The true breaker of chains

File:Hitda-Codex-Healing of a man with a withered hand.jpgWatching for the Morning of June 3, 2018

Year B

The Second Sunday after Pentecost

The Sabbath command takes center stage on Sunday. We hear Moses recall the commandment in his sermon to the Israelites before they cross the Jordan to enter Canaan. They are not to be an enslaved or enslaving people: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

The psalm also speaks of God’s deliverance from bondage: “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I rescued you.” But law intended to free can also be used to bind, and so conflict erupts between Jesus and the Pharisees. The disciples dare to pluck a few grains of wheat to snack on as they walk through the fields and the Pharisees accuse them of doing the work of “harvesting” on the Sabbath. Then comes a man with a withered hand into the synagogue. To the Pharisees this is a chronic condition and Jesus nothing but a village healer, so the “work” of doctoring can wait until the Sabbath is over. But to Jesus the Sabbath is God’s deliverance from bondage and deliverance ought not wait. Nothing is more appropriate to the Sabbath than freeing those who are bound. The Lord of the Sabbath is come. In Jesus the reign of God, our true Sabbath rest, is at hand.

It is a claim to so radical, so profoundly challenging to “what everybody knows,” so powerfully transformative of “the way things are,” that it cannot go unanswered: “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

We can turn Christianity into a new set of velvet lined manacles – or we can trust and show allegiance to the true breaker of chains.

The Prayer for June 3, 2018

Gracious God,
whose will it is to gather all creation into your eternal peace,
send forth your Spirit
that we may ever dwell in your healing presence.

The Texts for June 3, 2018

First Reading: Deuteronomy 5:12-15
“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” – The book of Deuteronomy is composed as an exhortation from Moses to the people at the end of their journey through the wilderness. He reminds this new generation of their covenant with God and the commands God has given – including this Sabbath command. The God who freed slaves intends they stay free and commands a day of rest for all.

Psalmody: Psalm 81:1-10
“It is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.”
– The community is called to worship and reminded of God’s deliverance and commands.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:5-12
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” – Paul writes to the conflicted congregation in Corinth reminding them that his ministry – and the struggles he has endured – have been for their sake, that life in Christ may be made known to them

Gospel: Mark 2:23-3:6
“Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent.”
– Conflict erupts with the Pharisees over Jesus apparent violation of the Sabbath command.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hitda-Codex-Healing_of_a_man_with_a_withered_hand.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Leave your gift

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Thursday

Matthew 5:21-37

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

When we hear the word gift and altar we cannot help but think of the offering plate and a church altar. It’s hard to imagine a religious institution teaching that you should not make an offering if you are at odds with someone. Every organization dependent upon donations is normally trying to remove any obstacles to giving, not adding one. But then, the mission of the church is not to encourage offerings; it is to make disciples of Jesus.

In the traditional liturgy of the church, just such a moment happens before for the offerings are gathered. The presiding minister declares “The peace of the Lord be with you” and, following the congregation’s response, “and also with you,” bids the community to share the peace with one another. God has made peace with us in Christ Jesus – now, before you give an offering, before you come to the table, we are summoned to make peace with one another.

I wonder how the community would react if we spoke more bluntly: “Don’t come to the dinner table divided from one another.” “You can’t be reconciled to God if you won’t be reconciled to one another.” “God doesn’t want your money if you’re not going to walk the walk.”

Jesus and his hearers, of course, are not imagining people in pews with ushers passing offering plates. They are imagining the massive temple platform surrounded by its grand colonnades. They are imagining the inner courtyards: for Gentiles (beyond which no gentile could go); for women (beyond which no woman could go); and for men (beyond which only priests could go). In the walled and colonnaded courtyard that is open only to ritually pure Jewish men there is a gate that leads further in to the temple courtyard with its great altar and the smoke of the rising offerings. Beyond that altar stands the temple proper, covered in gold, its giant pillars guarding huge closed doors. What could be seen only over the top of the enclosing walls is now revealed in full glory. To that gate a man brings his calf or lamb (or doves, if he is poor) where it is slaughtered and the priest takes it to the altar for the gift to be burned in part or in whole.

By the time you had completed the rituals, passed through the courts, and stood in line with your animal – to be told to leave the creature there and run out in order to be reconciled with some adversary… now we can hear the startling point Jesus is making.

God is in the world to reconcile. God is in the world to heal the human community. God is working to restore the torn fabric of life. It is not just murder that rends the human community, but every word of insult and anger. It is not just the act of adultery that tears at society, but the passions willing to violate the integrity of another family. We ought not think, says Jesus, that our moral behavior and religious acts mean anything if they are not joined to the reconciling work of God.

Tough words. Important words. Life-giving words.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASecond_Temple_view1.jpg By Ariely (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

The un-rending

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Watching for the Morning of February 12, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

The Law, the Torah, God’s teaching/instructions for our life as a faithful community, stand front and center in our readings this coming Sunday. From Deuteronomy, written as a sermon by Moses to the people as they stand at the edge of the promised land setting forth again the commands and instructions of God, we will hear the challenge that before us stands a choice between life and death. Blessing will follow if we remain faithful to God and walk in God’s ways; curses will follow if we do not.

The appointed verses from Psalm 119 for Sunday is the opening strophe of the majestic acrostic hymn celebrating the gift of God’s Torah from Aleph to Taw, beginning with the affirmation: “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.”

Paul is writing about the Corinthian congregation as mere babes, still living on milk rather than solid food, bound as they are in the ways of the world around them rather than living the way of God.

And then Jesus takes up the commandments. After his stunning opening in the beatitudes and the declaration that the poor are not only honored in God’s sight but are light for the world, Jesus dramatically transforms the commandments from a safe and secure legal code (don’t kill, don’t commit adultery) to a summons to live the reign of God:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

We will hear the same summons in the commandments about adultery and vows (and then, in Matthews Gospel, about revenge, acts of mercy, prayer and fasting). More is expected of the human race – and of God’s people – than to refrain from killing, though even that has proven itself far beyond our willingness to obey. But the kingdom chooses to rip no tear in the fabric of the human community, to rend no relationship. Jesus is driving towards that stunning command: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

We are in the presence of the dawning of God’s reign, the lifting of every burden, the setting right of the world, the un-rending of the fabric of life. And we are summoned into its bold and daring and imperishable life.

The Prayer for February 12, 2017

Gracious God,
in love you made the world and laid its foundations,
giving your gracious order to the creation.
In love you revealed your law to a people you brought out from bondage,
showing them the path of life.
Renew in us your vision for human life
and make us faithful in our calling to live as children of your kingdom;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 12, 2017

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” – Moses addresses the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, urging them to remain faithful to God, for their life in the land depends on following God’s commands.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:1-8
“Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.” – In a magisterial acrostic psalm setting forth the wonder of God’s law/teaching, the poet expresses the wondrous ordering reality God brings to life.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
– Speaking to his divided congregation, Paul says they are yet babes in Christ who must be fed with milk, having failed to learn the basic truth of how they are to live in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…” – Jesus takes up the commandments about murder, adultery and swearing oaths, revealing the depth of their meaning in bringing human life under the governance of God’s Spirit.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWTC_Julia_DSCF1149.JPG By J. Lane (Wikipedia Takes Coventry participant) (Uploaded from Wikipedia Takes Coventry) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Bold to command?

File:100409-N-3090M-459 Capt. Michael Bernacchi, Commander Submarine Squadron 4, departs.JPG

Wednesday

Philemon 1-21

8For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love

I am not bold enough, in Christ or out of Christ, to command anyone to do anything – though I think about it, though I sometimes wish I were.

I wish I were bold enough to tell any who come to share in the Lord’s Table that they can no longer forward tweets and emails that are (pick one or more) false, ignorant, bigoted, racist. I wish I were daring enough to command them not to gossip or to give as they should give. I wish I could command them to love their neighbor as themselves.

I’m not.

I’m not sure it would be good were I so bold. My job is actually a tougher one, like being sent from the kitchen into the living room to give instructions to my siblings: “Mom says, ‘Turn off the TV.’”

I’m not making up this stuff about loving your neighbor. God told it first to Moses in Leviticus and Jesus said this little commandment was the chief thing – and the same thing as loving God. He also told us that everyone is our neighbor. But it’s not my authority to command; the obligation falls upon my siblings not to mock me but to obey Mom.

There are no consequences for ignoring me. There are, however, consequences for ignoring Mom. And if Mom really has sent me…

But the Apostle Paul doesn’t just want the grudging, gripping, bitter obedience that turns off the television with whining and annoyance. Paul wants Philemon to understand the love of God that must manifest itself as love for Onesimus. Onesimus is a runaway slave. Onesimus has placed himself in that category with all those who would undermine the established order of ancient Roman life. The owner has an obligation to make an example of a runaway. The owner has the right to punish him in any way he pleases – including crucifixion. But Paul says to Philemon that Christ obligates him to receive Onesimus as brother, to welcome him in love. “I could command you. But I want more from you. I want you to live love.”

So I could try to command those who mutter callous and, perhaps, unreflective bitterness about Muslims, Jews, African-Americans, Gays, Chinese, Obama, the Republicans, or the poor (though I doubt it would do any good since I lack all the gravitas of Paul and live in a very different world where people take offense and go to a different congregation), but what I want, what I hope for, what I pray for, is that the love of God may encompass them. That they may grasp and be grasped by “the breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ and so be filled with all the fullness of God.”

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A100409-N-3090M-459_Capt._Michael_Bernacchi%2C_Commander_Submarine_Squadron_4%2C_departs.JPG By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist First Class Steven Myers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“A second is like it”

Wednesday

Matthew 22

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Hebrew Sefer Torah Scroll, photocredit: Bejinhan

36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

The text says that they were trying to “test him.” It is not a sincere question. His interrogators already know the answer – or, at least, think they do. Their purpose is to show that Jesus is ignorant of the law and the complex arguments that go into weighing all the different commands and prohibitions God has given in the Torah, the covenant law found in Exodus through Deuteronomy. There is a rule that you must corral your neighbor’s ox or donkey if it wanders off – but there is a rule not to work on Sabbath. What if the animal upon which your neighbor’s life depends wanders off on Sabbath? Which command is more important? The task of ranking the 613 commandments is a complicated one. And which lies at the top? Which is most important of all? This is the question the Pharisees set before Jesus. It is a question designed to disgrace him in the eyes of others, to show his ignorance, to show he is not worthy to be followed.

But Jesus gives a prompt and knowledgeable answer. He cites Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the daily recitation of all faithful: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” And then he adds a second that is ‘like it’ from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

A lot hinges on that phrase ‘like it.’ First of all the sentence begins with the disjunctive conjunction ‘but’ or ‘now’ rather than the normal ‘and’. The word of Jesus sounds much different if he says “but a second is like it.” It suggests that there is some surprise in that added element.

What exactly does Jesus mean that it is ‘like it’? Is loving one’s neighbor ‘like’ loving God? Or is loving one’s neighbor ‘like’ the other in that they are of equal weight, both are the chief command?

Is Jesus giving a conventional answer and then adding a challenge: “But a second is equal to it”?

It is a conflict situation, and I think that requires us to hear this second part of his answer as if Jesus were striking back at his opponents. He has not only shown that he knows the scripture – but he is attacking their central weakness. These are a people he will accuse of tithing their garden herbs in a scrupulous attention to the commandments, while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy.

You cannot separate love from God from love from neighbor. The religious people think they love God faithfully, honoring him in their scrupulous observance of the purity laws and temple rituals, but they ignore the hungry and burdened at their doorstep. They are indifferent to the suffering of those losing their land under the burden of imperial rule. And they haven’t even begun to consider the radical idea that all people are their neighbor, that all people must be regarded with the same concern and attachment as members of a common household or clan.

There is a rebuke in Jesus’ answer, a rebuke we should hear carefully.

“It was a sabbath day”

Saturday

John 9

stained glass14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.

It’s not that the Sabbath day doesn’t matter. It’s not that this is an old archaic practice that is no longer binding. It’s not even that Jesus was challenging a too literal observance of the Sabbath command. Jesus was fulfilling it.

The Sabbath is the day of rest when all creation has been brought to perfection. God separates the light from the darkness. God separates the waters above from the waters beneath. God separates the waters to allow dry land to appear. Then God populates the sky with heavenly bodies, the land and sky with earthly bodies, and in his consummate creative act creates humans, male and female, in God’s own image. Over all this God seven times declares it is good – the seventh and consummate declaration spoken over the whole thing was that “it was very good.” The creation is brought into perfect life. And God rests. All things are good and perfect and whole.

And then the perfection is lost. The first humans trust themselves more than God. They hide from each other behind fig leaves – and from God in the bushes. The joy of childbirth becomes joined with pain. The joy of tending the land becomes the sweat of work in a world with weeds. Cain rises up against Abel. Blood is shed. God tries to stay the bloodletting by protecting Cain, promising to avenge any harm to him – and Lamech trumps God by promising seventy-sevenfold revenge to anyone who harms him.  Weapons are made.  The line between heaven and earth is broken by angels consorting with humans. Were it not for Noah, the world would be lost.

But God ponders Noah and grace triumphs. God sets about restoring his creation. Redeeming it. Setting it free from its bondage. Restoring his garden. He calls Abraham. He gathers a people out of bondage in Egypt and teaches them to live God’s justice and mercy. He gives them a land where all can be fed.

And then it goes astray. But Moses and the prophets and the psalms lay the foundation for God’s restoration of his world. They bear witness to the day when sins and forgiven and the Spirit of God poured out on all. They promise a day when swords are beaten into plowshares and the lion lies down with the lamb. Through the law and prophets and writings God promises to bring his creation to its ultimate Sabbath rest, to bring us into the perfect peace of God.

This is what Jesus is doing on the Sabbath. He is fulfilling the rules not breaking them. He is bringing light into the world. He is healing every wound. He is releasing us from our debt of shame. He is restoring our sight. He is bringing God’s perfect peace.

The tragedy is that these very religious people could not see. The sorrow is that “the world loved darkness.” We harp on the rules and miss all that they promise: A world where God is God. A world where God’s name is not used for falsehood. A world where all enjoy God’s Sabbath rest. A world where the elderly are protected and provided. A world where no harm is done to another’s life or family or reputation. A world where truth reigns and there is no evil eye. A world gathered at one table. A world of light and life.

It was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 

Exactly.

 

 

Two very different kinds of religion

Thursday

Genesis 12

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The last lifeboat off the Titanic, by a passenger on the Carpathia

3 “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Everything hinges on what we hear in this statement to Abraham.  Some translations understand these words to say, “by you all families shall bless themselves,” meaning that Abraham shall be the paradigm of good fortune: “May we be as prosperous as Abraham.” Other translations hold, as the NRSV above, that somehow Abraham is the agent or conduit of God’s blessing.

This is a fundamental divide in the hearing of scripture.  Is God the god of Abraham, watching out for him and his descendants, providing, guiding, protecting, directing and blessing them?  Or is God the god of the whole earth, working through Abraham and his descendants to bring God’s blessing to the world?  Is God working to reclaim his lost creation or working to prosper and save a privileged few – or even a privileged many?  As we said, everything hinges on our answer to that question.

You get two very different kinds of religion depending on your answer.

If God is the god of Abraham, then the story we hear in the Old Testament is a story of God’s unmerited love and providential care for Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob.  God watches over Joseph and rewards his faithfulness.  God rescues his people from slavery and fulfills the promise of a rich and abundant land.  When they are faithful, things go well; when they are not faithful, God punishes them to bring them back to himself.  The door is always open for others to join the community of Israel.  And that’s what happens in Jesus.  Gentiles are welcomed into the community of the blessed – if they repent and believe.  At the culmination of history humanity is judged and the reward of heaven is given to God’s chosen ones.

If God is the god of the whole world, then the story we hear is also of unmerited love and providential care – but God’s work in Egypt is not partisan.  God works through Joseph not only to deliver the sons of Jacob, but also Egypt and the surrounding peoples (“You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.”) God delivers both Israel and Egypt from the system of bondage, for the enslaved and the enslaving are both captive and far from God’s plan and purpose for human life.  God doesn’t punish Egypt with ten plagues; he provides them ten opportunities to turn from their slaveholding ways.  That they resist to the bitter end is part of the human tragedy, and a telling warning for the rest of us.  But God’s determination is greater than ours.  God will liberate his broken and captive world.  “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

If God is the god of the whole world, then the law given to Israel at Sinai is not just about Israel – but about a servant people embodying God’s justice and mercy in the world.  Then the emphasis in the law is not purity, but care for the poor and the stranger.  Then the law is not a means to placate God or merit grace; it is a set of concrete examples revealing the character of God and the life to which all humanity is called.  Then purity is a means to preserve Israel as a witness to the God of justice and compassion, and food laws and customs are not binding on GentilesThen Jesus is not giving us new commandments, but revealing the depth of meaning in the old ones.  Then Paul’s declaration that love is a fulfilling of the law doesn’t abrogate the law but hears it truly.

If God is the God of the whole world, then loving your neighbor doesn’t make you worthy of heaven – it follows as fruit from the vine because you have been made a citizen of heavenWe are not saved by works – but works follow as truly as the mustard “tree” from the seed, the raised loaf from a little yeast, and the harvest from the sowing.

If God is God of the whole world, then the work of God is to come and reign in every heart and we are witnesses of these things: healing the sick, welcoming the outcast, forgiving sins and declaring good news to the poor.  If God is the god of Abraham, then the work of God is to create and prosper a holy people and our mission is to get others to join the community of the blessed.

Everything hinges on what we hear in these words: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Are we agents of blessing or simply partakers/inheritors of it?

PS 

If you are not sure which is the right answer – consider that when Abraham lied about Sarah to protect himself, he endangered Abimelech’s life.  When Abraham was faithful, he sought to save even Sodom and Gomorrah.  The argument is there in Genesis that Abraham and his descendants were to be instruments of blessing not its paradigm.

On this question churches will rise or fall.  Those who see themselves as agents of blessing to the community around them will bear much fruit.  Those who see themselves as the passengers in the lifeboat from a sinking world may pull in a few stragglers, but they are salt that has lost its ability to help the fire of God burn brightly.

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By Dungodung (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One human family

Watching for the morning of February 23

Year A

The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

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Sunday we continue with Jesus’ exposition of the Torah, God’s commands and teaching for Israel’s life together.  We hear the rich legacy of Leviticus that calls Israel to be a holy people as God is holy, a proper vessel for God’s presence among them – and for God’s witness to the world.  Again we hear from the magisterial psalm 119 celebrating God’s law, listening to the voice of the psalmist yearn for God to lead him in God’s way.  Paul reminds us that the Christian community is the temple of God, the dwelling of God on earth.  And Jesus extends the command to love your neighbor to all people, even enemies.  Such love is not a sentimental emotion, but a courageous determination to regard all people as members of your own household – and to help them see you in the same way.

The Prayer for February 23, 2014

Gracious God,
you call us to love not just our friends but our enemies,
to show kindness not just to family but to strangers,
to see all people as members of one human family
even as you have look upon us all as your children.
May our hearts be shaped by your heart,
and our spirits by your Spirit,
that we might be truly human
as your Son Jesus was truly human.

The Texts for February 23, 2014

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” From this section of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code God calls the people to be a community that reflects the character of God, showing justice and mercy.  Here, Jesus finds the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Psalmody: Psalm 119:33-40
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.” – As we continue with the Sermon on the Mount, we read again from the magisterial acrostic psalm 119 that celebrates the Torah/law/teaching of God

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
 Paul continues his re-education of his troubled congregation about the fundamental importance of their life as a community.

Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” – Jesus continues his exposition of the commandments, taking up the command in Leviticus to “love your neighbor” and transforming the law of revenge.

Defenseless

Wednesday

Deuteronomy 30

An illustration of the Parable of the Good Sam...

An illustration of the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the Rossano Gospels, believed to be the oldest surviving illustrated New Testament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

11Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.

When I was a child the confession at the beginning of the worship service said I am “sinful and unclean.”  When our church body adopted a new hymnal the language was changed to declare that we are “in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  I understand theologically what the confession was stating.  I also understand why no one wanted to think we were not in control of our own righteousness and salvation.

It is part of my innate rebellion against God to wrench the title “savior” from God’s hands and claim it for myself.  We are all Little Jack Horner wanting to declare, “What a good boy am I.”  The parade of self-conceit in politics, news, business and religion is tiring.  Like the lawyer whose challenge to Jesus prompts the story of the Good Samaritan, we are all eager to claim we are the righteous.  Watch any family argument and you will see a battle of self-justification.  We are not naturally inclined towards the truth but to self-preservation.  And part of that self-preservation is the denial of our sinfulness.  Oh we will acknowledge that we are imperfect, but hiding behind that statement is the conviction that, graded on a curve, we are still better than average, good enough to be welcomed into the eternal habitations.

But the old prayer that we are “unclean,” didn’t mean we were vile; it meant we were unworthy to stand in God’s presence.  We are not “holy.”  And “sinful” didn’t mean we were wholly corrupt, but that deep within we are turned towards ourselves rather than towards God and our neighbor.  The desire to be our own savior, to be the judge who declares us worthy, is prime evidence of that inward turn.  Like a car repaired after a collision, we may look fine on the outside but, hidden from view, the frame is bent.

If we are honest, we must acknowledge that something is off-kilter in the human heart.  Were it not, peace and harmony would be the norm rather than conflict and resentment.  But in that wondrously talented way we have of twisting things, even our “bondage to sin” becomes a rationalization and excuse: “I’m only human.”  And there it is again, our self-justification.  Psychological studies confirm that it is much more important for us to be able to claim innocence than to be innocent.

To this human heart that wants to excuse itself comes this word that God’s commands are not esoteric or difficult.  God’s will for us does not require heroic effort.  The voice of God through this verse from Deuteronomy strips away our excuses.  It is not that hard to be faithful to God and our neighbor.  It is not that hard to be mindful of the poor, to honor our parents and our neighbor’s marriage.  It is not hard to guard the possessions and life of others.  We just don’t want to.  And there is our bondage.  We can’t give up the self-justifying self, so we trim and edit the commands of God to suit our needs.  Like the legal expert before Jesus, we limit our obligation by limiting who is regarded as our neighbor – and labeling some as our enemies.

Between Jesus and Deuteronomy we are defenseless.  God’s commands are not hard, but we are addicted to self.  And so we are back to the core question: who gets to be God?  Who will be Savior?  In whom shall we trust? And, therefore, how will we live?  Mercy, justice, compassion, are not heroic tasks; they are simple deeds – if only we will let God be God.