Why Do We Keep Missing the Point?
(I’m wearing a hat.) Let’s talk about sex. And now that I have your attention, let’s change the subject. I know what some of you are thinking—he knows nothing. Or don’t I? But it makes no difference now, since that’s not what we’re talking about.
Friday was Valentine’s Day. In the church’s calendar, it was the feast of the monk St. Cyril and his brother, the bishop St. Methodius, missionaries to the Slavic people who both died in the late 9th century. But nobody ever talks about them. People don’t send flowers and chocolate, or take anyone on a romantic dinner-date because of them. We would much rather celebrate St. Valentinus, a priest in Rome at the time of Emperor Claudius II who was arrested for marrying Christian couples and assisting those who were being persecuted. When he tried to convert the emperor, he was sentenced to death, beaten with clubs, stoned, and beheaded, circa 269. He is the patron saint of bee keepers, engaged couples, happy marriages, lovers, travellers, young people, and those suffering from epilepsy, fainting, and the plague. You’re welcome. And with all the power outages and all this snow on the ground across the east coast, it won’t be any surprise what many people will be celebrating nine months down the road. Oh, and to paraphrase Britney Spears, I know things.
But more significantly making the news that day besides the forecast of 2-4 more inches of snow or the winter Olympics in Sochi, was the ruling handed down the previous evening by a federal judge in Norfolk striking down as unconstitutional the state prohibition on same-sex marriage. Now I’m not going to stick my neck in that mess. That’s for lawyers and judges and politicians to hash out. Instead, I want to talk to you about the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s not as exciting, I know. It’s like bringing up Sts. Cyril and Methodius when all everybody wants to talk about is LOVE.
My fellow Christians, the tide of public opinion is turning. And no amount of yelling and screaming and stomping and sign-carrying and arguing in court or on the sidewalk is going to turn it back. We can keep trying, but that is probably not the best use of our energy and resources. We have seen what has become of the abortion debate in the public discourse. Now the latest CDC report indicates the number of abortions in this country has dipped to an all-time low. And both sides are claiming victory, but we all know the bigger issue is what goes on in people’s minds and hearts long before they have to consider whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. And no amount of yelling and screaming and stomping and sign-carrying and arguing in court or on the sidewalk in front of abortion clinics is going to matter one bit. Maybe we try instead to figure out what we need to do differently.
The passage from Sirach compares the choice to live by God’s law with a choice between life and death. It’s that important. But the passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians tells us that it is the Holy Spirit’s job to reveal God’s wisdom. “It is not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age. Rather, it is God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden.” So between the law of God and the wisdom of God, there lies a vast expanse of unchartered territory. God’s law is clear, sometimes too clear. Some things are good, some things are bad. Do the good, avoid the bad. It’s as clear as black and white. And then there’s the gray. That’s where the wisdom of God can figure in. And since it is not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, but is mysterious and hidden, should we be surprised at all that so many do not know it?
Jesus tells us in the gospel, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees were familiar with the law of Moses. They lived and breathed it, day in, day out. If anyone would know what is and what is not permitted by the law of Moses, they would. And these were upright, decent people, these scribes and Pharisees. Jesus is telling us that knowing the law and doing what it requires is a good thing. But we can do even better still.
So when he brings up three rather significant examples of what you have heard it said, and what I say to you, he is telling us that there is something more important than knowing the law and doing what it requires. Don’t just NOT kill. Don’t be angry with your brother. Don’t call people names. Be reconciled. Don’t just NOT commit adultery. Don’t look at people with lust. Don’t just NOT take a false oath. Don’t swear at all. Say what you mean, and mean what you say—no swearing needed. Now there are other laws taught by the scribes and Pharisees, that today we would consider barbaric and unacceptable, like stoning to death those who commit adultery, putting stubborn and rebellious children to death, or victims of sexual assault for not putting up sufficient resistance, or those who commit blasphemy, or those who believe in another religion. So in this present day and age, when we encounter laws that are contrary to God’s law, it isn’t always as obvious to everyone as we might think. And yelling at them that it’s in the bible, so they should just pick up a copy and read it, will not convince them.
Instead I propose we put more effort in conveying the wisdom of God. Jesus taught his disciples that the greatest commandment is to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. I’m not saying we ignore the rest of the church’s moral teachings. I’m not saying we stop praying for an end to abortion, or that we stop marching on the Mall. I’m saying we should maybe work with greater passion and energy to convey to others that the protection of human life and respect for the dignity of every person is a most sacred responsibility, that the sacred union between husband and wife mirrors the sacred union between Christ and his church. We teach compassion to people who commit adultery, abortion, assault on innocent people, and even murder. They might never get out of prison, but we teach compassion to them anyway. We don’t stop people at our doors who are divorced and remarried outside the church. We don’t condemn our children and parents and friends who might be attracted to people of the same sex. We have to come up with a better way. I’m sure the scribes and Pharisees would be happy with Nike’s slogan, “Just do it.” But I prefer that line we often hear in cheesy infomercials, “Wait, there’s more!”
What’s more is deeper than simply knowing the law and doing what it requires. And if we truly know the God who gave us the law, we wouldn’t be happy to just do it either. So if you didn’t hear a word I said because you don’t think I should be wearing a hat in church, you probably think I also said to eat more bacon.
Rolo B Castillo © 2014