Saturday, January 11, 2014

Moral Camels

©Fotofolia royalty free imageIt seems to me that Christians are their worst enemies when it comes to alienating those who do not share their faith. I am aware that Christians are persecuted for their faith throughout the world more than any other faith but we should distinguish between raw persecution, reasoned dislike and difference of opinion. Setting aside the principle that any discussion on religion is bound to spark passionate debate and raise the usual suspects, its the moral dimension that I want to address.

We should distinguish between morals and moralising. Society requires moral fabric, accepting that stealing, murder, rape, fraud etc. are not acceptable. But inevitably we each become arbiters of what is morally acceptable and judge others by our moral code which, for each of us, is different in degree if not in content. Stealing is a crime but the principle is that you do not acquire the property of another without their permission or by some sort of legitimate contract. But its a rare person who can say they have never stolen anything. Some could be said to be thieves in that it's their chief means of income but generally labelling others as thieves while absolving ourselves could be said to be moralising. Its slightly dishonest to claim that prisons are full of thieves and murderers. They are actually the ones that got caught.

We Christians often delude ourselves that we are not moralisers. We claim that Jesus is our righteousness but when we are ever confessing in order to cleanse ourselves of the moral filth of society and our own actions are we not obsessive compulsive, desperate to be good Christians. If we can't claim to be better than anyone else at least we can claim diplomatic immunity. Admitting you are a sinner doesn't automatically make you a better one. I believe one of the greatest problems the Church has is its obsession with law. It's understandable because law is the backbone of the Old Testament but there are enough clues in the New Testament to show that our obsession should be with grace – undeserved favour. However, we do need to understand the relationship between Law and Grace to fully understand what grace means.

“Old Testament” means old covenant (or agreement) and in order for a new agreement (New Testament) to be put in place the old must be revoked. Despite the Gospels being in the New Testament Jesus lived under the Old Covenant. Everything he did and said has to be understood in terms of that covenant which was based on law, a set of rules established hundreds of years previously. We should understand that this law was not primarily a moral code; it was a legal system undergirding a theocratic state. We can think it barbaric (in some respects) now but it was a law for its time in which God was king, when the nation was at war and its very existence was under threat. But as in all laws it was morally based, the Ten Commandments being its constitution.

We know we are loved because God is willing to forgive us; we don't need to prove it by meeting a set of guidelines.

Interestingly when Jesus referred to the law he was speaking about personal conduct and referred his hearers to natural law (common sense) in translating the moral code for themselves. Even in the Old Testament when you read the Prophets you hear God arguing for common sense against blind adherence to law. “Why do you fast and fight among yourselves? … The true fast is to free the oppressed and release those in bondage.” He called their sacrifices a stench in his nostrils. Jesus commended the Pharisees for tithing but could not overlook their cruel treatment of widows and orphans and their obsessive moralising. My favourite passage in the Gospels is the story of the woman caught in adultery. Ironically this story was dismissed by the early church because they thought Jesus should have condemned her. Jesus was pretty insistent that mercy should always trump judgement but it wasn't until after his death and resurrection that we could fully understand the relationship between law and grace and it was down to the Apostle Paul to explain it.

You cannot be expected to know what God requires unless its spelled out and you cannot know if you fall short if there is no measure. Jesus was clear that God's minimum was 100% but also recognised that no one could attain that. But instead of berating us as losers he pointed to himself as the one who could get us to that standard. The one proviso was that we give up all our efforts and rely on him. Jesus lived under the old covenant because it was his mission to meet the covenant's demands 100% for us. Then, having met the standard, he took the whole Law with him to the grave effectively dissolving it and making way for a new covenant, the covenant of grace. In his resurrection he instituted a new covenant but instead of discrediting the old he based the new on the essence of the original – to love God and love your neighbour. The greatest mystery of the New Testament is the giving of the Holy Spirit who helps us to live a good life by changing our hearts, not demanding we follow a set of rules. We know we are loved because God is willing to forgive us; we don't need to prove it by meeting a set of guidelines. Of course, if your heart is for God you will lead a moral life (more or less) but only because you are motivated to do that, not compelled or threatened.

The Christian has access to the Law only through Jesus Christ who met its every requirement. We are children of grace and, as such, should extend that grace to those who have none. Also, we are not to judge because we have already been forgiven. This doesn't give us license to abandon a moral code. We are not free from the constraints of moral decisions, only free from the condemnation that moralisers bring upon themselves. If you live by the Law, as Paul said, you will be condemned by the Law. You can't have it both ways. Maybe you would like the income of a surgeon but without the skills you would fail. No one is qualified to live a morally perfect life so why pretend just so that you can be better than your neighbour or command respect.

gatekeepers to a kingdom they could not enter

Unfortunately its only moralising and judgemental preaching that hits the headlines and their excuse is usually that they are only telling us what the Bible says, claiming no prejudice or self-righteous judgement. Anyone who challenges this is classed as a liberal who doesn't fully trust God's word. More often than not the source texts are taken from the books of Moses (The Law) or Paul's letters referring to church discipline. These are applied to behaviour they don't approve of. In contrast we hear Paul talking about God's love and how there is no condemnation and Jesus telling us we will never be plucked out of God's hands, when referring to those they approve of. They fail to see that Jesus condemnation is directed chiefly at moralisers and law keepers, that Paul's harshest condemnation is directed at those who insist on living according to the laws of Moses. The book of Romans is almost entirely devoted to understanding grace as is the letter to the Galatians.

Jesus said it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to enter the eye of a needle. In other words: impossible. But I think it's safe to say that Jesus was referring to more than financial wealth. I believe he was saying that a man defined by his wealth is not a candidate but neither is anyone defined by their morality. Lets look at the parable of the narrow and wide gates. Jesus said that the way to heaven was narrow and few found it. In contrast the wide gate was very popular. Combining this with the previous parable we might see the narrow gate as impossibly thin rather than the common conception of it being single or double file. The wide gate might then be whatever width or shape we like to imagine it. The parable only requires that it be easy to navigate.

Taking this one step further let's say there are many gates only one of which is impossible. We have 3 types of people: those seeking only self gratification; those seeking justification and those seeking truth. This first group go for the wide gate (no pain) and the third group stand at the impossible gate, instinctively knowing that there is a way through even if it's not obvious. The second group, seeking to justify themselves, find a gate that only they can get through and demand that others conform to their profile. Jesus told the Pharisees that they were gatekeepers to a kingdom they could not enter, keeping out the rightful subjects yet seeking out (proselytising) others making them more sons of hell than themselves.

“Many will say to me on that day,'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”

Matthew 7:22-23.