1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21A; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36—8:3
Preached by Ian Lasch
Our epistle reading today, much like both the Bible and Christianity itself, begins with the law. The giving of the law on Mount Sinai was a transformative event in the history of a people who only then became a nation. It was a moment which would come to define them, and us, even millennia later. And while Paul has some very interesting things to say about the law, we ought to delve a bit into the background of the law itself before we get to his points about it.
There is a tendency, particularly among us as Christians, to think only of the Decalogue (meaning “ten words”), or the “Ten Commandments” as we know them, when speaking of the law. The Decalogue is very important, but an article I read recently about it by Leon Kass referred to it as the preamble for the law, which seems like an apt description. The Decalogue gives a framework for the law; an idea of what the law entails. The first four commandments concern how we should relate to God and the last six are about how we should relate to our fellow human beings. But the Decalogue is just a bird’s eye view. The full Law of Moses contains some 613 separate commandments and is spread out within four different books. I promise I won’t go into too much detail, but I want to highlight just a couple of parts of the Decalogue, not because they’re any more important than the rest, but because they give us an idea about the intent of the law.
The fourth commandment or word is to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy; as it’s given to us in Exodus it explicitly parallels creation, which wasn’t finished until God desisted, and admired the whole of creation, and saw that it was good. But that article by Kass brings up the point that it also echoes their experience with manna in the wilderness during the exodus from Egypt. During this time God provided for them when they feared they would starve, by raining food on them from heaven, but only for six days out of the week. Every day, they’re to gather only what they need, except for the sixth, when they should gather enough for two days, so that they can keep the Sabbath. This shows Israel, and us, that this world in which we live is not a world of scarcity, but a world of plenty… that God will provide sufficiently for our needs, and that we shouldn’t work endlessly to try to accumulate more than we need… that we cannot be grateful if we’re always worried about getting more.
The tenth commandment or word says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” This as much as tells us that those desires we have to accumulate or possess, to be consumers, are often contrary to God’s plan. Just as we are told to stop struggling and working for one day out of the week, we find out that we shouldn’t be as enamored of stuff as we are.
These two commandments, again, don’t represent the whole of the law. But they give us at least a small idea of what the law intends. It’s important to have at least a little bit of the background of the law, because it is such a major part of who Paul is. It’s a law that he spent his life pursuing, up until the time of his conversion, and he knew it inside and out. Even at the time of writing this letter, he continued to try to live by it, so it’s all the more surprising when he says that a person is not justified, or rectified, or made righteous by the works of the law. That always seemed a bit counterintuitive to me. It never seemed to make much sense. I mean, how could someone not be righteous, if they follow the law? But God isn’t concerned only with how we behave. He also cares how we think and feel. Is it compassionate to refrain from murder because it's against the law? Is it charitable to pay taxes, even knowing that some of that money will be used to take care of the poor, if we only pay taxes to avoid jail time? Is it faithful to refuse to cheat on a spouse only for fear of the consequences? In these cases, the law is meant to be a minimum standard that all should follow, and if we congratulate ourselves for doing the bare minimum, the only righteousness we get is self-righteousness. That’s why the law cannot make us truly righteous. To be truly righteous depends on our intentions, on our heads and our hearts. And this is what God wants to change.
Luckily, Paul gives us a solution. While we cannot be made righteous by following the law, we are justified instead through faith in Jesus Christ (or, perhaps more accurately translated, through the faith or faithfulness of Jesus Christ). Paul tried to find righteousness through following the law, and it didn’t come. Through the law he died to the law, because that way did not lead to life. It was by pursuing righteousness through the law that he found out it wasn’t possible. Paul found out, just as we know, that by being crucified with Christ through our baptism, we are set free and made right. As the epistle could alternately be translated, “I have been crucified with Christ and yet I live. But it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” This “I” who no longer lives in Paul is a word familiar to us, thanks to modern psychology. The Greek word is “ego.” By sharing in the crucifixion, Paul has put his ego, his self, his desires and wishes, to death. They no longer live in him, because he has decided to let them die so that Christ may live in him instead. This may seem extreme, but it’s something that Christ himself told us several times. In the Gospel of Mark, he tells us that a house divided cannot stand. No one can plunder a strong man’s house without first tying up the strong man. And we know that our desires are strong. In the Gospel of Matthew, he tells us that no one can serve two masters. We cannot serve both God and Mammon, a Greek word which means “wealth” or “material possessions” or even “greed.” We cannot serve God if we’re trying desperately to get more stuff.
And so, like Paul, we try to put those earthly desires to death. We strive to submit to God’s will, even knowing that it means subjugating our own. By being baptized into Christ’s crucifixion, so we live. But not us; Christ lives within us. Knowing this, we cannot help but be forever changed. Christ lives in us; in each and every one of us. He lives in me and he lives in you, just as he lives in my neighbor, and in my friend. He lives in my coworker and my acquaintance. He lives in my competitor and my enemy. And this is the intent of the law, for us as Christians. We still try to tithe to God’s church and to keep the Sabbath, but not because we'll feel bad if we don't or we think it's expected of us. We still remain faithful to him, but not because that’s the letter of the law. We still try to love one another as Christ himself loves us, but not out of guilt or obligation. We do it because Christ lives in us, in each and every one of us, and without the gifts we are given by the grace of God, not one of us would have a dime to our name, or breath to draw, or one minute of time on this earth. All that we are and all that we have is because of God, and it is only through him in Christ that we are made righteous.