Righteousness That Gives Life
What happens when we view the doctrines of the Psalms and Beatitudes as guideposts pointing the way instead of measuring sticks that serve only to illuminate our failures? What happens when we remember that our challenge is to love–period–without conditions or comparison to others’ ability to do the same? What happens when we step beyond perceiving faith as a social contract and embrace the transformational and relational power of that call to love? The incredible.
33 Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes,
and I will observe it to the end.
34 Give me understanding,
that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.
35 Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.
36 Turn my heart to your decrees,
and not to selfish gain.
37 Turn my eyes from looking at vanities;
give me life in your ways.
38 Confirm to your servant your promise,
which is for those who fear you.
39 Turn away the disgrace that I dread,
for your ordinances are good.
40 See, I have longed for your precepts;
in your righteousness give me life.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Words like righteous, obedient, and perfect usually conjure up specific behaviors. If you are righteous, you honor the Sabbath. If you are obedient, you pay close attention to what honors and dishonors. And if you are perfect, you don’t make any mistakes. Our responsibility is to figure out the standard, follow the standard—and follow relentlessly. The problem of course, in real life, is, ‘honoring the Sabbath’ is a moving target. Can you wear slacks to church? What about a golf shirt? We need to know those things if we have a chance to be righteous, obedient and perfect? How can we have ‘right’ behavior if we don’t know what is right?
This way of the Lord is demanding and, for most of us, onerous. Yet the psalmist begs, (even commands) God to give understanding, to teach, so that the worshiper can find delight. I don’t find much delight in figuring out all of these do’s and don’ts. But that is always the problem when we focus on the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law.
The law was designed to show us a pathway to God. The law was designed to help us honor and respect each other. The law was designed to help us find and offer love. If we are in a very dark space and we see a light. That is the way. The illumination is not there to expose our missteps—though of course it will—the light is there so that we might find the way.
So easily we forget. So easily we look at the law as a measuring stick rather than as a signpost. The psalmist saw the law as help—not a means to measure compliance. The psalmist saw the law as the path that gives meaning and purpose to our lives. The psalmist saw the law as the way to the eternal. No wonder she seeks to understand rather than recite, no wonder she finds delight instead of chronic inadequacy and never ending guilt.
When we get to the Gospel lesson, I think Jesus is trying to hammer home what God wants for us. Last week he was emphatic that none of us are better than the other. None of us have special standing with God. We are all angry; we all lust; we all discard relationships; we all fear to stand on our own word. Those are all missteps that expose our sinfulness–they are real life examples of the ways we disregard our brother and sisters— and any claim we might make to mitigate those failings is in itself sinful.
We simply can not say “I know I’m not perfect but…” That is a device to say “I’m not so bad” or worse, “I may be bad but not as bad as you.” When we make those comparisons, we are off the path. Jesus will not tolerate our self defined goodness. Jesus will not tolerate comparative goodness.
God’s path is to love us as we are but we insist on trying to manage that love. In real life, we hear “How can you say that after all I’ve done for you? We hear, ‘You have no right to feel that way, you’ve done the same thing—or worse.” The issue at stake for us is “what is our responsibility”—not comparisons or finger pointing. We need to be taking care of the log in our own eye. Following God’s path is harder—but it leads to love.
This week, it gets harder still. Jesus moves from, ‘you shall not disregard anyone with your selfish self interest,’ to, ‘You should proactively show regard for every one of God’s children—no exceptions’. God’s children include those in need, those who disrespect you and even those that harm you. Is he kidding? If Jesus’ words are measuring sticks we can only fail. Their impossibility makes all attempts silly. It is like telling me to lift a thousand pounds. That is impossible. It is not going to happen. A nice ideal but thoroughly unreasonable.
Unfortunately, our inability and our failure does not change Jesus’ expectations. His way of love is unconditional. The way of love does not depend upon loveability or our compliance. As Jesus put it, “ he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
It is one thing to have a ‘Hallmark’ Jesus who loves everyone and quite another to realize his love includes the people who wanted to humiliate, torture and kill him. His love was not interrupted by human malice. This passage reminds us that every time we try to make exceptions or create a subset of who God loves—or who ‘deserves’ love, we sin. Jesus commands and Jesus lived a love that transcends every category. And he expects us to do likewise. We will fail but the path is clear.
A brief side note. When I was in seminary, I asked one of my professors if Christianity were more than a social contract that helped the society work better. I could see how Christianity worked at that level. The secular dynamics of power and position inevitably lead to competition and conflict. ‘Winning’ requires constant vigilance and defense. Whoever has power is forever in danger from those who do not have it. The Christian alternative of looking to the common good reduces the threat that the disenfranchised will revolt against the privileged. Enlightened self interest leads to an egalitarian society. From my point of view, that is a very pragmatic reason to be a Christian—but is there more to Christianity than that social contract?
My professor, very unhelpfully, simply answered with the word, ‘Yes.’ I’ve been working on what he meant ever since. Love is more than a transaction. The experience of being a Christian is different than the expectations of the Christian life. The experience of following the law is different than the delight it provides. The experience of receiving love is much different than learning how to love.
I promise you that if you spend five minutes a day praying for another—especially praying for someone who means you harm or who has harmed you—you will be transformed. Jesus relied upon God and that reliance allowed him to face the unimaginable. He was obedient to God’s way of loving—no matter what happened to him. Or in the words of Luther’s famous hymn:
The body they may kill;
God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.
Jesus insisted that we are all God’s children and we are loved. Praying for those we cannot love testifies to God’s love and opens the door to the possibility that God can love us—in our own unloveability. If even a drop of that grace enters you heart, you will be changed. It is our delight to know him.
Returning to the psalm —“I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life.” Let it be so.