This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Love Is the Way.

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

            The book of Deuteronomy is kind of a summary of the Israelites’ time in the wilderness of Sinai, where they camped for 40 years after being miraculously liberated from slavery in Egypt.  God was preparing them for the time when they would go infiltrate and occupy the land of Canaan, wresting it away from the corrupt and oppressive kings who ruled there.  God is building them as a nation during this period, and God gives the people very specific ways to live.  I have said before repeatedly that the point here is that the people not live in the kind of situation involving injustice and violence, which is what they were liberated from in Egypt.  Their society is not to look anything like the centralized, unequal, hierarchical, oppressive regime they left.  God does not set them free so they can just become another nation where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and where problems are addressed (but never solved) by violence.
            So God gives them a law.  And the law means that only God is in charge.  All of Israel’s leaders are subject to God’s will as it is presented in God’s law.  God is the only sovereign among the Israelites.  Not even Moses is beyond criticism.  God will provide inspired leaders for the people.  Moses’ son does not take over for him.  Neither do they elect their leaders.  Israel is supposed to be a theocracy in the best sense of the word: a place ruled by a loving God and no one is above anyone else.
            It is interesting to me what God does not do.  God does not give them a vision of a perfect society as a goal towards which they are to strive.  Then, with this goal in mind, they are allowed to figure out any way they like to get there.  God does not say, “Here is a picture of the end, you guys decide on the means to that end.”  As if how they got there didn’t matter, but only that they reached the preferred destination.
            This is a very important distinction because I find a lot of people claim to want to reach lofty, ideal, perfect, and even divine goals… but don’t seem to have any problem using “any means necessary” to attain them.  The more rarefied and wonderful the goal, the more they seem willing to compromise in order to attain it.  And often these means – policies, practices, strategies, tactics, plans, and behaviors – become very nasty.  We readily fall into the trap where we end up saying things like, “Well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs!”  Which works well, as long as you’re not one of the eggs.

            The idea that we simply have to do evil in order to make a good result is deeply ingrained into the human heart and mind.  We know that in many cases it is absolutely true that we have to do what may appear to be unloving things to people to show that we really love them.  We discipline our children; we have to make difficult interventions when people have lost their way; curing an illness often means doing something painful; learning a skill often requires hard struggle and sacrifice; we may have to take seemingly harsh actions on behalf of infirm parents, and so on. 
            There are things we place under the category of “tough love” that we have to have the courage to do even against the other person’s will.  We have lots of examples of these, and people who can’t do them wind up doing greater harm to people in the end.  Sometimes extremely harsh measures are absolutely required to ensure that a greater good is accomplished. 
            But when we do these kinds of things we proceed out of the knowledge that the result is likely to be good for everyone.  When we sever a gangrenous limb it is to save a person’s life.  When we take away grandma’s car keys it is so she doesn’t endanger herself and others on the highways.  When we give our 4-year-old a time-out for hitting it is so he doesn’t become a bully or tyrant who thinks hitting people is an effective way to get what he wants.
            And the “evil” we are doing that good may result is always temporary, situational, extraordinary, limited, necessary, and the absolute last resort after everything else has been exhausted.  As parents we know that the often ridiculed rationale is true: “This hurts me more than it does you.”  That excuse is justly ridiculed because so often it is a lie that people with power over others use to justify their own self-righteous and sadistic brutality.  If it’s just too easy to do such things, we should not describe them with the self-congratulatory title of “tough love;” they are really simple, nasty unnecessary roughness.  “Tough love” is only “tough love” when it breaks your heart and scars you to carry it out.
            In service of what they perceive to be a lofty goal, people do find themselves all too ready to do unspeakable evil.  Even in the face of a mountain of evidence that these approaches don’t work, we still do them.  We still imagine that torturing people somehow leads to the truth.  We still imagine that war has ever solved anything.  We still think that throwing people in prison will “correct” or “rehabilitate” them.  We still have this fantasy that making life even more difficult for the poor will make them less “lazy” and more “responsible.”  We remain deluded that doing all of these evil things will result in a better society full of better people.

            And we know these things are evil because we don’t want them done to us, ever.  Jesus’ Golden Rule kicks in here.  We have lots of excuses why such tactics should never be used against us; and we have at least as many justifications why these are the only tactics that will work on those other people.
            Knowing this about us, God does not give the people a fine and glorious vision of the way life should be, and leave them alone to figure out how to accomplish it.  No.  God gives them detailed laws about how to act today.  There is no “end” to which our actions are but “means;” there are only the means.  The means are the end.  How you act now is the goal of your life. 
            The great pacifist leader, A. J. Muste once famously said, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”  We could extend that reasoning to just about everything.  There is no way to justice, righteousness, equality, goodness, and healing; those are themselves the way.  There is no way to Jesus; Jesus is himself the way.
            In other words, there are no excuses.  We do not work for good by doing evil; we work for good by doing… good!  Duh!  God does not say, “Do what you want, as long as good results.”  God says, “Do good, and that will be itself the good that results.”
            You cannot use slavery to build a free society.  You cannot use war to bring about peace.  You cannot use economic injustice to accomplish prosperity.  You cannot use illness to bring about health.  The key words here being “you cannot use.”
            Never does this work when the suffering is imposed on someone else.  Other people are never to be used as means in accomplishing our goals, no matter how technically ideal those goals may be.  The only way evil ever results in good is when the evil is something you choose to take on yourself as a matter of self-sacrifice. 
            Tough love only works when there is trust based on a shared identity, so that the receiving person knows in their heart that what you have to do really does hurt you more than it does them.  Our tough love only works when it involves suffering in which we share.  The only kind of evil that can ever result in good is evil we willingly take on ourselves, just as Jesus takes on our evil in his death on the cross.
            That is the only way to understand what is happening on the cross.  It is not the Father cruelly demanding blood from the Son as the price of forgiveness.  No: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”  What we see on the cross is the God of love choosing to give his life for us.  People are the ones who demand Jesus’ blood, who decide that this evil act is necessary for the greater good, that is to say, to protect their own power and privilege.  In Jesus Christ, God is the one on the cross, whose life-blood is shed for the salvation of the whole world.

            When God gives the law to the people, God is inviting them into God’s own life, so they may live God’s life in the living present, together.  They are not to think of themselves as being on their way to some goal, even the destination of the Promised Land.  Note that the Torah only comprises the first 5 books.  The people don’t reach Canaan until Joshua, the 6th book.  This is to remind the people that getting to Canaan is not the point.  How they live together under God now, even in the wilderness, is the point.  If they can live God’s life now, they will be worthy of continuing that life in the Promised Land.  The Promised Land is but an extension of the blessing, goodness, justice, and peace – shalom – that they will have embraced on the way.
            When Jesus comes, he who is himself the fulfillment of the Torah, makes a further distinction.  He realizes that the letter of the law has not been sufficient.  People figured out how to break the spirit of the law, while keeping strictly to the letter.  So there is a spirit of the law that is distinct from the letter.
            Jesus shows us that the spirit of the law is love… not just love as we choose to define it in our own self-serving and even lustful way, but love as he demonstrates it in taking up his cross and giving his life for us.
            Jesus says, in effect, if it isn’t costing you your life, it isn’t love.  If it isn’t a path of wall-to-wall transformation, it isn’t love.  If it leaves you where you are, in your own comfortable self-righteousness; if it doesn’t hurt, if it doesn’t cost you anything – indeed, if it doesn’t cost you everything, it isn’t love, and therefore isn’t what the law is about.
            In the case of our Gospel reading for today, Jesus is faced with religious authorities who are hysterical about regulating what people eat, according to the letter of the law.  Jesus says, that what you eat doesn’t matter.  What matters, he says, is love, the inner spirit of the law.  If your actions are not loving, it doesn’t matter what you eat.  But if love determines your actions, then even your eating will be an expression of that love, and that love will be expressed in everything you do and say.  But saying that love is the spirit of the law does not mean that the law is just the means to get to love.  He says we are only truly keeping the law when we love.

            What defiles us, what separates us from God, is what we do.  And Jesus lists several intentions that lead to practices that separate us from God, several behaviors that are contradictory to love: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, [and] folly.”  These are unloving actions, and it doesn’t matter if you say you are only doing them in the service of the greater good or a higher goal. 
            All of these are remarkably self-centered, self-righteous activities, things it is very hard if not impossible to do with humility.  These are things that normally get done because they assuage our fear, anger, or hatred; we do them because they feel good at the time, for one reason or another.  When we do them there is no question that our intention is to hurt the other person way more than we are hurting ourselves.
            The way of transformative love we see in Jesus is not to commit these acts, but to suffer them, to literally bear the pain of their consequences, to be broken by them… and so witness to the redeeming, resurrecting power of the Lord who pulls us through.
            For it is quite costly, you know.  In a world that believes in redemptive violence, we keep the spirit of a law of non-violence and forgiveness.  In a world that believes war, and torture, and theft, and greed, and incarceration, and avarice, and reckless consumption, and destruction of natural resources are all necessary to achieve our goals, we witness to God’s no.  The world hates that.
            We say it is not possible to do evil that good might result.  Doing evil results in catastrophe and disaster, it only compounds the evil exponentially.  If we live like that, we bring down upon us… death.
            Our goals are embodied in our actions.  There is no way to peace; peace is the way.  Justice is the way.  Fairness and equality is the way.  Generosity is the way.  Forgiveness is the way.  Love is the way.  This is what the law of God, accurately understood and practiced, means.  If you want the world to be a better place, be a better person yourself, now.  If you want the world to be filled with love, then love, now.  Love with a love that does not end with you and yours; love as Jesus loves: seeking out the lost, the rejected, the unpopular, the excluded, the blamed, and the broken.
            That’s what the whole biblical story is about, culminating in Jesus.  It is God’s love, welcoming, restoring, redeeming, and renewing creation and all people.  We are witnesses because we know that God even loves us. 
            This is what Jesus teaches and accomplishes.  This is what we are to watch ourselves about, so we never forget it.  This is what we are to teach to our children.  This is what enables us to occupy the land, this very earth, in blessing.

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