Driven to Our Knees
This week in Faith in Real Life, the group discussed the Law and the merits and challenges that devoting oneself to following it presents. The corresponding gospel reading to further drive home the point that, even on our best days, we all fall short of the glory of God.
1 Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD.
2 Happy are those who keep his decrees,
who seek him with their whole heart,
3 who also do no wrong,
but walk in his ways.
4 You have commanded your precepts
to be kept diligently.
5 O that my ways may be steadfast
in keeping your statutes!
6 Then I shall not be put to shame,
having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
7 I will praise you with an upright heart,
when I learn your righteous ordinances.
8 I will observe your statutes;
do not utterly forsake me.
Gospel Matthew 5:21-37
21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
This Old Testament reading is the opening of the longest psalm in the bible and it is another acrostic. But, instead of a single line devoted to each word of the Hebrew alphabet (as was the case last week), each letter introduces an eight-verse grouping. It is almost a heroic recounting of the value and virtue of God’s law. Though we are more familiar with the heavier view of the ‘law’ in the context of the New Testament—-where it is often contrasted with grace, the law was not an onerous obligation for the psalmist. It was quite the opposite—’Happy (blessed) are those who walk in the way of the Lord. The law was and is a ‘rule of life’ that leads the worshiper to God. As such, it was very important for the Jewish worshiper to understand and obey. This tradition is alive and well in Israel today.
When we visited Israel, we had supper in the home of an orthodox rabbinic student. His training and life were markedly different than ours. For him, understanding the law was the key to obeying the law. Students paired up each day to examine and debate the meaning of scripture. In his domestic life, he was married and, with five children, was well on his was to the average of nine children per orthodox family. His wife supported the family as an RN in a local hospital and he studied. The wife served the meal, ate with the children and joined us at table for conversation.
I include this story because to an American eye, this was an odd way to live. But it is not so odd in light of today’s psalm. (Verse 2) Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart. Set aside our ideas about gender equality, inequities of responsibility and income, this family rotated their entire lives around seeking God with their whole heart in order to find the contentment of walking with him. This way may not be for me or for you, but it worked for these people. I know very few people who would take biblical precepts so seriously. In this context, the Christian Hymn, “Lord I want to be a Christian” would have to be reworded for a modern context—”Lord I want to be Christian….but not that much.”
The devout Jew did not view obeying the law as a task so much as an opportunity. The law marked the ‘Way of the Lord”. It provided the way to the eternal. Rigorous study and obedience was a way to honor God.
Unfortunately, this high standard is a double-edged sword. Wielded well, it provides direction and intentionality to our living. But cutting back the other way, the law is an unattainable standard that reveals our constant falling short of what God would want for us. I think this is what the 8th verse refers to — “I will observe your statutes; do not utterly forsake me.” The psalmist is painfully aware that his highest obedience falls short of God. In the end, he must petition that God does not forsake him. He knows, all too well that his obedience is insufficient, his salvation is dependent upon God’s activity—not his.
This humble use of the law to direct our lives is the best use of the Torah. Unfortunately anything that can be used can be misused. What the psalmist meant as a grateful acknowledgement of the guideposts for living were (and are) easily transposed into defining righteousness as obedience to God. That definition gives us a standard, a measuring stick by which we can evaluate others and ourselves. “I know I get angry but at least I didn’t kill anyone…” “I know I’m not perfect…. but so and so has really sinned. These disclaimers are our not so subtle denial of accountability. As long as we can say— ‘we are less bad’ or ‘you’ve done the same thing’ or ‘how can think badly of me after all I’ve done’ —we have a way to abdicate or at least minimize our accountability. As soon as we make comparisons to enhance ourselves and/or diminish another, we sin. And we sin a lot. But Jesus will have none of that.
That brings me to the New Testament reading. The Gospel reading is preceded by an injunction commanding, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:7) And it gets worse when Jesus says, “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” This does not bode well. If we take this passage seriously we will driven to our knees.
This passage is too complex for one blog so I am only going to address two of Jesus’ mandates. First, anger. Jesus says, If you are angry, go reconcile before you come to the altar. If you have offended, go reconcile. If you are calling people names, you are subject to the hell of fire. Anger that interferes with relationships must be dealt with. Anger that diminishes others is unacceptable.
Can’t we say, ‘everybody gets angry’. Of course we can, but we are still accountable for what we do with our anger. Many relationships are poisoned by unexpressed anger and many others by name calling anger. That is not what God wants for us. Likewise Jesus’ comments about lust. Our libido is not the problem. It is how that passion is directed. Anger and sexuality are inescapable parts of our creation—but we cannot escape the knowledge that we misuse both.
No matter the cause or the universality of our predicament, we cross a line in Jesus’ kingdom when we disrespect others or use them for our personal advantage. I don’t care if everybody does it. I don’t care if I do it. It is not OK. Jesus’ hyperbole referring to plucking out offending eyes or cutting off offending hands is a stark and dramatic reminder of how important it is to live in harmony as God’s children. God’s kingdom is about good relationships. When we stand before God everyone of us has failed in Jesus’ kingdom. It is humbling and it is depressing. That is Jesus’ point. No matter how hard we seek to love, no matter how we seek to obey, we fall short of what God calls us to be. We don’t get graded on a curve. God’s law is not a test and if we insist on making it a test, we fail.
Though it is counterintuitive, that is not a bad thing. God’s way is not ours. God is not about testing us. He is about loving us— us as we are. As Paul says (2nd Corinthians 5:19) “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” Trusting that God loves us is one of the hardest things we can ever do. If we listen to Jesus’ words, we know we have no claim to goodness. Every one of us harbors anger, thinks and says unkind things. Every one of us has had wandering eyes and selfish sexual thoughts. To claim otherwise is foolish. We are a broken people. God knows that and does not hold it against us.
In God’s upside down kingdom the wicked and righteous are reversed. The wicked are those that think they are righteous because of their obedience. Righteousness is not obedience to the law. Righteousness is the willingness to stand before God– in the full knowledge of our failures —trusting that he loves us. Jesus calls us to confession and confession is the gateway to Grace. We are capable of confession. Righteousness through obedience is beyond us. Jesus asks a lot—but perhaps we can pray with the psalmist:
I will observe your statutes; do not utterly forsake me. Let it be so.