Legalism is too Easy

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” St. Matthew positions these words from Jesus after he gives the eight (some say nine) beatitudes. They are also positioned before discussions about matters of the law are given. Sometimes the law is misquoted with a corrective. Other times the quotes are direct with a rebuttal from Jesus. “You have heard it was said…but I say to you.” We should ask why Matthew ordered these sayings as he did.

Whenever a law is made it becomes a shelter for those whose natures are twisted against doing good. I do not mean to say that laws are naturally evil. Many good, wholesome, and rational laws are made. For the majority these laws give direction and preserve peace. Still there are people of a perverse mindset will often twist these laws to unjust ends. Most of the drama of action movies are based on such twists.  The situations do happen in real life too. Just consider how the good law designed to oppose human trafficking in children has resulted in “coyotes” bringing more children into the United States illegally.

Jesus. knowing the frustration of bad people using good laws for bad ends (not to mention bad laws for worse ends), decides to do away with the concept of law for the goal of human perfection. Take for instance a law that was easily misused to promote vengeance “eye for an eye” was actually intended to restrain vengeance seeking. Jesus takes that law into another level of response meant to embarrass rather than physically harm someone who does evil. “If anyone will take your coat give him your shirt as well.”

Legalism (insisting upon and relying on laws or regulations) is too easy because it can hide a multitude of sins. Jesus declares our sense of right judgment must exceed the technicalities of the ones who know  the law (who would allow their aging parents to go hungry with such acrobatic sophistry) into the sense of being or leaning toward the perfection in love that is possessed by God. This is the sense of beatitude (blessed happiness) shared by the meek, the humble, the pure in heart, and the poor in spirit. Followers of Jesus are honor bound to demonstrate love in the best ways they can for those who need love shown to them. “Pure religion, uncorrupted before God is to care for the orphans and widows while they are afflicted and to keep yourself uncorrupted by the world.” James offers these words of wisdom so that his fellow disciples of Jesus will not find themselves in situations where they have the happy problem of weighing good to do as opposed to determining good from bad.

When we have let go of the idea that knowledge of the law equals salvation, we can be freed from the law’s darker aspects. The Hebrew Bible and some of the New Testament would justify religious wars and “honor” killings. Jesus’ own approach to perfection in love releases us from being bound by such things that we would know to be wrong in our consciences.

Freedom has never been easy. It is a value Jesus and Paul attach to the sense of love that  allows for us to “go on to perfection.” As spiritually free persons who walk the path of grace and mercy we have chosen to let go of options toward violence that can enslave us and other people. To be free means we must live a morally courageous life that helps us meet evil with love and goodness. One of the most impressive actions taken by citizens or subjects of “Christian” states is that most are willing to give aid to a wounded enemy during armed conflicts. Just as many Christians in the United States are willing to offer  aid to illegal immigrants in the way of food or care until they are returned to their home states. To refuse help to the weak by hiding behind a law is moral cowardice and leads to cruel actions. The actions of such “believers” make their faith demonic – the very opposite of what Jesus did and taught.

The truly spiritual follower of Jesus knows actions of loving-kindness must be taken for the sake of the person in need, the way of salvation, and the person needing to take the action. “Find and take the narrow path for the road toward destruction is wide and easy and too many people find and follow it.”

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Spewing Scripture

I have noticed over the years that one of the worst temptations Christians fall into is the one that calls for over-matching your opponent with a number of verses from the scriptures. It h as often been noted that Arius – the great heretic who claimed the eternal Word was a created being – had more verses of scripture in his arsenal than any who later were recognized as orthodox. Someone once said to me that no doctrine could be established on only one verse of the Bible. The same applies to any untrue doctrine if we had a thousand texts at our disposal. Nor does it bolster any doctrine to deliberately mistranslate a word or passage to make it conform to doctrine. Many modern versions have done this with Isaiah 7:14 to make it conform to St. Matthews quote from a Greek translation of the text.

When we decide to prove a point by a few scripture quotes we end up in the endless debates the Scribes had with the Sadducees. One side or the other could spew out a bunch of texts to support a view of soul annihilation at death while the other could claim resurrection from the dead and immortality. Such an eternal debate could continue if both sides are arguing in good faith. But, what if one side or the other is trying to support an agenda that is an attempt to seek spiritual power over another? Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” and Philip Jenkins’ “The Jesus Wars” both demonstrate a lack of good faith for some would be Christian leaders in the past. You cannot win a spewing contest with a buzzard.

Christians can either wrangle over doctrines and base all arguments over historicity, orthodoxy, or even ideas such as “Scriptural Authority” or Christians can decide what is right and wrong based on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. I believe and teach we should remember the instructions of St. Paul to the Corinthians that love is the greatest of these virtues and work our lives accordingly. We will not always get it right. We will not always find the answers we want. But, we can stop arguing and get to work on what should be done. Christians should be known for our love for each other and our neighbors. We should oppose evil actions especially those done in the name of Christianity. We should recognize that we will be called evil by those who cannot see goodness.

Whatever may happen to us, we should live to love.