Sunday, February 16, 2020

Restraint vs. Aspiration

Matthew 5:21-37
Epiphany 6 / Year A

There is a sentiment out there in the Christian community holding the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament.  The thinking goes the Old Testament God is a God of war, or hate, or vengeance, or… you can fill in the blank, while the God Jesus shows us is a God of love.  I have never subscribed to this kind of thinking.  Still, I think it does pick up on something significant, only it takes it down the wrong road.  It misdirects how the Old Testament (especially the early part) and the New Testament have very different goals for moral and ethical behavior.  Let me explain.

Moses receives Ten Commandments from God and makes them known to the Hebrew people.  The first four commandments speak to our relationship with God.  The other six address our relationship with each other, i.e. morality and ethics.  Of these six, only one is stated in the positive – honor your father and mother.  The other five begin with “Thou shalt not…”: murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting.  Of these five, only one refers to the interior life – coveting.  It is fair to say the commands aim to restrain behavior by defining what is out of bounds.

And make no mistake, from a sociological perspective, these restraints advance Israel’s culture far beyond that of the tribes and nomads with whom they share the land.  The Ten Commandments lay a foundation for civilized society to emerge out of regional barbarianism and chaos.  It represents a vast improvement in moral and ethical behavior; not just because it pleases God, but because it makes for a better world.

But notice the emphasis is on restraint, on controlling bad behavior.  Under this ethic, it is possible to seethe with anger, but not commit murder, to be dripping with lust, but not commit adultery, to take every possible advantage of another so long as you don’t steal, to spin the truth as long as you don’t lie.  Outward behavior is curbed, but the interior life is a boiling cauldron.  And as we all know, simmering pots have a way of blowing their top.

Then along comes Jesus with his notion of the kingdom of God.  He teaches it is something that begins inside of each of us as we seek not just to restrain bad behavior but also as we aspire to be godly; holy as God is holy.  For Jesus it is not enough to refrain from wrong actions, one must also be purged of wrong thoughts.  In their place one must cultivate a love for all people, even and especially your enemy.  One must cultivate relationships marked by fidelity and respect.  One must conduct oneself with openness and honesty, rather than hiddenness and deceit. 

This is the big difference between the Old Testament and the New.  It is not that God has changed.  God does not change.  Jesus changes the human hope for moral and ethical behavior by shifting the focus from restraining bad behavior to aspiring for interior goodness and health.

All of this may sound well and good, but nearly impossible to achieve on your own.  Jesus’ message to us is not “Try harder to be better,” rather “Let me in and let me help.”  God’s Spirit working in you is like an energy drink for the moral life.  It takes over.   The Message bible puts it this way:

Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new.  The old life is gone; a new life burgeons!  Look at it!  (2 Corinthians 5:17)

This is how it translates Paul’s counsel to the church in Rome:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering.  Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.  Instead, fix your attention on God.  You’ll be changed from the inside out.  Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.  Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.  (Romans 12:1-2)

This is what I began to experience years ago when I “gave my life to Christ” as a teenager.  It was a heart-felt desire to want God to live in me and reign over my life.  It is a decision I have not always lived up to, but have never regretted.

Early on in my life as an ordained priest I faced a moment when the restraint verses the aspirational approach to morality became very clear.  The contract at the first church I served as an assistant was not renewed.  Essentially I was fired by the rector.  Fortunately I was out of work only for a month and was interviewing to be an assistant in two different churches.  One presented me with an offer while the other was still deliberating, even though they knew I needed to make a decision.  I accepted the offer and withdrew from consideration in the other church.  Then, about a week later, the second church called and offered me a job.  There were things about it that made the opportunity very enticing and I was in a quandary.  I had accepted a call and the rector already had announced his hire to the congregation, but in my heart I wanted to go to the second church.  What to do?

Well, I went down to the diocesan office and talked with the priest in charge of clergy deployment.  He listened to my story and then essentially told me if I went back on my word he would make sure the decision followed me my entire career.  Wow!  Then I met with the priest who welcomed me into the Episcopal Church and told him my story.  After listening closely he said, “Keith, you need to ask yourself who you want to be.  What do you want your word to worth?  What does it look like for you to live with integrity?” 

And with this I knew exactly what I had to do.  I called the second church and declined their offer.  I served four years at the first church, had a wonderful experience with rector and parish, and never once looked back or regretted my decision.  And I never once looked at myself in a mirror and had to ask myself “How could you have done such a thing?”!

Restraint verses aspiration.  “I’ll make sure your decision follows you for the rest of your life.”  Thou shalt not…!  “Who do you want to be and what do you want your word to be worth?”  To what do you aspire?  It clarified for me not only this particular quandry, but how I wanted to live my life.  I don’t always hit the mark and the General Confession is still a necessary and important part of my spiritual life, but at least I have decided what my target is to be.  I am aiming to be like Jesus.  I feel very deeply the words Moses speaks in today’s first reading:

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

What is your aim?  To what do you aspire?  Is it merely not to do the wrong thing, or do you have a vision more grand for your life?  Jesus calls you to something higher.  How are you going to respond?