Posts tagged rules
Even though Jesus was a sinless man, he wasn’t much of a rule-follower. In today’s reading, he does all kinds of things that were taboo in his day. First, he dares to try to teach Nicodemus something. Remember, Nicodemus was a Pharisee. These guys were supposed to be the authorities on Scripture and yet, here was Nicodemus asking Jesus questions. Now, it’s not clear whether Nicodemus was sincere in his questions or whether he was trying to trap Jesus in his words, as Pharisees liked to do. Whatever the case, Jesus took the opportunity to try to tell the Pharisee how the Kingdom of God worked.
Then there is the Samaritan woman at the well. This lady was off-limits on multiple grounds! First, she was a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate…at all. The fact that Jesus was having a conversation with a Samaritan was a scandal in and of itself. Add to that the fact that the person he was speaking with was a woman, and one known to be…shall we say…amorous, and you can see why Jesus’ disciples were shocked to find him talking to her.
Lastly, there’s this “royal official” – likely an aide to Herod (the latest in a line of Herods that didn’t have much affection for Jesus – the man or the concept.) Jesus could have refused this man’s request. In fact, Jesus even shows a little contempt for him when he suggests that people like him will only believe if they see a sign. But the man persists. He is coming to Jesus not as a powerful man from the king’s palace, but as a father desperate to see his child healed.
A religious leader, an “unclean” harlot, a royal official. Jesus didn’t have to talk to any of them. He could have easily justified brushing any of them off. But Jesus saw something in all of these people that most others didn’t. He saw the image of God. He saw that each of these individuals was a child of God, whether they knew it or not. As such, they deserved his time – not because of anything they had done, but because of their identity as a child of God.
This is an important reminder to us. Sometimes we’re faced with people with whom we would rather not engage. And often, we would be well-justified to turn and walk the other way. That is, until we are reminded that we are speaking to a child of the Most High God. We are looking at a person that God created in his image. That changes things. All of a sudden, we realize that it is a privilege to speak with this person.
Seeing people the way Jesus saw them will drastically change the way we interact with others. Interacting with others may drastically change the way we see God. In both cases, I know it will be for the better.
Much has been said and written, in this blog and elsewhere, about the foolishness of human beings, but some of it bears repeating. We are convinced that we know what’s right and we don’t need any help. We insist that the good things that happen to us are the work of our own hands and that the bad things that happen to us should be blamed on someone else. We put God on a shelf to be looked at occasionally and called upon when we’ve run out of other options. And more than anything, we convince ourselves that we don’t need rules – that they are too restrictive. Like an immature child, we buck against any authority and complain about how ridiculous the rules are.
But, also like small children, we need rules. We need someone to restrict us from doing the things that we are too naive to avoid on our own. We need someone to save us from ourselves – our curiosity, our selfishness and our ignorance. Fortunately, we do have someone who has gone to great lengths to do just that. And yet, all we can seem to do is buck against him.
“I am the Lord your God,
who teaches you what is best for you,
who directs you in the way you should go.
If only you had paid attention to my commands,
your peace would have been like a river,
your well-being like the waves of the sea.
Your descendants would have been like the sand,
your children like its numberless grains;
their name would never be blotted out
nor destroyed from before me.” (Isaiah 48:17-19)
If only we would just listen when God tells us something, our lives would be much better. Instead, we go out and do our own thing and then cry “why God” when something bad happens. How long will it take us to realize that he truly has our best interests in mind – that he wants greater things for us than we want for ourselves? How long before we realize that we are better off with him in control than with us at the helm?
Year after year, decade after decade, millennium after millennium, God watches as we fail to follow his ways. He watches as we do our own thing and get ourselves into bad situations. And he watches as we try to get ourselves out of those situations. He waits and watches and asks, “Are you sure you don’t want my help?” We insist that we don’t, until ultimately we have no other choice. Then we come to him and he helps us.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t blame him if one day he just threw up his hands and walked away – leaving us to figure it out on our own,
I recently watch the video of a lecture that theologian N.T. Wright gave to a group at Fuller Theological Seminary. In the lecture, entitled “Learning the Language of Life: New Creation and Christian Virtue,” Wright argues that not only have we gotten it wrong when we build our faith around a list of rules, but that we also get it wrong when we lean too hard on our “nature” or what “feels right”. The idea is not earth-shattering, but his application is important.
In Wright’s mind, “rules” and “nature” work together in faith much like they do when trying to learn another language. Rules, he says, help us form the basics of our language. When you begin learning a new language, you begin with the simplest of structures. You learn where verbs, adverbs, adjectives and the like should typically fall in a sentence and you effort laboriously to get it right.
But eventually, he says, as you continue to learn the language, a couple of things happen. First, you begin to learn that those rules aren’t quite as steadfast as you once believed – there are exceptions. Second, you begin to be able to recognize what the language should sound like. In other words, you get to a place where you can recognize a native speaker versus a non-native speaker – even if you yourself don’t yet have a great command of the language. Eventually, of course, with enough practice, all of those rules, exceptions and understanding of what sounds right (along with a lot of practice) result in the language becoming second nature to you. Suddenly, those rules that seemed to hard to follow before just become built into your speech.
As it relates to faith, Wright calls this “virtue”. In this sense, virtue is the result of laboriously choosing to make God-honoring decisions and take God-honoring actions until you reach the point that a God-honoring life becomes second nature. It is a combination of rules – basic building blocks – and an understanding of what the Kingdom of God should look like.
The trouble, of course, is that rules are easily written down, memorized and regurgitated. The natural understanding of the Kingdom of God is a little more internal and personal. In fact, an attempt to write down what the Kingdom of God should look like would quickly devolve into a list of rules. And it is just such a devolution that God speaks of in chapter 29:
The Lord says:
“These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
is based on merely human rules they have been taught. (Isaiah 29:13)
You see, rules have their place, but really, they only help give us a little bit of framework within which to begin exploring God and his Kingdom. Eventually, we have to embody the spirit of God, rather than memorizing a list of what to do and what not to do. However, doing what “feels right” only works if you have developed virtue – if you have, through hard work, study and much prayer, developed Godly habits. Suddenly, God’s plan begins to feel right and all other ways diminish.
I used to think I understood the Old Testament. God made rules, people broke the rules, God punished them, they repented and everything was good for a little while. I mean, that’s a pattern we see repeated over and over as we read these books and chapters. And yet, if you dig a little deeper, you discover that it’s never really as simple as that.
Sure, God does punish people when they don’t follow his commands, but he also shows grace at times and even leniency. At first, there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why God punishes one person severely and the next mildly. But that is where I think my old understanding of scripture was flawed. You see, I was always looking for the magic formula that went something like this:
A Certain Action + God’s Anger/Wrath = A Certain Punishment
I (along with countless others) have tried in vain to figure out God’s ways using that formula. I now understand that the formula itself is flawed. In reality, God is not nearly as concerned with his rules and our ability to follow them as he is about his plan and our ability to play a part in it. The equation that seems to really matter is:
God’s Plan + Our Action + God’s Action = God’s Desired Outcome
When we look at the world that way, it’s easy to see that things are ultimately going to work out – that God will ultimately prevail. It’s also easy to see the weak link in the chain – us. God has a plan and he is perfectly capable of executing that plan, but he decides to insert us into the equation. Perhaps it should be rewritten like this:
God’s Plan – Our Action + God’s Action = God’s Desired Outcome
It sure seems like, more often than not, the things we do actually just create more work for God. And yet, he still wants us to play a part. In today’s reading, there are several people who are in the equation of God’s plan. The 200 prophets and the 1 prophet, the king of Israel (who thought he could outfox God’s plan) and the king of Judah (who sometimes got it right and sometimes got it wrong). These individuals were all making their own choice – not being forced by God to do anything. But God’s desired outcome still prevailed.
When Ahab and Jehoshaphat went into battle, God’s desired outcome was that Ahab be killed. By dressing in disguise and having Jehoshaphat wear his royal robes, Ahab thought he had tilted the equation in his favor. But the “weak link” was overcome by the strong one – God’s Actions – and, though he was a sitting duck, Jehoshaphat survived while Ahab was killed.
Here we have two kings – one with little regard for God and the other with high regard for God – whose actions threaten to throw the grand equation out of balance. For Jehoshaphat, his mistakes seem to be made mostly out of naivete or foolishness. For Ahab, his mistakes seem to be calculated decisions. In both cases, God takes the required action to balance the equation and to ensure his desired outcome.
He will do the same in our lives. Whether through foolishness or deliberate disobedience, we are all guilty, at times, of throwing the equation out of balance. It’s reassuring to know that there is nothing we can do that God can’t right!
Congratulations! You have reached the end of Leviticus. You now know exactly how to sacrifice an ox, what will happen to you if you have sex with your aunt and how to know if you have a spreading mold in your house. You are prepared to be a good Israelite!
Fortunately for us, God doesn’t ask us to be Israelites. Even if you are from Israel, you (an Israeli) are not bound by this law. However, for the ancient Israelites, these were very important laws and regulations that were to be followed to the letter. In Leviticus 26, God lays out the reward for following his commands. He also lays out the punishment for not following them. Now, I’ve heard a lot of people quote the reward portion:
“I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” (Leviticus 26:11-12)
I haven’t heard very many people (except, perhaps when they were condemning others) quote the punishment portion:
“I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.” (Leviticus 26:16-17)
In fact, neither the reward or the punishment are meant for us. If we do everything right, God is not necessarily going to give us as much food as we can eat or a great place to live. Likewise, if we don’t do everything right, he’s not going to destroy us. These were specific rules, rewards and punishments for these specific people. And so, the logical question is why in the world do we have to read them?
Here’s what impresses me as I read Leviticus. God – the never-changing Lord of everything – custom-built a new order for his chosen people. His nature didn’t change. His love didn’t change. What did change was the way he chose to relate to those people in that time. He gave them a set of boundaries that would serve to keep them safe, help them populate the land, help them have better crop yields, etc. And the whole thing has kind of the opposite effect on me in this reading than it has in previous readings.
In times past (even very recently) when I’ve read Leviticus, I’ve seen a God who is inflexible, ruthless and graceless – a picture that stands in stark contrast to the God that I know and that Jesus seemed to represent. This time reading through the book (and forcing myself to reflect on it further than, perhaps, I ever have) I discovered something different. What I see is actually a God who is quite flexible and nimble in his own way.
Sure, he has a pretty rigid set of rules for the Israelites, but it was a custom-tailored set of guardrails for them. And it started me thinking: what if God has a custom-tailored set of instructions for us as well? What if, in the words of Brian McLaren, the Bible is not to be read as a constitutional document? What if it isn’t meant to teach us about God’s rules, but, instead, is meant to teach us about God himself – a God who is perfectly within his rights to change the rules and who, in fact, has done that on numerous occasions recorded in the Bible.
Reading the Bible in this light will, I believe, open up scripture in a new way. Instead of just reading a list of commands, we have an opportunity to get a glimpse inside the heart and mind of God. Why would he say some foods or practices are unclean and then, later in the Bible, indicate that there was nothing wrong with those foods or practices? If you read the Bible constitutionally, this can be a huge hurdle. However, if you read the Bible as a story about God and his people – about an incredibly complex relationship between humanity and divinity – then you have more room for these seeming contradictions. In fact, I think a lot of our “issues” with Biblical text can be resolved if we read it through these eyes.
Let’s see what happens as we continue to read. Maybe I’ll be proven totally wrong, but I’m OK with that. I think the experiment is worth it.