16 October 2015

Faith built on Grace versus a Religion of Hypocrisy and Fear

Today's readings are from Romans and the Gospel of Luke (Rom. 4:1-8 and Luke 12:1-7). In the first lection Paul refers to Abraham and David, two pillars of the Jewish faith and notes that both of them call for a faith which rests on the faithfulness and love of God, not on good works. Both of them affirm that covenant existence (righteousness) is rooted in the free grace of God --- even without works! It is a startling conclusion for this scholar of the Law-turned-Apostle of the Gospel, but Paul cites both the example of Abraham who "believed God" and only boasted in God's faithfulness, as well as the writings of the psalmist where he says, [[Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not record.]] We can never overstate the earth shattering reversal this priority of Grace over works and God's faithfulness over our own achievements (and failures) represented in Paul's day and yet represents today.

Especially Paul saw that obedience to the Law produces a terrible trap when this is the ground of one's religion and has priority over faith in grace. One commentator (Buetow) on the readings from this week characterized it as producing an experience which is something like a dog chasing its own tail. We try to keep the law only to find that we cannot do so, and we turn to the law to empower us to be truly human and keep the law thus falling even further into sin, and so it goes, on and on, around and around in an inescapable circular trap.

Our attempts to escape condemnation (i.e., to escape the consequences of our actions) lead to greater estrangement from God, to greater enmeshment in sin, to greater reliance on law, and so on. I like Harold Buetow's metaphor but in some ways I prefer another image. Once we have put our faith (trust) in the law and thus too, in our own ability to keep the law it will be rather like finding we have jumped from a cliff expecting we will be able to fly or change the course of things by our own efforts. You can imagine how much good it will do to tug hard at the tops of one's shoes in an attempt to slow down or stop one's fall --- much less launch ourselves upwards in the freedom of flight! We simply do not have the power to do that (heck, some of us can't even reach the tops of our shoes!), and if we try, if we put our trust in our own abilities and achievements, we will add presumption, fatal foolishness, and despair to our undoubted and ever-accelerating helplessness. We may even lead others to fall along with us!

In today's Gospel Luke paints a picture of the trap the Pharisees have fallen into in this way; he is also concerned with the consequences for themselves and others of the rapidly accelerating freefall they are still (ignorantly) in the midst of. In particular Luke is writing about two related forms of religion which are rooted in trust in works of the law rather than in faith in God's unmerited grace. The first form, represented mainly by the Pharisees, is a religion built on hypocrisy; the second and interrelated form, represented mainly by those ordinary Jews who cannot ordinarily keep the Law at all, is a religion which is built on fear.

The extended warning about secrets being revealed and all things being brought into the light of day or shouted from the housetops serves two purposes: the first is to remind the disciples and the Pharisees that all of the latter's plotting and planning, the secret judgments and betrayals will one day be fully revealed, first in the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, and later in the destruction of the Temple when their hypocritical and essentially empty personal religion will be fully manifested and come to judgment in such consequences. The second purpose is to remind the ordinary folks, Jew and Gentile alike, that their own small (or large) betrayals, infidelities, secret judgments, plottings, etc will be known by God, but even more, that they will have consequences which make them manifest to the world around them. At first this would increase everyone's fear of judgment --- just as the Law increases one's sense of and actual sin --- and it would temporarily sharpen the desperation that has the crowds trampling one another underfoot in their attempts to approach the One who incarnates the very mercy of God. (The trampling others underfoot is itself a great symbol of graceless religion and the trap it creates!)

But the solution to the trap, the ultimate resolution of any religion of either fear or hypocrisy, as Paul says clearly in the first reading, lies in the faithfulness of God and our own trust in the God revealed in Jesus --- just as the crowds in Luke's gospel lection have come on some level to know. At some point we have to stop chasing our own tails; we must stop grasping at our own "boot straps" and believe instead in God who holds us securely in the palm of his hand --- who, in fact holds the entirety of creation in the palm of his hand and proclaims it good. We must, as Luke's Gospel passage today affirms, believe God when he tells us he has numbered the hairs on our heads --- so precious does he consider us!

Once we do that, once we allow God's love to fill us with a mercy that justifies, we will be empowered to do truly good works. There will be no discrepancy between the inner and the outer person as there was for so many of the Pharisees, no conflict between the Law and the law of our hearts. While we live the law written on our hearts more purely and exhaustively, we will fulfill the Law itself --- and we will do both in Christ. Neither will we create a message of terrifying judgment or foster a religion of fear in others. Instead we will proclaim a Gospel of Divine mercy doing justice. But as Paul and Luke both knew this means "believing God" and letting go of any tendencies to trust ourselves alone. Both knew that life in Communion with God (righteousness) was a free gift, something we had to allow to take hold of us, not something we could ever achieve or grasp for ourselves.

My prayer today then is that each and all of us may be able to risk "believing God" and relinquish of any vestiges of a religion of either hypocrisy or fear. As in the Gospel antiphon today, we cry out to God, [[May your kindness, O LORD, be upon us;who have put our hope in you.]] With our whole hearts and lives may we each trust that it will be so according to God's own promises of mercy. After all, that is the very meaning of every Amen we say.