Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Rules or Righteousness?
Rules are made to be broken. Right? That is sort of the holy grail of American ingenuity. We don't make rules. We break them. Except that we tend to hold others to the rules we ignore. In the same was God’s rules are often seen as arbitrary infringements upon our creativity and pleasure. So we figure that God's rules are for us to break and for others to keep. Right? Today we encountered a young man who comes to Jesus who seems to ask the right question. What must I do to earn eternal life? Those are the kind of youth we need in the Church, right? The kind who are concerned about eternal life as much as or perhaps more than this life and this moment. But conversation with Jesus does not go so well for this guy.
Jesus appears to answer this young man's question with an appeal to the rules. We would call them the commandments. When you ask a good question you hope for a better response than to be asked "have you kept all the rules?" But this fellow was not disheartened. Instead, he was relieved. The rules? Is that all? Well, I have kept them since I was a child! This has turned out to be easier than I thought, the guy was thinking. But Jesus was not making an appeal to rules – no, Jesus was calling the young man to new life, to a righteous life, to a holy life. This life was the fruit of such trust of God that nothing else matters. This was a shock to the young man. He thought he was home free when Jesus talked about rules but found faith simply beyond him.
The commandments are not just rules and righteousness is not just keeping the rules. If that were so, the Pharisees would be kings and queens of heaven. But Jesus insists that our righteousness must exceed these expert rule keepers. Jesus is teaching us about those rules – rules that are not in opposition to faith but flow from faith and trust in God. The poor fellow wanted simple rules; instead he received a call to faith.
He knew the rules but he did not know them as God’s revelation of all that is good and holy and righteous. He saw the commandments as rungs on a ladder of achievement in which the prize he won was heaven itself. He knew the rules but he missed the God who spoke them. Sometimes we do as well. God’s speaking of the law is no less the voice of love than His speaking of the Gospel. If the Lord was only interested in external renovation, rules would work. But God was interested in far more. The man was ready to renovate the external of His life but was not ready to trust in God alone. The path of the Law is always easier than the call to faith – even when the way of the commandments cannot deliver any promise of salvation!
Jesus spoke to the rich young man not of rules to be kept but of hearts to believe. It is this righteousness of faith of which St. Paul speaks so eloquently in Romans. The call to faith is not new. It was implicit in the commandments from the very beginning. Love God above all things and love your neighbor as yourself. Such commandments and such love is not in opposition to faith but expects, proceeds from, and is contingent upon faith.
The guy was ready to whatever Jesus asked except trust in Him. He would obey whatever rules were laid down to earn a heavenly reward but failed to see that the only way the Law works for us is if righteousness is credited to us by faith and we are born again in Christ precisely so that we might love Him above all things and love our neighbor as ourselves.
Jesus did not hate the man. In fact, Mark makes it clear that Jesus loved him – loved him enough to address the greatest barrier to heaven – the man’s lack of faith and trust in God. Jesus does not hate possessions or wealth. But Jesus is blunt for us and our salvation. Love for God and love for self and our possessions cannot live in the same place. Or to put it in Biblical terms, God and mammon cannot be served at the same time. We have great trouble with Jesus here because we come with the same issues. We want to do what He wants of us but to believe and trust is harder than obedience. Only the Spirit can impart this trust.
It is our great temptation to reduce the law simply to rules, senseless rules, arbitrary rules, rules made to be broken. Perhaps we have grown so accustomed to speaking of the law as rules to be obeyed that we have forgotten that God's commandments are also His gracious Word to us.
For what has made the commandments impossible is not that we have not tried hard enough but that sin has turned our hearts against God and His Word – against the Law and the Gospel. We were created to live life just as the commandments speak of that life. What makes it impossible for us to obey is that we do not trust in God or believe His good and gracious will. The suspicion of sin has made it impossible for us to trust in the Lord and so obedience refuses to be born in our sinful hearts. Jesus loved the man enough to point out the wall that was keeping the kingdom from him – the wall of faith, or the lack thereof..
The young man would have done anything to be judged righteous and to earn eternal life – except the one thing that is implicit in the commandments – to love and trust in God above all things. He would have done anything except believe. It was faith Jesus was looking for... faith and trust beyond self. So we come today, as we have come before, struggling in the same way as this rich man – to let go of self and earthly things that appear to be treasures, and trust in the Lord whom we know through the cross. And as always, the fervent prayer of faith is familiar. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. Lord, I believe in the righteousness that comes by faith but I struggle with the doubts of a heart rooted in a righteousness of my own creation. God, help me, a sinner. Amen