Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The New Torah

Tuesday, February 22, 2011 -- Week of 7 Epiphany, Year One
Eric Liddell, Missionary to China, 1945To read about our daily commemorations, go to our Holy Women, Holy Men blog:

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 948)
Psalms [120], 121, 122, 123 (morning)       124, 125, 126, [127] (evening)
Ruth 1:15-22
2 Corinthians 1:12-22
Matthew 5:13-20

After the opening Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, the next few sections taken together offer a reinterpretation of the Torah.  Jesus radicalizes the statues and commandments that were at the core of his people's religious understanding.  The Torah addresses outward acts and behavior.  Jesus addresses inward motivation and intention.

By traditional count, there are 613 commandments in the Torah.  During some portions of Jewish history, the prevailing theology taught that only a few people could realistically keep all of the commandments of the Torah.  These were those who had the leisure to study and practice Torah.  Most people's lives were too consumed with the challenges of survival or otherwise too distracted to follow the law, it was believed.  Therefore those few who were able to attempt to follow the law were known as the righteous.  Everyone else, including that vast population of peasants, were sinners. 

The party of the Pharisees was a reformist group that challenged the elitist notion that only a few had the leisure and discipline to follow the law.  The Pharisees were intent on teaching the Torah within the context of all lives, including peasants, so that the hope of following God's commandments was attainable for everyone.  They instructed all people, not just the religious elite, in practical terms about how to follow Torah. 

Much of the Torah discussion ended up being debates about the interpretation of the 613 laws.  How do I know that I am following Torah?  Where are the boundaries?  For instance, it is said to do no work on the sabbath.  If my only oxen falls and is trapped in a ditch on the sabbath, may I rescue it, or must I watch it suffer and die?  It is said, "Love your neighbor as yourself."  Who is my neighbor?  The one in my household?  Next door?  Across the valley?

Although much of the interpretation about Torah included commentary on loving or correct motivation, the primary focus was on actions and behaviors.  The hope was to create a clear set of moral obligations for living a proper and righteous life, observing the 613 laws and commandments.

Jesus radicalizes the law.  "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."  Jesus moves beyond behavior into the heart.  Jesus speaks to the issue of motivation.  It is not enough to refrain from murder; you must release anger from your heart.  It is not enough to refrain from adultery; you must release lust from your heart.  It is not enough to love your neighbor as yourself; you must love your enemies.  He closes the section, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." 

If this message is received as a performance based command, it is pretty demoralizing.  Nobody is perfect.  Yet Jesus' balances his new commandments about a transformed heart with a new and more freely available access to God's love and forgiveness.  Ritual practices and sacrifices are no longer necessary for one to be forgiven for breaking God's laws.  Forgiveness is freely available to all and immediate.  Jesus invites a childlike trust in a loving God.  Do not be anxious or afraid.  Do not judge yourself or others.  God loves you better than you can imagine, and God will give you what you need.  Rest your heart in God.  Relax and let love be your motivation.

It's not about performance -- following the right laws.  It is about knowing yourself to be loved, and letting that love so capture your heart that you can love freely.  So if your beloved ox falls in the ditch on a sabbath, pull it out.  Or if you can do something good and lifesaving for another human being on the sabbath, be free to do it.  And who is my neighbor?  He tells the story of the Good Samaritan, who cares for one who is needy and from another tribe entirely.

It is all about love.  Within personal relationships, Jesus teaches love exercised as empathy and compassion.  Within the culture or society, it is love exercised as justice.  Everyone is included.  None are judged.  All are forgiven.  Everyone is fed and healed.  Radical stuff.



Audio podcast:  Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week.  Click the following link:
Morning Reflection Podcasts

About Morning Reflections
"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at missionstclare.com -- Click for online Daily Office
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site www.ExploreFaith.org at this location -- http://explorefaith.org/prayer/fixed/index.html --  Click for Divine Hours

Discussion Blog:  To comment on today's reflection or readings, go to http://lowellsblog.blogspot.com, or click here for Lowell's blog find today's reading, click "comment" at the bottom of the reading, and post your thoughts.

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

See our Web site at www.stpaulsfay.org

Our Rule of Life: 
We aspire to...
    worship weekly
    pray daily
    learn constantly
    serve joyfully 
    live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


At 8:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If this message is received as a performance based command, it is pretty demoralizing. Nobody is perfect."
Wow, what a total lack of understanding you show. Or are you spinning a yarn to tickle someones ear?
This is so far from demoralizing, it is liberating Lowell. And why? because someone was indeed perfect. The God Man was perfect. And thank you Jesus for your substitutionary death onthe cross, that you Lord Jesus for your passion and your sacrifice.

At 8:23 AM, Blogger Lowell said...

Actually, I've had people visit with me who were demoralized because they read the words from Jesus as a commandment to them, "Be perfect." Their response, "I can't be perfect. No one can." If someone reads these words from Jesus as a "performance based command", it does sound demoralizing.

You are right. Our liberation comes from accepting a perfect relationship with God as a gift through Jesus. To some, that's not obvious when they read him tell them "be perfect."

At 8:47 AM, Blogger Lowell said...

My wife helps lead the coalition that passed the first ban of smoking in public places and they are seeking to extend that to bars. Passive smoke is dangerous, and your freedom to poison your own lungs ends at mine.

I favor free access to condoms to prevent disease and unplanned pregnancy among those who practice irresponsible sex.

I favor helmet laws and teaching parents to require their kids to wear headgear and protective pads when they ride.

I enjoy how much my son enjoyed skating and now enjoys surfing, though it is too risky for me.

We live together on this planet, and we can work together to choose as wisely as possible for the good of all. There is an eternal debate about where the exercise of my freedom may invade your space. That's a good conversation to continue.


At 8:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If your theory is that I have to wear a seatbelt because it costs you and others money, then you have to have the same standard Lowell.
Free access to condoms? So who pays for these? Nothing is free past the access. You have such a double standard I can barely stand it. My not wearing a seatbelt one day cost the world nothing, not a thin dime. Kids having rampant sex costs . . . unimaginable. And yet who gets fined?
Helmets don't save me money from a broken wrist, do you favor a body cast too? And a shark suit when surfing?
We live together on this planet, and your worldview encroaches on my freedom and encourages the ones that actually cost us all. There is eternal debate? Really, you said I have to act responsibly, where is the debate in that? The cop gave me a ticket, where is the debate? You only want to debate the issues that suit you.
And God forbid you actually admit your double standard.


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