Sunday, October 07, 2012

Living Up to Jesus' Moral Absolutes!

Living Up to Jesus' Moral Absolutes

How is it possible to live up to Jesus's standards, especially after reading today's Gospel?

It is fascinating to note that those who follow the founder of our faith often use passages such as this as yet another opportunity to judge others and not as an opportunity to proclaim forgiveness.

The Pharisees were just trying to catch Jesus up in his own words, as was their custom. And instead of asking about Jesus’ teaching on marriage they asked him about his teaching on divorce.

The ensuing dialogue sets the stage for Jesus’ proclamation of one of the Bible’s clearest ethical absolutes; “If you promise to love someone, then, by God, keep that promise. If you don’t, there’s no way around it, you commit adultery!”

Many have been hurt by this kind of ethical absolutism, but there it is in black and white. My mother was turned away from the church in 1956 some years before the canon on marriage was changed to allow for remarriage in the Episcopal Church.

Still, if we know the biblical record, we can press a little deeper. When we come to a parallel passage in Matthew (Chapter 19), we see there that the Pharisees are still pressing Jesus on the issue of divorce. Again he proclaims his ethical absolute, but leaves a little bit of wiggle room and creates an exception in the case of unchastity. So here then you can divorce a woman in case she commits adultery. No mention of equal treatment for men, mind you! Matthew was written about 20-30 years later than Mark, so some editor may have felt it expedient to ascribe some flexibility to Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce. We even hear Jesus tread into the very dangerous territory of gay marriage. in this chapter. It is no wonder he ended up crucified!

But consider this; Jesus’ ethic on marriage seems to be absolute, except in two rather outstanding cases.

The first and all time winner in the exception department is the story of the woman caught in the very act of adultery. (John 8:1-8) Here the elders of the Temple haul this poor woman right up to Jesus and cite the Law of Moses in the manner of Pharisees and Biblical literalists.

“The Law requires that such a woman is to be stoned to death.” Correct! That’s what the Law says. In fact, whether it is Mosaic Law in Judaism, Sharia Law in Islam, or The Biblical Law for fundamentalist Christians, all the literalists insist on a letter of the law approach when it comes to judging somebody else’s ethical behavior!

But Jesus was not so fast to judge, you may remember. Jesus knew a set up when he saw one. Here they were, bringing the woman before Jesus who had been caught in the very act of adultery. So if they brought her up to him, why hadn’t they brought the man? After all the Mosaic Law requires both to be stoned to death.

Then Jesus did an interesting thing. He wrote something in the sand. We have no way of knowing what it was he wrote. But given the situation, I wonder if he had written the name of the fellow who had done the deed with her. God knows he was Jesus, God knows the secrets of all human hearts and obviously knows what we’ve been up to behind closed doors, so I suspect he knew who it was.

So then he said; “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” He continued to write in the sand, and one by one, beginning with the elders of the congregation, they went away.

Do you think that those who set up the whole scene may have been involved in that act of adultery? Given the nature of hypocrisy, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if any number of the Temple elders and authorities had been involved in the very activity.

The other exception involves the Samaritan woman at the well. (John 4) Jesus asks her to bring him a drink of water and then there follows a marvelous discourse on the “Living Water” that Jesus can provide to the sinner. It is the kind of water that wells up from within to bring abundant forgiveness and abundant love.

Then he asks her to bring her husband to meet him. And she allows as how she has no husband. To which Jesus replies that indeed she speaks the truth because she has had five husbands and the one she has now is not her husband. Immediately, she gets it. This fellow is a prophet because he knows all her secrets and still he offers her God’s forgiveness and God’s love.

When the disciples come back they are astonished to see that he is talking to such a woman as this. 

It is astonishing to meet Jesus in the Gospels. His ethical standards are absolute. But so is his compassion, his forgiveness, and his love; they too are all moral and ethical absolutes.

How wonderful is Jesus. 
How wonderful is God.
This is the Gospel. God’s absolutes!

On Thursday of this week we blessed the animals at the Villa. Seniors and children brought their cats, and dogs, and stuffed animals for a blessing. In honor of Blessed Francis of Assisi, he who taught us so much about the love of God's creation and God's animals. It made me think of the story of St. Francis and Brother Leo. After all, we are asking the question; "how it can be possible to live up to Jesus standards?"

Saint Francis and Brother Leo

One day Saint Francis and brother Leo were walking down the road. Noticing Leo was depressed, Francis turned and asked, “Leo, do you know what it means to be pure of heart?”

“Of course. It means to have no sins, faults or weaknesses to reproach myself for.”
“Ah,” said Francis, “now I understand why you're sad. We will always have something to reproach ourselves for.”
“Right,” said Leo. “That's why I despair of ever arriving at purity of heart.”
“Leo, listen carefully to me. Don't be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire Him. Rejoice that He is what He is—your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you've turned to Jesus, don't turn back and look at yourself. Don't wonder where you stand with Him.”
“The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself, on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise Him from sunrise to sundown.”
“Even when they feel broken, feeble, distracted, insecure and uncertain, they are able to release it into His peace. A heart like that is stripped and of self and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord.”
After a long pause, Leo said, “Still, Francis, the Lord demands our effort and fidelity.”
"No doubt about that,” replied Francis. “But holiness is not a personal achievement. It's an emptiness you discover in yourself. Instead of resenting it, you accept it and it becomes the free space where the Lord can create anew. To cry out, ‘You alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord,' that is what it means to be pure of heart. And it doesn't come by your Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions.”
“Then how?” asked Leo.
“Simply hoard nothing of yourself; sweep the house clean. Sweep out even the attic, even the nagging, painful consciousness of your past. Accept being shipwrecked. Renounce everything that is heavy, even the weight of your sins. See only the compassion, the infinite patience and the tender love of Christ. Jesus is Lord. That suffices. Your guilt and reproach disappear into the nothingness of non-attention. You are no longer aware of yourself, like the sparrow aloft and free in the azure sky. Even the desire for holiness is transformed into a pure and simple desire for Jesus.”
Leo listened gravely as he walked along beside Francis. Step by step he felt his heart grow lighter as a profound peace flooded his soul (Brennan Manning, pages 209-211).
And this my friends is how we live up to Jesus standards!
May your heart grow lighter and may God's profound peace fill your soul!
Fr. Paul

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