3 Lent B 2012
Exodus 20: 1-17; Ps 19; 1 Cor 1: 18-25; John 2: 13-22
It is said that, at some Buddhist temples, a new candidate is presented with the document containing the Rule of the temple. “Here are the temple rules” says the abbot. “Know when to keep them, and know when to break them.”
Learning this kind of wisdom is the task of a lifetime. It is not simply a matter of picking and choosing to suite our own tastes. Most of us break rules when it would be best if we did not. And most of us keep rules when we should be breaking them.
Today’s Hebrew scripture is very familiar to us! The Decalogue, the so-called “Ten Commandments”, used to be read each Sunday at Episcopal Eucharist, used to be posted on every church school classroom wall, and even today traditionalist people fight to have them posted in public places.
I think the Commandments as symbol of a law-based approach to life bears more power than the words themselves. The actual text of the Commandments is pretty baseline for most people I know. Don’t kill people, don’t take stuff that does not belong to you—even in an age which feels detached from some portions of basic decent behavior, the Commandments are entry-level rules. Do we break them in our imaginations or our desires? Yes probably, and Jesus himself tells us to be honest about those desires. Do most of us more or less keep them in waking life? Yes, for the most part.
That’s a good thing really. It’s good that we hold to basic standards of behavior. Al kids need to learn this, even if today the language of what they learn is a little different from the stately cadences of King James English. Be decent, be compassionate, place yourself in the shoes of another, do not fall into greed or violence. The very basic behavior outlined in the Commandments gets re-stated in many places today, and the results are pretty much the same. Do not let your reptilian brain, your base desires, run over other people or rule yourself.
But, is that all there is? Is our life in the end only about acting decently and behaving morally?
I hope not. The Bible itself hopes not. The text of the Commandments holds a stark clue that simply doing right is not what it is about. “I am the Lord your God—no gods besides me—I am jealous.”
Ancient Jewish practice did not believe that doing good things would make God love us. It was God who acted first, by having pity on slaves and rescuing them from captivity. He took them away to the desert so he could romance them, so he could knit them to the divine self and make them his own people. The Commandments and the rest of the text that follows is a marriage contract, a free gift and a way of life that marries God to people and people to God. The mystery and the awe of this life lived together can be sensed in what is not said, in the wind that passes through the empty space between the stark words.
That mystery comes to fuller flower in St. Paul’s words.
God was not done when he chose one people and romanced them, binding them to himself. God wanted more, more love and more people to live the divine heart and revel in the divine compassion. And so the divine passion burst forth like floodwater from a broken dam. Neither religious signs nor accumulated wisdom is enough to express the divine love. Only in the crucified Christ is the fullness of the divine love and the divine mystery made visible and poured out. Live in this Christ, a foolish path without sign or proof. But here, Christian who hungers for truth and meaning and God, here your search and your hunger will be filled.
And once you have been filled with God, God’s love and inspiration will break the rules.
Jesus did nothing but break the rules big-time in today’s Gospel. Jesus interrupted the business of religion at the Temple, interfered with authorized arrangements that let people make donations and offer sacrifices. He violently overthrew the tables, the places where religious business was contracted and where people arranged for rituals that made them feel as if all was safe and secure and right with God. Religion-as-usual becomes chaos and is named as unclean, and the very body and life of the one who tossed out business-as-usual will be the new Temple, rising to life as the Temple is destroyed.
Know when to keep the rules, and when to break them.
Richard Rohr in Falling Upward speaks of how rules and procedures are very necessary to the first half of life. We are disciplining ourselves and building a future, and so clear guidelines and ways to keep us in check are vital.
But in the second half of life, we leave behind the tightly defined world that we have constructed and lived by and enter into one which is larger and more unpredictable. We let go of our anxiety to do things right, and by walking other paths we discover a deeper and hidden wisdom of God. For when we give ourselves, abandon ourselves, to the divine will and the divine passion, then we ourselves are freed to do and say things that seem outrageous, but are born of a deeper wisdom. To lead is to serve. To die is to live. Love your enemies.
So love the commandments of God, those words and ways and codes by which God first taught us that the world is larger than our petty and selfish desires. Through the discipline of law and canon and rule, we learn to live not for ourselves alone, but for God and for the community around us. But love even more the mad, outrageous foolishness of God, who calls us in Christ to be more and bigger than just the rule-obeyer, the one who always does things right.
When we are freed to inhabit the mad, overwhelming mercy and passion of God, then we find a different way, a way of the deepest self-gift and the most profound abandonment to God’s upside-down, rule-breaking mercy. We walk willingly into the foolish wisdom and the rule-breaking passion for justice that marks out the children of God.