Sunday, March 15, 2009

Words and Relationships

A college student who discovered that he needed a Bible for a religion course wrote home asking that his Bible be sent to him. His father wrapped it carefully and took it to the post office. The clerk took the package and shook it. “Anything in here that can be broken?”, he asked. With a wry smile on his face, the father replied: “Only the 10 Commandments!

The so-called 10 “commandments” mean, literally, “words” in Hebrew. Whenever I think of them, I remember how, as seminarians at St. Joseph’s College in Indiana, we were allowed to go off-campus to see Cecil B. DeMille’s new classic movie The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston, whose commanding presence had us riveted to the screen. Who could forget the magnificent special effects when God parted the Red Sea, and when God engraved the 10 words of the Law on stone tablets?! My enthusiasm was somewhat dampened, however, upon reading a negative review of the movie a short while later. Referring particularly to the “orgy scene”, while Moses was busy up on the mountaintop, the review critic tersely dismissed the film with the comment: “Dancing girls and dogma don’t mix.

As you and I think about our lives during this Lenten season, we realize first-hand how easily God’s commandments can be broken. They have to do, more than anything else, with relationships: relationships with God and with one another. Experience confirms how fragile our relationships are: how easily damaged and broken through careless actions and words. The ancient laws of Israel’s early history make it clear that God wants people to be faithful, not only in worship, but especially in their relationships.

On pp. 847-848 the Book of Common Prayer clearly notes that the first four commandments have to do with recognizing that God alone is worthy of worship. God is to be the focus of our belief and trust. The remaining six commandments describe human relationships and how we’re responsible for the way in which we treat one another. Someone has defined sin as “treating people like things and things like people”, and in the words given to Moses on the mountain there’s a firm warning against such a confusion of priorities. When things become idols, relationships inevitably suffer.

It’s not uncommon to read the commandments and to conclude, just as Paul did: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it...I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Most of us identify with Paul’s sense of weakness and frustration. In his letter to the Christians in Rome Paul describes a kind of civil war taking place inside us. The sense that “I can will, but I cannot do” articulates that inner conflict between desire and power, raging within human beings ever since the Fall. Agnes Rogers Allen humorously quips:
“I should be better, brighter, thinner
And more intelligent at dinner.
I should reform and take pains,
Improve my person, use my brains.
There’s lots that I could do about it,
But will I?...Honestly, I doubt it.” 

Are the commandments even still possible for followers of Jesus who, in modern times radically different from Moses’, are trying to serve God faithfully? The BCP asks, on p. 848: “Since we do not fully obey them, are they useful at all?
And it answers: “Since we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption.

When reading the commandments, it’s easy to forget that they’re part of a much larger narrative: the whole story of the Exodus of God’s people from Egypt and their children’s wandering in the desert wilderness for many years. These words preface the commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Law is given to people who have been saved from slavery. The salvation of God’s people isn’t earned through their obedience to a code of law. God’s action came first. Observance of the Law, however, is their appropriate human response to what God has already done.

It’s difficult for any of us to observe God’s words on any given day, keeping both the letter and the spirit of what
God asks of us. The commandments’ specific details help to graphically remind us that we are selfish, sinful, and that we need redemption. The different commandments emphasize God’s absolute claim on all of our life. But in our conscientiousness about observing the commandments, we need to bear in mind that God gave them to people whom God had already saved. It’s also important to remember that, because God’s words describe God’s claim on our lives in terms of specific things to do, we can too quickly be distracted away from God and focussed on “requirements”.

As he grew spiritually, Paul began to understand the problem resulting from attempts to earn God’s approval merely through keeping the commandments. He came to recognize that the Law is different from legalism. Paul wrote to the Philippian community that he’d been keeping the Law, but entirely for the wrong reasons: “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ -- the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead...

Before his life-changing encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul had been living as if he could, according to C. K. Barrett, “gain control of God by paying his fee”. Paul acknowledged that the law, indeed, sets out God’s holy expectations of the way we should act towards God and each other. Yet the very way in which it redirects our attention and focus towards our activity and away from God’s is the law’s weakness. In and of itself the law can’t lead to life. It doesn’t resolve the inner conflict, the civil war, in the soul.

This insufficiency of the law is a real issue in Jesus’ ministry and teaching. Jesus is a controversial man in John’s Gospel. John’s narrative of how Jesus enters the Temple and chases out the money-changers and the animal-sellers is a good example [John 2:13-22]. The confrontation between Jesus and the merchants is really a conflict over priorities. In it, who Jesus is (the Son of his Father) and what he represents (the living God), clashes with the values espoused by the religious institutional leaders which Jesus challenges. After chasing out those who had set up their businesses in the immediate Temple area, Jesus speaks rather mysteriously about the destruction of the Temple and its being “raised” up again. Generations later, you and I understand Jesus’ words to be an image of his own death and resurrection, whereas the Jewish authorities think he literally means the Jerusalem Temple. And that offends them! 

It’s important to bear in mind just how sacred the Temple building was in Jewish religious life. It was the external witness to God, and the place where people drew most near to God. It was holy and unique. It stood at the center of Jewish faith. But Jesus saw that the Temple, a human construction, had become the object of devotion: an idol, rather than God; an end in itself. Despite all the good things which the Temple was supposed to represent for the Jews, Jesus knew that, in their misplaced devotion to the building, people had let their focus be redirected away from the living God. The Temple was, without question, important. The problem was that people gave to their rites, customs, holy places, even to their laws, the special devotion due only to the one and living God. They missed entirely the spirit of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Jesus understood that even our religious practices and preferences can become lesser gods, idols, for us if they become the chief objects of our devotion. The universal temptation we face today is to become so preoccupied with the desire to excel and to succeed as “Christians” that we begin to focus on what we are doing instead of on what God continues to do for us in Jesus.

The commandments are important words about what God intends for us. We and the society in which we live need to take them much more seriously than we do. That being said, we have to continually remind ourselves that our Christian faith and practice entails far more than rules and regulations. It has to do primarily with relationships. William Barclay writes that, while morality is knowledge of what to do (a code), Christianity is the knowledge of Jesus Christ (a person). Paul understood that clearly. Important as the commandments are, we don’t secure God’s favor simply by observing them. A narrow focus on mere things, rituals, rules, and appearances can’t resolve the civil war within ourselves.

Wretched man that I am!” exclaims Paul, “Who will free me from this body of death?” His answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” It’s only when we’re centered and focussed on Jesus that we’re able to do what we know we ought to do. It’s only through faith in Jesus that we can grasp, as he did and as Paul must have, the depth of the words of Psalm 19:

The law (word) of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul...
The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart...
By them also is your servant enlightened,
and in keeping them there is great reward...” 

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