Deuteronomy 30:15-20; I Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
After listening to all 3 of our lessons for today, do you get the feeling that as a child of God there is a lot on your plate to do? Obey God’s commandments. Walk in God’s ways. Do not bow down to other gods. Choose life. Hold fast to God. Do not be jealous. Do not quarrel among yourselves. Work together. Do not stay angry with your brother. Do not insult your sister. Do not tell anyone that they are a fool. Be reconciled with your siblings. Settle quickly with your accuser out of court. Do not lust after another woman. Do not commit adultery. Do not swear falsely. Fulfill your promises to God. I get tired just reciting this litany of commands. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more expectations of God from where these have come.
What’s hard to hear in all of these commandments is the promise, or the threat, that we can expect if we don’t observe and keep them—such as death and adversity, the loss of our property, a shorter life, the hell of fire, imprisonment, the loss of an eye or a hand, and no more blessings from God. Where is the grace in all of these expectations? Everything that we say or do seems so conditional. If we do what God commands, then we will be blessed. If we don’t do what God commands, then we will be judged, cursed, and punished. Perhaps this lack of grace is the result of only reading one portion of an entire book of the Bible. Nevertheless, what we hear today runs so counter to the whole notion that we are saved by God’s grace alone, and that nothing that we do or don’t do will earn us God’s grace and favor.
So, do we just ignore or more blatantly deny this conditional language in Scripture? Or do we accept that there are consequences to everything that we do that is contrary to the will of God—no matter whether it has to do with adversity in this life or the hellfire of damnation in the life hereafter? This whole dynamic of cause and effect is so standard throughout all of Scripture, as well as accepted as a norm of life in our own day and age. If you obey God, then you will live long on this earth. If you disobey God’s commandments, then you will die much sooner in this life and forfeit all of your possessions—to say nothing about the anguish that you may experience in the afterlife.
All of these promises or threats actually make some sense until we get to the situation where good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people—to paraphrase the title of the 1978 book by Rabbi Harold Kushner. How do we explain that prosperity and merriment can be the norm for a person who has made it rich on the backs of those who are impoverished, while adversity and anguish can come to so many impoverished people who have such good intentions and are contributing members of our society? Granted, we can assume that money doesn’t always buy happiness, and good deeds don’t always guarantee a good life. However, when people who are in the top 5% of income earners do appear to be pleasantly satisfied, and those who are in the lowest 20% of income earners are generally burdened with the constant anxiety about their own survival, something definitely is wrong with this scenario.
One thing that we have to repudiate in this scenario is the assumption that whatever befalls us in this life is the direct result of God punishing us for doing something wrong. I realize that this correlation is such a convenient way to explain away everything that goes wrong in our lives, but does God really curse, judge, and punish us for every little thing that we do that runs counter to God’s will—unless, of course, we confess our sins, ask for forgiveness, and change our ways? If so, then we revert right back to the very thing that Martin Luther condemned 500 years ago by using this act of confession as a good deed that will earn us God’s favor and blessings.
Making the connection between a person’s sinful act and something that afflicts that person is such a natural way to look at this dynamic. The perfect example of this perspective is recorded in the Gospel of John when the disciples of Jesus observed a man who had an ailment from birth, and they asked Jesus, “Who sinned—this man or his parents?” I heard the allusion to a similar perspective this past week when someone told me about a man who cheated on his wife and found out shortly thereafter that he had terminal cancer. Was God punishing this man for committing adultery?
We have to be very, very careful about putting the blame on God for all of the adversity and death that we experience in this life. There is nothing more cruel than to insinuate to a person who is struggling to make ends meet that their hunger or their homelessness is the direct result of their sinful behavior, and therefore God’s way of punishing them for their sins. However, that is the message that we can communicate every time that we talk about our prosperity as being proof of God’s blessing. Do you see how insidious making this correlation is? And yet, explaining everything that happens in our lives in this way is such a natural thing to do.
No matter whether we are rich or poor, we all are blessed creatures of God because by the gracious goodness of God we are given life and loved beyond measure. As one expression of this love, we are given what we call a free will to choose life or death. Rather than having a God who is like a puppeteer pulling every string to determine our every movement in this life, the God in whom I put my trust is like a stage director who gives all kinds of direction, counsel, and guidance, and then leaves the final performance up to us to determine the fate of whether we live or whether we die—a fate over which sometimes we have absolutely no control.
As far as I am concerned, Jesus is the best example of how a person can choose life and still experience an early death as the result of his own behavior in the context of a sinful world. Without a doubt, Jesus did get angry with the religious leaders of his day for allowing the animal sellers and money changers to desecrate God’s temple. So, he chased them out of the temple. In the course of his confrontation, Jesus insulted the religious leaders by calling them thieves and murderers. Jesus then sealed his own fate when he called them hypocrites and blind fools. In this situation, was Jesus choosing life or death, because in the end, he certainly suffered the hell of fire by being crucified on the cross, which was one of the most excruciating forms of death devised by humankind.
From a human point of view, anyone could say that Jesus got what he deserved. However, from a divine point of view, we know differently. We know that Jesus was willing to sacrifice his own life in this non-violent way in order to liberate everyone from the oppression, corruption, and violence that was pervasive throughout his land and beyond. As Jesus told his captors, he could have used his divine connection to call down 12 legions of angels to destroy his captors, but then he would have been guilty of murder, which only would have perpetuated the cycle of violence that he was trying break by challenging the violence that still infects our human race and is the cause of so much premature death in this world.
Was Jesus’ death on the cross God’s condemnation and punishment for his losing his temper and insulting his brothers in order to liberate them from their role as oppressors and murderers and give them a new lease on life according to God’s design and will? You see, nothing is quite as clear as it seems, even if the authors of our 3 lessons for today make everything sound so cut and dry. That’s why coming back to the option of choosing life or death may not in itself always be such a clear choice. In his attempt to choose life for the rest of his sisters and brothers, Jesus was accepting his own death as the natural outcome of the way that he went about choosing life for others.
Here is where the account of Jesus’ resurrection comes into play because in response to the way that Jesus accepted his own death for the sake of humankind by living more fully according to God’s good grace and pleasure, Jesus’ disciples came to understand that death is not something that needs to be feared, especially if it comes as the result of advocating for those who are being treated unjustly and for those who are being oppressed unfairly. Jesus chose to fulfill all of the law and the prophets because he trusted that God’s way was the right way to be in relationship with the rest of humankind.
That’s why we have these commands of God and why we have these incredible expectations of Jesus. Life as a child of God and as a disciple of Jesus is not meant to be easy, but it is meant to be fulfilling because life as it is given by God is good, and life as it was renewed in Jesus is a promise for all of us to want to choose what gives life, not only to you and to me, but also to all of humankind. As we choose this kind of life that is full of non-violent love and liberation for all, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our Stage Manager and our Savior. Amen.