Sunday, February 13, 2011

Laws are meant to define the minimum. Loving God demands total sublimation of the will

My Dear Friends in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the Power of the Holy Spirit on this beautiful Sabbath day. When I still in grade school, my older brothers had a Lenten tradition that I would occasionally get to participate in. Some of you may have had a similar tradition. During Lent, my mom was a little more stringent than the church and would make us fast, not only from meat, but also from eating between meals. The church only mandates that we do that on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Nonetheless, my brothers would wait until 11:37 pm then and call Dominoes Pizza to order a pizza that would be delivered to our house a little after midnight. They were definitely fulfilling the law, just barely. Like the kid who’s asked to take his laundry to his room who puts in on the floor right inside his bedroom door or the kid that’s asked to pick up her toys who simply pushes them all to the corner of the room, we just did enough to make sure that we didn’t get into trouble.

When Christianity was being formed, there was a debate within the church as to the role the Old Testament law would play. If you simply read St. Paul, you could get the impression that we should view the Old Testament as a museum, something that used to be important that is no longer. Yet, to balance this out, we have today’s rather lengthy gospel. Jesus begins by saying that the law hasn’t passed away. In fact, Jesus hasn’t come to abolish the law but to bring a perfection to it by fulfilling it. He then shows what that fulfillment looks like by using a total of six examples, of which we hear four. First, don’t just avoid killing people. Avoid becoming angry with your neighbor and do what you can to reconcile with him. Secondly, don’t just avoid committing adultery. Don’t look with lust at someone, especially someone who isn’t your boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse. Thirdly, don’t divorce despite the fact that Moses allowed for it. Lastly, don’t just avoid swearing false oaths. Don’t swear oaths at all. Instead, just live your life in such a way that you fulfill the agreements that you make so that you don’t need to make oaths. Each of these examples takes a law that was already on the books and ratchets up the expectations. It definitely challenges the people who think that Jesus wasn’t about rules or laws but only cared that we be nice to one another. Jesus wasn’t a hippie pacifist. He expected that his followers obey the law and that they do so to a degree that others in the world didn’t.

Nonetheless, as I said before, there is a tension in scripture that is very much still present in the church today. Paul says that the law is unimportant, Jesus says that he is the fulfillment of the law and that his followers will follow every letter and then some. The way we feel the tension is, often, in certain hot-button moral issues. For example with the issue of homosexuality; Church leadership says that scripture and tradition are clear that homosexual actions are not allowed even if the person is to be treated with dignity. Some theologians and many gay rights activists say to us, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” The church advocates maintaining the law as it is and gets criticized for being mired in the law, which was abolished by Jesus Christ. Really? Did they read today’s Gospel? Or, as another example, a few years ago, the church put out a statement clarifying that artificial nutrition and hydration, the use of feeding tubes and IV’s, should not be considered extraordinary measures when it comes to end of life issues. In other words, if someone would be able to live given the presence of food and water, even if the quality of their life might not be what we consider worthwhile, the person should continue to be fed and receive water. There were some who said we were invading people’s private choices and imposing an unfair moral mandate for something that should be left to a person’s conscience.

The law was meant to define minimums for us; the least that we have to do to be okay in the eyes of God. Both Paul and Jesus agree that the problem with the law is that we shouldn’t define our lives by asking: What’s the least I have to do to get into heaven. We should be constantly seeking to grow deeper in holiness. God asks that we lead our lives in radical conformity to his will.