Many of you remember Judge Roy Moore’s Ten Commandment monument that he placed in the rotunda of the Alabama Justice building in July of 2001. Prior to his term as an Alabama Supreme Court Justice, Moore had served as a circuit court judge where he displayed a wooden plaque with the Ten Commandments behind his bench. Both the plaque and the monument came under political fire to which Moore responded both times that they were intended to “establish the moral foundation of our law.”
For Roy Moore and many Christians, the Bible is a rulebook—it tells us how to live—one need only read and study it to know what one is supposed to do or how to behave. We read, “Honor thy father and thy mother” or “Thou shall not kill” and we can see the value in living a life grounded in these rules. We hear Jesus say, “Love your enemies…pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also…lend, expecting nothing in return. Be kind to the ungrateful…Do not judge…do not condemn…Forgive. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” And we think this is a good template for life.
Understanding the Bible in this way is not an inherently bad thing, at least not on the surface. Reading Scripture as ethical guidelines or a moral foundation may well help us make better decisions, treat one another in more positive ways, and make the world a better place. Many of us may well read Jesus’s list this morning and think, “Wow! I’m doing a pretty good job.” Others may hear this list and think, “Uh oh!” Either way, reading Scripture as ethical determinations of self-giving behavior can help us determine how to live good lives. Of course, Buddhist, humanists, even atheists are capable of living good lives in this way. The problem with following the Bible as a rulebook for living is not that we won’t be good people, but what might differentiate us from all the other good people in the world who don’t call themselves Christians?
When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, lend without expectation of return, be merciful, he is not telling us how to be good people, he is describing kingdom living. These are not the rules required to live in the kingdom but the way transformed Christians live. Christians live in the way that models God to the world. And even more than modeling God, Christians are called to embody the virtues that God embodies. Jesus’s incarnation teaches us a lot about what those virtues are. God humiliates himself to the point of becoming fully human—a baby born in the most meager circumstances who lives to be a man who dies on a cross, powerless to empire, to wealth, to man. This is the God we worship—the one in which honor and the upholding of virtue must be surrendered; the God who does not defend himself or his actions; the God who releases his advantage over others and does not insist that he be treated the way he deserves; the God who upends the social and political order of the day in favor of humility, forgiveness, and mercy; the God who is committed not to himself, but to the other.
In Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, the book opens by introducing us to Monseigneur Bienvenu, a bishop, who upon being installed in his new See, immediately exchanges the luxury and spaciousness of his bishop’s palace with that of the “low, narrow, one story” building of the hospital. The bishop’s life was one of simplicity and goodness. He received donations and gave alms to the poor and filled up each day of his life in prayer and friendship, frugality, self-sacrifice, confidence, study, and work. So, it is not surprising that when a recently released convict, Jean Valjean, wanders into town the bishop offers him food and a place to rest for the night. What is surprising is the amount of dignity and honor that the bishop treats his guest. Jean Valjean is described as a sullen man with a mean expression in his eyes and a hardened face. Though the crime that landed him in prison is paltry, his hate for humanity and the world have grown such that he is now considered a dangerous man. Yet, the bishop is not only hospitable in his treatment of the man, he is respectful and offers him dignity and honor—setting the table as he would for his most distinguished guests with silver plates and silver candlesticks—not to display his wealth for it is evident the bishop lives a humble lifestyle—and readying the guest room with fresh white linens.
The next morning, when the bishop’s housekeeper tells him that Jean Valjean has stolen the silver he remarks that the silver is for the poor and obviously this man was poor. Valjean does not get far before being picked up by the authorities—not because the bishop has reported the crime, he has not, but because he looked suspicious in his running away. The authorities bring Valjean to the bishop’s home, where much to Valjean’s surprise, the bishop greets him with delight, tells the authorities he had given him the silver plates, and gives Valjean the candlesticks as well. The bishop’s parting words to him are, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”
Monseigneur Bienvenu is not simply a man of God; he is a transformed Christian living in the kingdom of God even as he is on earth. His actions and beliefs betray his commitment to the other, his surrender of his honor and possession in the defense of an opportunity for good, for righteousness to enter into the world. The bishop understands all that is his to be of Christ and to be given in the service of Christ’s transformative work in the world—that includes not only the bishop’s possessions and home but also his entire being. Instead of demanding to be treated with the privilege and respect his office entitles him too, he gives away that privilege and honor in defense and support of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed. It doesn’t matter what Jean Valjean does in response to the bishop’s generosity of spirit; it only matters that there are those who live in such a way that God’s promised future of mercy and love breaks into the here and now.
When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, to pray for those who abuse us, he is not offering us a moral foundation or the framework for living an ethical life; he is upending the social and political order that rules us. He is setting the stakes pretty high and the stakes will be his own life. Jesus is not killed because he is a guy reminding us to be nice to one another—he is killed because he is messing with the norms of society and that is threatening. People will always resist living a life that goes against the norms of behavior and they will prove resistant to those who advocate for such a life. But that is exactly what Jesus does—he advocates for a life that resists the need to be right in favor of the need for righteousness; he demonstrates humility when he is entitled to respect and pride; instead of defending himself, he offers himself as a sacrifice.
As we prepare ourselves to enter into the season of Lent, instead of examining our lives as to the do’s and don’ts that we might take on or give up, examine our lives as to whether or not the kingdom of God shines through us. The church will lose if it thinks its mission is to simply be the ethical voice to the world. The church is to point to the Gospel and declare that this God—the one who loves enemies, offers the other cheek, gives to everyone, and when someone takes his goods does not ask for them again—this God is the God of the universe. And it is this God that we as Jesus followers, as those who walk the way of love, emulate—embodying God’s own character—if the kingdom of God is to be visible in this world.
Epiphany 7C: Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42; I Corinthians15:35-38,42-50; Luke 6:27-38
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, February 22, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer