3 LENT—15 March 2009
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa — 10:00
Ex 20:1-17 Psalm 19 1 Cor 1:18-25 John 2:13-22
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
The preacher was preaching on the Ten Commandments; and as he preached, a man sitting toward the back slunk lower and lower in the pew, commandment by commandment; but at the end of the sermon he suddenly straightened up, his face brightened visibly, and the usher heard him to say to himself, “Well, at least I have never made unto myself any graven image!”
The Old Testament lesson today is the narrative of God’s giving the Ten Commandments to Moses—the heart of the Torah, the Law of the old Covenant. The cornerstone of morality, we might say; and some do say. I’d like to think for a few minutes about morality and law.
There is a level at which we think about morality or goodness or righteousness in terms of obedience to laws. Virtue consists in keeping the laws; sin consists in breaking the laws. There’s a certain immediate simplicity to that; it makes moral issues fairly clear-cut, at least in principle. We know where we stand, roughly. Legalism can be attractive and appealing. But it’s not the basis of Christian morality. (Nor, for that matter, is it even the basis of classical philosophical ethics.)
St. Paul wrestled very hard with the issue of the Law. Paul was by upbringing, education, and natural inclination a Pharisee—a member of that party in Judaism which took very seriously the obligation to obey strictly the most minute prescriptions of the Law of Moses.
(The Pharisees, by the way, were not, on the whole, hypocrites in the sense of being phonies. They really did try very hard to live up to their ideals, and many of them succeeded, or came pretty close. One such was the young Saul of Tarsus, as he was known in Jerusalem—“Paulos” was his Greek name. But the Pharisees were rigorists, and rigorists are often intolerant, and they tended toward the notion that their strict observance of the Law earned them God’s special favor.)
(By “The Law,” we might also note, in St Paul’s letters, he normally means not “law” generally in the sense of the civil law, but very specifically “The Law” given by God to Moses and the people of Israel, the Jewish Law of the Old Testament as we would call it, the Torah. It would probably be helpful if in the translation of the Epistle, “Law” were capitalized when it refers to Torah.)
(Ancient Greek manuscripts don’t distinguish between upper- and lower-case letters, so capitalization in English versions is always an editorial decision of the translators.) (Are you taking notes on all this? There will be a quiz...)
Anyway!—The issue of the Law was a very important one for the first Christians. If you can gain salvation by keeping Torah, then what is the point of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ? If on the other hand salvation comes by God’s free gift, working through one’s faith in Jesus Christ, then keeping the Law—particularly things like the dietary and ceremonial regulations which apparently did not involve moral issues—is no longer necessary. As Christianity spread into the Gentile world, the question of the place of the Old Testament Law in Christian faith became crucial, and Paul, the great missionary to the Gentile world, had to struggle very hard with it, as we see especially in his letters to the Christians at Rome and to those in Galatia (west-central Anatolia, what we now know as Turkey).
The problem with the Law—or with any law—all by itself, is that it shows what is good and what is evil, but it gives no power to choose the good over the evil. The Greeks thought, and lots of folks today still think, that it’s just a problem of education: if we teach folks so they know what is right, then they’ll do it. The Greeks could be stupefyingly naïve! And so can we! Paul had a much more perceptive view of human being. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Moral law—whether Torah or any other—can educate us, it can show us what things are loving and what things are destructive, but law cannot save us. Law cannot make us good, it can only show us our sin.
In the Gospel today we see Jesus symbolically cleansing the Temple (he’s enacting a fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy of the Messiah). And when he’s challenged about it, he replies very cryptically, “Destroy this temple [he means his own body, of course; well, maybe not “of course”; Jesus can be very enigmatic, especially in John’s Gospel!]—destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The old order is coming to its fulfillment in the new creation which is breaking in.
Christian faith, and the ethical dimension of Christian faith, calls us beyond mere obedience to law, even to what we think is God’s Law. Rather, in Jesus Christ we are called into faithful relationship with a person. We are summoned to a discipleship that is far more than just following a set of rules. We are enlisted in a cause, Christ’s cause, to be heralds and agents of the Reign of God, pioneer and charter members of the redeemed community that shall in the end include all creation. For obedience is all that law can command; God claims our whole hearts.