath—but a child? How do you answer that one? They were stumped.
This story is about Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes who were watching him. But, I wonder who else was watching Jesus that day. Jesus wasn’t an unknown figure. I imagine he drew attention wherever he went. And the man with dropsy might have drawn attention as well, depending on how obvious his affliction was. So, we can imagine Jesus walking down the street, and this man appearing, and Jesus stopping, along with the posse of lawyers and Pharisees who keeping an eye on him. I don’t know about you, but I might want to watch to see what was happening.
What did all the people who were watching see that day? The Pharisees clearly saw a threat—someone who was perfectly fine with breaking the rules they held so dear. They saw someone who was willing to take all their cherished traditions and Biblical interpretations and turn them upside down. They saw someone they needed to neutralize.
But what did the other watchers see—the bystanders who were more like us? Certainly, they saw the Pharisees—the Big Brothers who watched to make sure everyone was following the rules to the letter, even when that sometimes made life very hard. They saw men who were at the top of the heap—the religious heap, the social heap, maybe even the political heap. They saw men who exercised power and authority. They saw men who commanded respect by virtue of their office, if not by virtue of their virtue.
Those bystanders also saw a fellow human being in need, and they saw a man who was willing to put concern for such a person above concern for the rules. They saw a man who wasn’t afraid to challenge those in charge. The watchers saw a man who was more concerned about a stranger—a sick stranger at that–than about his dinner plans with the powerful. They saw a man who had true power, true authority, and who truly deserved their respect, although they may not have fully realized that yet.
Whom do you think the crowd was watching most closely? The powerful leaders, the sick man, or the man who was willing to upset all the norms to tend to a fellow human being? If we had been in that crowd, whom would we have been watching most closely? Would we watch the people in power—the people who played by the rules and made sure everyone else did, too? Or would we watch the man who followed the intention of the rules—the man who redefined what it meant to honor the sabbath by caring for others?
We can ask ourselves the same question today. Whom are we watching? We have lots of options. We can watch those with money and connections and power and fame, and we can watch them 24/7 on all the news and media outlets out there. If those are the people we’re watching, we may come to want what they have, and see them as examples of how to get it. This is great if what they have is the result of honorable business dealings, faithfulness in relationships, truthful words, deeds that help others, and an authentic faith. But what if their gains are ill-gotten: the result of dishonesty, and manipulation, and self-interest? What happens when people watch them, and decide to use them as role models in their own lives?
We can also watch the people who are hurting—in all the ways they can hurt. We can watch the people who took on student debt to improve their chances in life but are now strapped by that debt instead. We can watch those who have to choose between a job without medical benefits and health care for their kids through Medicaid. We can watch those who have to remain homeless for months until they can get into an apartment they can afford.
And, we can watch Jesus. We can watch how he treated everyone with respect. We can watch how he healed those who needed healing, and how he challenged those who had the power to help others but chose not to. We can watch how he chose the needs of people over the rules, over tradition, over objections and, eventually, over his own life. If we’re going to watch, we should be watching Jesus.
As we’re doing this watching, we should remember that we are being watched as well, and not just by our internet browsers or our credit card companies or our grocery store preferred shopper cards. We’re being watched by other people. Jesus was being watched as he was doing the ordinary task of walking to the house of his host. Sure, he was watched at other times, too, like when he preached to thousands on a hillside or raised a man from the dead. But, more often he was being watched as he traveled from town to town, as he worshipped in the synagogue, or as he walked through a field of grain.
That’s how we’re watched, too. We aren’t likely to ever have a national platform where we can spout our views, or crowds showing up to get our autographs, or a network of followers who worship our every move. But, the people we encounter as we’re going along in our lives are watching us. They’re watching to see how we make our faith in Jesus known, and how we’re living it out, for better or worse. The driver with a fish decal on the bumper, waving their middle finger at the car behind them? People are watching. The woman wearing a cross around her neck, being rude to the grocery store clerk? People are watching. The group in the restaurant after church, giving the side eye to the heavily-tattooed guy and his multiply-pierced girlfriend at the next table? People are watching.
But they’re also watching when we go out of our way to help someone else. They’re watching when we smile warmly at the couple in the restaurant, no matter how different they look. They’re watching when we’re patient with others whose patience has run out. They’re watching when we wave the car next to us into our lane, or into that convenient parking spot, or into the place ahead of us in line. They’re watching when we pray, and when we go to church. People are watching.
And, other people are not the only ones who are watching. God is watching us, too. Jesus, our brother, is watching. This can be either comforting or unnerving. Whenever I teach a lesson to young children about how God is watching over us all the time, it never fails: one of them will ask me in an anxious tone of voice if God is watching when they go to the bathroom. We may not share that particular worry, but the fact is that we sometimes do things that we’d rather God not see. This is especially true if we think of God as a harsh judge, waiting to catch us when we fall short, ready to deliver the punishment we deserve. In that case, the idea of God watching us all the time can create feelings of fear and a desire to hide, as Adam and Eve did in the garden.
But, I believe that God watches us like a loving parent who takes a personal interest in each of us and watches us closely. God sees each of us as a beloved child—observing us when we do things that are heartwarming and when we do things that are heart-breaking. God is willing to correct us, yes, but God also desires to encourage, comfort, strengthen, and guide us into the paths of righteousness. To paraphrase the psalmist, God watches our going out and our coming in, from this time on and forevermore. God is watching us, with love.
I’m a morning person, and my favorite part of the day is when the sun has come up but it’s still too early for my neighbors to start using their lawn mowers or the township to start digging up a street or the tree trimmers to start up their power saws and wood chippers. When the weather cooperates, you’ll find me, settled into the love seat on my deck. If it’s a chilly morning, I’ll be snuggled up in the afghan that Pat Jones made for me.
From my spot there on the love seat, I can look straight up through an opening in the tall trees to the sky above. In those quiet moments, it seems like, if I could just see a little farther, I’d be able to see the face of God, as clearly as God sees my face—and yours.
There are lots of Big Brothers out there watching us, but we have one Brother who invites us to watch him. Jesus our brother invites us to watch as he teaches us how to love God and love our neighbors as we are loved. He let us watch as he suffered death on a cross, and now he lets us watch what can happen when we keep our eyes on him—to see how our lives are changed as we’re guided by the constant presence of his Spirit. Jesus our brother came to this earth as the living embodiment of our God, who is watching us. Our God, who is watching over us. Our God, is watching over us, always, in love. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young