Contradiction

Lent 3 – 2013

Luke 13:31-35 (Isaiah 55:1-9, 1 Cor 10:1-13)

Marian Free

In the name of God who turns our expectations upside down, who challenges and comforts us and who never, ever withdraws God’s love. Amen.

When you read the Bible, what are the passages that stand out for you? Are you more alert for the voice of judgement or the voice of love? Do you look out for the rules that you must not break and the specific directions that you must follow, or do you instead seek out the promises of growth and new creation? From start to finish, the Bible is full of contradiction.  In it we find both censure and approval, judgement and forgiveness, punishment and redemption, restraint and extravagance.

The Old Testament prophets threaten the Israelites with all kinds of penalties if they refuse to return to God then, almost without taking breath, they assure the people that God will never abandon them. Side by side in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea and elsewhere we have evidence of God’s frustration and confirmation of God’s faithfulness. The Gospels express similar contradictions. Calls to repent are balanced by stories of the lost being restored. Jesus’ attacks on the righteous throw into relief Jesus’ acceptance of those outside the law.

This morning’s readings are a case in point. The generosity and free-spirited invitation of Isaiah 55 stands in stark contrast with the harsh, judgmental and condemnatory sentiments of 1 Corinthians 10.

How are we to make sense of the paradox – judgement and repeal, condemnation and forgiveness, law and freedom? It is my belief that both sides of the coin are necessary to sustain healthy individuals, healthy societies and healthy religions. Freedom is essential for creative energy to thrive, for people to love and be loved, for compassion and generosity. None of these things can be forced or legislated. On the other hand, lawlessness leads to disintegration, violence and repression. Without some sort of law no one can achieve their full potential.

There needs to be some sort of balance between law and freedom.  It is not healthy to be completely unrestrained, but neither is it good to be so restrained that we forget how to live. If we fence ourselves in with rules, we reduce our ability to be spontaneous and carefree. Somewhere in the middle is an equilibrium, an ability to self-regulate, to use the rules and the threats of judgement to control our baser instincts and to trust in God’s goodness and mercy to liberate our finer, more selfless characteristics.

Interestingly, in the Bible, it is not disobedience or even the breaking of the Ten Commandments which is the source of God’s anger and the pre-condition for punishment. What causes the prophets to proclaim God’s judgement and Jesus to condemn the people of Israel is a breakdown in the relationship between the people and God.

God doesn’t expect perfection. That much is clear in God’s choice of Jacob the deceiver, God’s selection of Moses the murderer and God’s continued love for David the adulterer. That God is not looking for flawless followers is demonstrated by Jesus’ choice of disciples, Jesus’ readiness to forgive and Jesus’ easy acceptance of tax collectors and sinners.

It appears that the primary safeguard against condemnation is not so much to be law-abiding (though that is good), but to accept God’s invitation to be in relationship, to trust God’s offer of a covenant, to believe in God’s faithfulness to God’s promises.

Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, not because its citizens have failed to keep the law _ if nothing else, the Pharisees were assiduous keepers of the law.  Jesus weeps because the people of Jerusalem, the leaders of the Jews, have demonstrated their inability to put their trust in God. The Pharisees, Chief Priests and Scribes have put all their trust in the law and their ability to keep the law. They are so sure that they can achieve perfection by their own effort that they have effectively locked God out of their lives. They have so little confidence in God’s love and faithfulness that they are using the law to paper over their imperfections. They are so afraid that scrutiny will find them wanting that they kill the prophets who hold a mirror to them and to their lives. They cannot have a real relationship with God because they cannot have a real relationship with themselves.

No wonder Jesus weeps, he understands that the Jerusalemites are so sure that God cannot love them as they are, that they not only try to become what they are not, but worse, they shrink from God, they refuse God’s invitation and will not be drawn into God’s loving embrace.

How different they are from Zacchaeus who has the courage to respond to Jesus’ invitation and who finds that his life is transformed as a result. How different from the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, who could take such a risk because instinctively she knew that she was loved and accepted. “Law-breakers” and outsiders who already knew and accepted their imperfections welcomed Jesus’ love and invitation, entered into a relationship and allowed themselves to be gathered under his wings.

Law and freedom together create a necessary life-giving tension in our relationship with God. An over-reliance on law can have the effect of locking God out of our lives whereas an over-emphasis on freedom can lead us to believe that we don’t need God. It is important to relish our freedom, but to understand its bounds, to trust in God’s unconditional love, but not to use that love as an excuse to be unloveable, to recognise that law has its place, but not to use it as a replacement for relationship.

God invites us into a relationship that is based on mutual trust and respect. God offers us an unconditional love that sets us free to be ourselves. To say “yes” to God, is to say “yes” to ourselves and to know ourselves welcome in the shadow of God’s wings.

 

 

 

 

 

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