NEVER ENDING DISCERNMENT
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
On the face of it this is an odd passage. In much of the gospels the scribes and the Pharisees were more of a foil for Jesus rather than an example to be emulated and even exceeded. It is easy to forget that these men, and they were all men in Jesus’ day, were dedicated to following God. They earnestly sought to understand and follow the commandments. They spent their lives trying to discern just how the commandments should be applied in the particulars of real life.
When we were in Israel, we visited the home of an orthodox rabbinical student. His training included hours of discussion and debate about the meaning of scripture. The students pushed each other to define, articulate and apply the ancient texts to modern day living. The goal was not self-righteous obedience but an earnest attempt to honor God and to love their neighbor. That goal, by the way, included making exceptions for the contingencies of real life. The student’s wife was a nurse and though there are many rules regarding physical contact between the sexes—it was not acceptable for the men in our group to even shake hands with her—as well as many rules regarding blood and purity, all of these rules were suspended in the service of saving a life.
The rules did not trump compassion. That said, the great danger in Jesus’ day, and our own, is to avoid the ambiguities of discernment by appealing to the law. In Luke 14, one of the famous challenges to Jesus was:
“1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 2 Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. 3 And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” 4 But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. 5 Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?”
Jesus consistently honored the spirit of the law over the letter of the law. I want to argue that Jesus’ expectation that we exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees means that we can never escape the difficult task of discernment. And there is no end to it. The commandments, rituals and traditions emerged as guidelines to help people love God and to love neighbor. That is the spirit of the law to which Jesus calls us. As Jesus puts it: “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” When those same rules, however, are applied without reference to real people in real life, they become oppressive. Jesus forcefully challenged such blind obedience. Right relationship with God—righteousness— does not come from obedience. It comes with the constant willingness to discern what it means to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
We are told to ‘Honor the sabbath and keep it holy.’ But who decides? And how do we decide what that means? Whether it is pulling an ox from a ditch on the sabbath, running a red light on an empty street at 2 AM, participating in a sit in at an all-white restaurant or choosing to shelter illegal immigrants, we must decide if our obedience—or our disobedience is the most loving. That is exhausting. Our rules and traditions give us well tested guidelines—but none of them are absolute. Our nation was born of disobedience and included armed revolt, the civil rights movement depended upon civil disobedience and our Reformed tradition was a protest movement. In each case, the brokers of power condemned the law breakers.
If we honor our obligation to discern, we can and will make mistakes. In some cases, we will be arrested. If we choose to break the law—even an unjust law, we are in uncertain territory. I hope it seems obvious in our generation that Jesus viewed every person as a child of God but in the first century, Jesus’ inclusion of women, children, the poor and sinners was radical and placed him in conflict with the arbiters of religious authority. That conflict led to his death. Following Jesus leads to many uncomfortable places—and one of the most uncomfortable, is the difficult responsibility to keep asking—” What is the spirit of the law? What is most loving in this situation?”
That discomfort has become painfully obvious in the life of our own church. We have made a corporate effort to be inclusive to the homeless population around us. There is a sincere effort to be inclusive. That by itself has been uncomfortable. But it has become even more so as bizarre behaviors and angry confrontations have become part of our church life. One deeply disturbed young man wandered through the sanctuary during worship and for a time, sat with the choir before he was escorted out. Another man, a child of the church, sometimes gesticulates wildly as he rants incoherently. He is deeply disturbed. (In the most extreme case, his behavior led to a physical confrontation). Both men were treated with respect and offered psychiatric care. That’s the good news. The bad news is that people do not feel safe in church. How do we discern what it means to love God and neighbor in such a situation? We cannot dismiss our responsibilities to the ‘least of these’ but nor can we dismiss the fear and anxiety of our own congregation.
I can outline a principle and process to address this question, but the devil will be in the details. If we need to cross a street and we pretend cars are not dangerous, we might make it across, but we will be putting ourselves at great risk. If we see only danger when we see cars, we will never cross the street. The paradox is that we can be safe only when we realize we are not. Our relative safety depends upon a realistic acknowledgment of danger. Fear belongs to human experience. At its worst, it paralyzes us. At its best, it helps us be vigilant.
Righteousness (right relationship with God) that exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees requires that we try to find a path between valid and competing needs. We are called to be peacemakers. We are called to be inclusive and we are called to be re-conciliatory. But it is hubris to try to manage situations that we are ill equipped to deal with and it is self-righteous to insist we are obeying Jesus when we fail to acknowledge our limits. The problem of discernment is that what is simply prudent to one person is a fear-based overreaction to another.
All rules, even ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” require discernment—and discernment requires community. Our guide on the Bahamas kayaking trip told us that he had led another group on a mountain climb. The weather had turned bad and he had the group stop and set up camp. The next morning, he awoke, and conditions were terrible. He could not see far enough to risk going on. When he told the group, they reacted with surprise. For them, the visibility was quite adequate. It took a while, but our guide finally realized that he had gone to sleep with his contacts in. It wasn’t the weather he was observing. It was his distorted vision.
We are all subject to this error. We see what we see and assume everyone else sees the same thing. It takes relationship with God and others to correct our distorted views. And most importantly it requires us to trust God’s love for us. We can be assured we will make many mistakes in our discernment but right relationship with God pushes us to continue to bring what we see to God and each other. It requires surrendering our certainties. When that happens, possibilities beyond our own seeing can happen. It is a never-ending journey, but it is the journey that leads outside of ourselves to God.
MAY WE HAVE THE HUMILITY AND COURAGE TO STRUGGLE WITH DISCERNING GOD’S WILL IN OUR REAL LIVES. LET IT BE SO.
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