Revised Common Lectionary Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 OR Sirach 15:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, I Corinthians 3:1=9, Matthew 5:21-37
I have a long-time ambivalent relationship with law---not that I’ve ever thumbed my nose at it or been a scofflaw. My basic predisposition is toward obeying the law, as well as the mores and social customs of the society in which I live. I was thought of as a “good” boy, and was comfortable with that designation. Because of a death of one who graduated from high school with me, I recently pulled my senior yearbook out and was looking through it. Remember all the messages that got written on the pages of that keepsake? In entry after entry I was referred to as “a good kid.”
Nevertheless, underneath the conformity there has always been a little bit of a rebellious spirit. I’ve long believed in peaceful civil disobedience in the face of injustice. I participated in marches and demonstrations for peace and racial justice in the 60’s and 70’s---never resorting to violence, I must add.
Furthermore, I’ve always been uncomfortable allowing the legal system to define who I am, the essence of right and wrong, and the meaning of life. There’s more to life than can be transcribed in a legislative act. In theological discussions from my earliest memories, on through seminary, and in years of ministry, I and others have struggled with the balance between works (or obedience to law) and grace. Is it our conformity to law (our works) or grace (the fact that God simply loves us) that “saves” us? I am not comfortable with either extreme. James reminds us that faith, without works, is dead. (See James 2:14-18) Actually the whole notion of behavior that gets us into or keeps us out of heaven has become somewhat alien to me. Rather than talk about being “saved”, I want to talk about living a life full of meaning, finding fullness of life in my day-to-day routines and in the shaping of societal structures that promote and support and enable that. So, part of the question is whether or not strict obedience to the letter of every law contributes to that kind of fullness and meaning.
Most of this week’s texts address the question of obedience to the commandments, or laws, of God.
We sometimes think of them as distilled in the Ten Commandments. As one with an advanced degree in sociology, I sometimes think of those commandments as a list of rules human beings have found to be pretty basic if society is to function well. Where are we if we go around killing one another all the time? (Just look around and draw your own conclusions.) Where are we if we cannot depend upon one another’s words and commitments?
So, what about this week’s texts? The readings from Deuteronomy and Sirach, and the Psalm, present obedience to God’s Law as life-giving, leading to happiness. Deuteronomy and Sirach put it in terms of choice, between “life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deuteronomy 30:15), between “fire and water . . . life and death” (Sirach 15:16-17---I leave it for you to do your own research on Sirach which is included in the Catholic Bible---and some others---but not in the Jewish scriptures or most Bibles used by Protestants.) “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days . . .” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20) “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice . . . stretch our your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.” (Sirach 15:15 & 17)
(The degree to which we have free will and are able to choose is another discussion that might go on in response to these readings. It’s a discussion that has been a part of theology, philosophy, and social science from earliest times into the present day. We don’t have a choice about where we are born, for instance, nor is it easy to escape the influence of the culture in which we are nurtured. How we respond, though, involves some degree of choice. And that’s all I have to say about that, at least today.)
Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is entirely devoted to the wonders of God’s Law or Commandments or Precepts. In this week’s reading we have those “whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord, . . . who keep his decrees, . . . who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.” Such people are described as “happy,” perhaps another way of describing fullness of life.
Jesus, in Matthew, adds another layer of understanding to the Ten Commandments. In the Sermon on the Mount he looks at a number of commandments, some from the Ten Commandments, others not. Of each Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, . . . but I say to you.” (See Matthew 5:22-22, 27-28, 31-34) In each case Jesus points to the underlying attitudes, suggesting that obedience to these laws is more than outward conformity. It’s not just, “Don’t murder;” it’s about not getting angry. (vss. 21-22) It’s about more than adultery; it’s about lust in one’s heart.
Some have said that Jesus was simply trying to point out that we all fall short of the intent behind these laws. Former President Jimmy Carter, trying to make this point in his Sunday School class, stirred up a storm when he admitted lust in his heart. Would that we all be that honest!
Whatever Jesus was trying to do, he was making a distinction between the letter of the law, outward conformity to it, and what is in one’s heart. Perhaps, consistent with what Pastor Jeanne has preached the last couple of weeks, Jesus was saying let what is in your heart shine out. Everything you need to know about right and wrong is already there in your heart.
Whatever Jesus was trying to do, both Deuteronomy and the Psalms emphasize the heart as well as the letter. After Moses delivers the Ten Commandments, he talks about what has sometimes been called “The Great Commandment”: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,” adding, “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-6) Psalm 119:2 speaks of those “who seek after him with their whole heart.”
Often when I’m turning the week’s scriptures over in my heart and mind, a memory comes, unbidden, that seems to offer the promise of illumination. I’ve also discovered that memories sometimes get distorted and fuzzy after the passage of many years, especially when it comes to pop culture, the source of this week’s memory. I thought I remembered a song, “Stop in the Name of the Law.” Well, it turns out that there were a couple of songs by that name, but what I was really remembering was, “Stop in the Name of Love,” by Diana Ross and the Supremes. The exact words of the lyrics are not what is important. What hit me was the contrast between letting Law or Love define our situation. Are we going to pay more attention to Law or Love in the living of our lives, in the experience of life? Are we going to “Live in the Name of the Law” or “Live in the Name of” the Love underlying the Law?
Let’s choose this day!