February 12, 2017 – Rules, So Many Rules

6th Sunday of Epiphany   February 12, 2017  (Psalm 119:1-8, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, I Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-26, 33-37)

Rules, So Many Rules – by Susan Goux

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Pastor Tim gave me the option of using the lectionary for this week or choosing a theme of my own.  I have to admit it was a temptation.  To choose any topic and have rapt listeners for 15 minutes or so — listening to anything I want to say was a real temptation, but since we have been studying Matthew, I thought I would try to continue the lessons.  I’m not a Biblical scholar so what I’m going to talk about today is what I thought about as I read and considered these readings and some others further along in Matthew — and what it means to me.  I can’t “teach” you or tell you what you should think about when you read these passages.  Let me remind you what Jesus said in Matthew chapter 5:  “It is written:  ‘You shall not murder;’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable for judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council.  When I read what Jesus said, my first reaction was that he is overreacting.  Murder is a long way from getting angry or saying a few words that are disrespectful.  We’ve all been angry with someone without wanting to murder them.  That’s what siblings do, isn’t it?  I could never be capable of murdering someone, could I?  Then again, anger is a powerful emotion.  Being angry, being goaded could cause someone to lash out.  And lashing out, could cause consequences that could lead to murder in extreme situations or by someone who was arrogant enough to have to be right.  Jesus is counseling reconciliation rather than adversarial behavior.  Back in the early 80’s there was book called “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William Ury.  It was very popular for business and other negotiations, including arbitrations or legal actions.  Fisher and Ury explain in the book that a good agreement is one which is wise and efficient, and which improves the parties’ relationship. Wise agreements satisfy the parties’ interests and are fair and lasting. The authors’ goal is to develop a method for reaching good agreements.  I wonder what Jesus would have thought of this method of discussion.  Is this what he meant when he said:  “first be reconciled with your brother or sister…” One of Fisher and Ury’s important principles is to separate the individual from the issue, trying to look at each side objectively.  If done properly and in good faith, it takes the personal anger out of the equation.  But it doesn’t require either side to give up on their basic principles.  Getting to Yes does not require an unsatisfying compromise or giving up on the things that are most important to you.  It does require listening to each other and caring enough to want to honor each other.  Jesus is telling us to take action, not to be wishy-washy, to stand on our principles and say yes to God’s teachings and no to what is against what God has taught us.  He isn’t telling us to stand and fight to the death but to find a way to agree to do what God has commanded.

This led me to think about how to do the right thing.  Sometimes when applying laws to various situations, things can seem to be at cross-purposes.  We say, full of moral indignation, that God said to do it this way so given this set of circumstances, we are right and you are wrong.  It doesn’t matter if someone is hurt because we are right – those other people can just go away because God will deal with them.  I would argue that while God will have His judgment, He wants us to do our part in making the world a better place and not wait for the judgment.  He wants us to find the way to do His work in the world and bring others to that same understanding.  This requires great skill on our part.  It requires us to get to “Yes.”

Did you know that according to Biblical scholars there are 613 rules or laws in the Bible?  I knew of the 10 commandments but not being a Biblical Scholar I hadn’t really thought that there could be 613.  This idea gave me real pause and got me to thinking.  When God tells us to follow his laws, did He really mean all 613?  I read through the list of the 613.  It almost seemed like a trap – no one could ever follow that many laws and not get into trouble.  These were the rules or laws that were the guideposts for every day behavior in Jesus’s time.  Why did God give us so many rules to follow?  We’re told He set these rules because He wanted his people to avoid mistakes, which can lead to sorrow, pain, misunderstanding, and even societal chaos.  While some of the statements of the rules seem strident or mean, the actual rules are meant to help us.  They are meant to guide us and protect us.

If we are to follow the rules, then we must learn the rules.  613???  Seriously?  So many rules, which rules to follow, can we follow them all and what if we forget one?  What are the consequences?  Are they even relevant in today’s world?  Can I follow the rules and laws of God and the rules and laws of today’s society?

Let me share a quick story of something that happened to me.  When I was a very young, first time mother I had had no training in caring for and raising a child.  I read every book that came out about childcare.  Dr. Spock ‘s book was an early one but when I had Carrie, our daughter, there seemed to be an explosion of new books coming out weekly.  Every author made the rounds of the morning TV and other parents would start talking about what that person said.  Every book seemed to have a set of rules and logical advice.  I would read one and think – I must remember to do it that way — then the next week I would read another one and think I would do it that way adding in a few things from the first book, and so on.  My head was spinning.  I was too full of “do it this way” and “do it that way.”  I was sure I would fail, be a bad parent and ruin my child for life.  Luckily I came to my senses before Carrie was 6 months old!  One day I just threw the books away and said to myself, I have read what was said and appreciate the advice.  While the words in each book spoke a little differently it seemed that there was a basic truth that ran through them all.  I was getting sidetracked by the details and missing the basic principles.  It was a little like not being able to see the forest for the trees.  I decided that what I needed to do was to love her with all my heart and to care for her (and her brothers to come) by trusting in that love and teaching her to be kind and caring.  Each child is so different but the principle is the same.  If I needed further guidance I would search my soul and when I felt calm and centered, I knew it was the right thing to do no matter what others told me.  I always thought, and still do, that this calm was God guiding me.  The 60’s and 70’s were turbulent times with many new ideas – some were great and some were terrible.  God helped me sort them out.

I believe that the rules and laws of God can also be confusing and feel contradictory at times.  Some of the ways they are expressed are so negative that one can feel frightened rather than feel God’s love.  613 – many are the same but just said in a slightly different way.  Religious leaders have tried to interpret and explain them for centuries.  Political leaders have used them for to explain their actions and to get people to take sides and follow them.

I’m not suggesting that we throw away all the laws but I do think that if we follow a couple basic principles that Jesus, understanding our confusion, taught us all the laws of God will be followed naturally.  We won’t need to worry about 613 individual illustrations.  Jesus teaches us later in Matthew to “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.  This is the most important, the first on any list.  But there is a second to set alongside it:  Love others as well as you love yourself.  These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”  I believe that when you do this you can actually feel God’s love filling you up and warming your soul.  Paul said in Romans 13:8  “When you love others, you complete what the law has been after all along.”  If we think of every action that we take with a heart that is simple and pure using the guidance of loving God with all our passion, prayer and intelligence, and loving others as we love ourselves, we will follow God’s laws.  And if we ever feel that little bit of guilty conscience about some action we have taken, we will know that that guilt we feel is God speaking to us in our hearts and reminding us that we need to self correct and look to him for guidance.  God loves us, He wants us to do his will on earth, in our families, and in our communities.

Some people might consider what I’m saying to be too simplistic.  I would argue that God’s laws and rules don’t need to be complex and difficult to follow.  By making them complex we confuse the issue and people feel OK with just giving up and doing what they want.  I’m not suggesting it is easy to be pure of heart and focused on God’s will.  I’m just saying we should keep working at it every day of our lives.  Some days it will be easier than others but the days when it happens, the joy is amazing.

We cannot be afraid to work at following His laws and commandments in our world.  We must lead by example showing the world that we are following the most basic laws of God in our thoughts, words and deeds.  Every person on Earth is God’s child, every person on Earth is made in the image of God.  We cannot ignore God’s laws and rules, picking out the ones we want to follow and leaving others to the side for now because it is hard or scary to do so.  If we do ignore them, we are not following the basic principle to love God with all our being and to love others as we love ourselves.  We must profess our faith with our lives as well as with our lips.  God is expecting this of us; we cannot let Him down.

Thanks be to God,

Amen