Sunday, October 2, 2011

Laying Down the Law

Readings: 16th Sunday after Pentecost

As Christ's Resurrection is the defining event of the New Testament, so God's Theophany at Sinai is the defining event of the Old Testament. Our first reading takes us to the third day, when God speaks to all Israel assembled in fear and trembling at the foot of the mountain. God begins with the aseret hadevarim, Hebrew for the "ten words." We call them the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments.

Truly, this was the beginning of God's Covenant with the Hebrews, also known as the people of Israel, or today, the Jews — from Judea (the land of Judah), the name of their longest surviving kingdom. From this day forward, the Jews agreed to keep God's commandments, and God promised to keep them as a distinctive people, a priestly people, in that they were to be the people who lived according to God's commandments.

It was also only the beginning. In the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) God gives a total of 613 mitzvoth, or commandments, and the Jews would be bound to uphold them all. During the period in which the Hebrew Bible was revealed, keeping the commandments proved difficult. The archaeological record indicates that many Jews kept figurines of gods belonging to religions other than their own until the Babylonian Exile. After that, they appear to have become strict monotheists.

Then the Romans occupied the Judea and re-named it Palestine, in order to break the identification of the Jews (Judeans) with their land. Not only did keeping the commandments become more difficult — after the destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent Roman Exile, it became impossible to keep them literally. For the next several hundred years, Jewish scholars debated how to re-interpret the commandments under such circumstances, and wrote their opinions in the Talmud.

Thus, with some modifications, Jews are still liable for all 613 commandments. If you are Christian, then so are you. Jesus quoted the Hebrew Bible, and taught its commandments. To reject them is to reject Him.

I know the usual claptrap that passes for Christian Biblical interpretation claims that, because Jesus has "fulfilled" the commandments, you are excused from your obligation to obey most of them. But you are not excused. You are forgiven.

The difference is that to be excused means to be given a free pass. God gives a nod and a wink, and you are free to direct your attention elsewhere. Being forgiven means that you are the beneficiary of the Forgiveness that was planted in this world by Christ's blood and agony on the Cross. The commandments still stand, and you are still convicted when you neglect or disobey them, particularly those first Ten. But, thank God, you are forgiven.

And yet, our Psalm tells us that keeping the commandments is sweet. It is a form of worship to perform the daily and weekly rituals of Jewish life, and to study the Torah. The various actions and restraints, large and small, create a heightened awareness of the sacred in everyday experience, and thus a heightened spiritual consciousness. It is both a joy, and as both our readings from Isaiah and Psalm 80 remind us, a serious obligation.

How serious? There were a number of competing varieties of Judaism during Jesus' earthly lifetime. Of them, only two survived the Roman occupation: one became the Judaism we know today, and the other became Christianity. After nearly 2000 years of exile and near-extermination, the former has returned to the land of its origin, while the latter has conquered the occupiers so completely that their Latin is maintained as a living language only in rituals of the Catholic Church. These two vines have survived.

It remains the Covenant obligation of Jews to uphold the commandments, to study Torah and Talmud. It remains the New Covenant obligation of Christians to go beyond the commandments. At first glance, we Christians seem to have the easier path — fewer details to learn, fewer rituals to remember. Until we remember that Jesus said (Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23), "Whoever will come after me, let him take up his cross, and follow me."

We console ourselves that our righteousness is not earned by obeying the commandments (aka the Law), because in truth, we cannot obey them perfectly. Instead, we claim a righteousness that has been given to us by God through Christ himself. All He asks is that we follow, wherever He may lead, through whatever hardship, even through death. And to go joyfully, passionately, straining forward toward the goal, as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Phillipians.

Leia Mais…