If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
The bible is full of provocative questions touching on the connection between moral and ethical behavior and divine approval and blessing:
What is the greatest commandment?
Who may ascend God’s holy hill and who may enter God’s sanctuary?
What does God require of you?
I think we can add to these a basic question arising from our first reading: Is it within human possibility to make right decisions and to act faithfully, living according to God’s commands? I think the answer is yes, generally speaking we have the capacity to do the right thing and to live a good and blameless life.
Scott Peck, the psychologist and popular author, tells about a visit he once received from an aging, 40 year old hippie who had hitchhiked across the country to seek his spiritual guidance. The man had never been able to put his life together or follow through on a single important commitment. Digging deeper, Peck discovered the man had two failed marriages and children from each whom he hadn’t seen in over a decade. When asked why there had been no contact, the man explained both divorces had been messy and he felt it would be better for the kids if he just dropped out of sight.
Peck told man about how he became a Christian once he saw the inherent wisdom in the kind of personal discipline Jesus taught. The core of this discipline, Peck said, is found in the Jesus’ teaching on self-denial. Peck told the man this instruction is not intended to be masochistic, but at the very least is means that whenever a decision has to be made, an option should not be discarded simply because it is hard or calls for personal sacrifice.
A long conversation about the connection between Christianity, self-denial, and spiritual wholeness followed. The man made an appointment to come back, but did not keep it. In fact, he never returned nor did he attempt to integrate any kind of discipline into his life or relationships.
According to the bible, he could have. He could have lived a very different life, but chose not to do so. Generally speaking, I think this is true. It is within the spectrum of our possible options to determine to do the right thing and to follow through.
But my experience also tells me while this is generally true, it does not always hold up in specific circumstances and situations. There are times – from time to time – when we do the wrong thing. And here is the interesting thing about these times: at the time most of us do not see it as being the wrong thing to do. We find a way to rationalize our choices and view our behavior as being good, or necessary, or forced upon us. I know very few people who only a very few times have ever said, “I knew it was the wrong thing to do, but I thought ‘screw it’ and did it anyway.” It is possible to live your entire life like Scott Peck’s client; doing the wrong thing for what you believe are the right reasons.
And it is possible to walk the right path all your life, and yet no one who makes this pilgrimage does so without taking a misstep here or a wrong turn there. I believe it is within our possibility to make the right choice, but I also believe it is inevitable we will make a bad, selfish, destructive decision we will regret deeply once its consequences begin to surface.
Lets think of God’s commands in a way easy to understand. Lets set them in the context of a family dog who has it in for the mail carrier. Left on its own, the dog will attack the postal worker at every opportunity. Now, God made the dog, just as God made the trees and shrubs in the yard. (Play with me here.) Lets suppose all the foliage despises the letter barrier as much as the dog. They may, but God has created them without the freewill to act on their emotions and prejudices. They are rooted and have no options. But the dog, well the dog is free to attack or not. Now suppose God decrees to the dog “thou shalt not harass the mailman.” The dog knows the rules. The bible says it is within the dog’s capabilities to obey. Do you agree?
The bible says God’s laws for us would be like a rope tying the dog to a post, preventing it from coming in contact with the postal carrier. True, the dog may charge, and bark, froth at the mouth, and even come within inches, but it will not inflict harm because the rope/law restrains it. And, well, yes, there are those unfortunate occasions when the dog is so obsessed it chews through the line, is set free. At those times, well, God help the mailman.
I think this is an accurate image for what the first reading describes, but is it really what God intends? Is this what life in its fullest looks like?
Jesus emphatically says no! God’s intent for fullness of life does not look like keeping in check your anger for your neighbor. It looks like forgiveness and reconciliation. God’s intent does not look like refraining from improper sexual relationships, it looks like seeing the person of your sexual desire as a beloved and vulnerable child of God whose wellness you desire, rather than whose appeal you seek to exploit. It looks like honesty and integrity in personal and public commitments, not “it depends on the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” or citing “alternative facts” to justifying your positions and your actions.
What Jesus envisions for us is no more radical than this: is there possibly a way for the dog to experience such a degree of inner transformation so as to make the rope unnecessary? Jesus’ desire, Jesus’ vision, Jesus’ hope, Jesus’ message, is that we – if we identify ourselves with the dog – can come to a place where we can be untethered in the yard and the postal carrier can deliver the mail without fear of being attacked.
I believe, and my experience tells me, two ingredients are necessary for this to happen. First, we must will it. God cannot change anything about us if we are not open to it. And second, me must allow God’s Spirit to work a transformation in us. “Do not be conformed to this world,” St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.” Renewal. Brought back to who you were created to be. Something you are open to, but powerless to effect. Something God has to do in you. Something you must continually invite and receive, rather than reject and dismiss.
Here is my testimony: It is a process. By the grace of God, I am not mired in the most the quagmires of my youth. However, new freedoms invite new challenges. While I don’t want to maul the mailman, I find myself continually digging up the shrubbery. The sun has set on some of life’s challenges only to rise as the dawn on things new with the potentially to be equally or even more destructive. I give thanks I can always choose the rope of God’s “Thou shall not” until such time as I can trust myself to enjoy the freedom of the yard.
And I give thanks our faith provides me with a weekly opportunity to recall my failures: to bring before God those things of which “the remembrance is grievous unto [me] and the burden of them is intolerable.” How I thirst for the sense I am more than my failures. How I rejoice to know God forgives me, believes in me, and supports me in my work of being a better person! How grateful I am for Jesus’ vision that I – and each one of you – can be a person of genuine goodness, living free in this world without need of restraint because all I desire is to be good, even as God has created this world to be good. And how comforting it is to experience, as I pursue this goal and, inevitably, fail, how our Lord forgives me, picks me up, and walks with me as I walk the pilgrim’s way to our holy destination.