Book Club Blog


Don’t Make It Too Complicated.

In Matthew 5, beginning with verse 17.  Jesus says,  “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass away from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one  of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Now, if you don’t know much about the tradition out of which Jesus came, then this passage probably sounds like a foreign language to you.  To understand what Jesus is talking about here, we have to understand the roots of Judaism.  I want to read to you from an excellent website called “Judaism 101” … a great place to go if you want to read more about the basic facts of the Jewish faith in plain language.  Here’s what they’ve written about the law:  “Judaism is not just a set of beliefs about God, man, and the universe. Judaism is a comprehensive way of life, filled with rules and practices that affect every aspect of life: what you do when you wake up in the morning, what you can and cannot eat, what you can and cannot wear, how to groom yourself, how to conduct business, who you can marry, how to observe the holidays and (the Sabbath) and perhaps most important, how to treat God, other people, and animals. This set of rules and practices is known as halakhah. The word “halakhah” is usually translated as “Jewish Law,” (that’s what Jesus was talking about in our passage) … but a more literal translation might be ‘the path that one walks.'”

That’s what the Lord was trying to show his chosen people back in the days of Moses.  He was trying to show them the path they should walk in life … by giving them these laws or practices, he wanted to show them how to live the good life … how to worship him and how to get along with each other, and how to respect themselves and what has been given them.  So God meant the law for good.  It was there to provide wisdom and structure for his people.  It was part of God’s promise to give them the good life.

The problem, then, as Jesus himself said, was not with the law, but with how we reacted to it.  It was our human condition almost from the beginning to rebel.  What we didn’t push against, we misused.  The law became for us like a check list.  Maybe it was our need to get everything right, or maybe it was our laziness … but before long, the people forgot the part about worshiping God and getting along with each other.  All we wanted to do was follow the rules.  And in focusing on the rules, we ceased to follow the Lord.

It is the human condition to rebel … and I don’t know about you, but my rebellion most often comes out of my need for control.

Do you remember Tim McVeigh, the guy who blew up the Alfred Murrah building in Oklahoma?  His was a tragic life, but his last day is the perfect picture to me of the human condition.  He chose as his final words the William Ernest Henley poem, “Invictus.”  The last two lines of that poem are , “I am the master of my fate.  I am the captain of my soul.”  McVeigh wrote those lines before heading to the death chamber.  There he was, somehow wanting to portray himself as in control when he was least in control of his life and his fate.

Someone else once said, “I may be the captain of my soul, but I keep driving myself around in circles.”  What Jesus was trying to show his audience that day on the mountain was how much damage we can do in the name of getting control.

Maybe that is exactly why the first step in any 12-step program is such a major step:  “We admitted we were powerless over our circumstances – that our lives had become unmanageable.”   The first step to recovery is to make that statement … and believe it.  Or as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.”

You see, what the people of God were trying to achieve by the perfect execution of the law was perfection on their own steam.  A kind of god-likeness.  So to finally admit they were powerless over their circumstances was to let God be God for them again.  It was to take their eyes off themselves and put them back on God.

Jesus said this to another crowd who asked what it they had to do to do the works of God.  Jesus said (John, chapter 6):  “You do the work of God (not when you do it yourself) but when you place your confidence in the one He sent.”

When Jesus came, God did not wipe out everything he’d already put into place for his chosen people.  He wasn’t changing horses in the middle of the stream.  He didn’t try to replace the law with grace.  What he did, in fact, was take his divine plan and sign it with the blood of Jesus. God took the laws and commandments he had written down for the people of Israel and he put them into the person of Jesus Christ, and then he promised all people that anyone who took Jesus Christ into themselves would have these laws put into our minds and written onto our hearts.  And it would be this relationship with Jesus Christ that would transform us because the Holy Spirit would possess us.

Hannah Whitehall Smith says that it is our nature to rebel against laws that are outside of us, but we embrace that which springs up from within.  And its true … how often have you resisted someone else’s idea until you decided it was your own?  God’s way of working in us … is to get possession of us, so he can make his ideas our ideas.  And so, it really is true – I know I say this often, but it is profound – it is true what Paul said to the Colossians when he said, “Christ in you is your only hope of glory.”

Can we achieve holiness – the good life – on our own strength?  Absolutely not.  So is there any hope for us?  Absolutely.  Our hope is holiness by association … Our hope is in our relationship to Christ, who fills us with the Holy Spirit.  Our hope is in surrendering ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit so that he can hang out in us, so that we become known by the company we keep.  It comes down to what we’ve been saying all year:  it is still all about relationship.  Listen to what John Oswalt says about holiness.  He says:

“Holiness is not a performance or an achievement.  Holiness is a by-product of a relationship.  In a word, holiness is Jesus. …  So “Am I holy?” is the wrong question.  The questions are:  “Is Jesus the sole, reigning Lord of my life?  Is Jesus’ mind being created in me?  Is Jesus being glorified by my behavior?  Are people being drawn to Jesus because of my life?  Is Jesus becoming more beautiful, more desirable because of what he is doing in my life?”
“This means holiness is a passion and not a performance.  When we think of holiness as something we must do, all of the dangers of perfectionism, legalism, etc., are lurking nearby.  But it is not holiness we want, it is God.”

You know how small children are when they are deep into the process of trying to make their own peanut butter sandwich, and they’ve got it smeared all over their shirt and there are two or three smudges on their face, and they are just about to wipe their hand on the side of the cabinet when you rush over to help … at which point they invariably say, “No!  I can do it myself!”

That’s what children say.  “I can do it myself!”  You will rarely if ever hear a child say, “Gosh, I think I have come to the end of my abilities here.  I’ve made a mess of things, and I’d really like your advice and help on how to do it better.”  It just doesn’t happen.  Children don’t say grown-up things very often.  By the same token, grown-ups ought not to say childish things.

We are not created to do it ourselves.  We were created to give ourselves to God, to be led by him, and it is not until we embrace our powerlessness and stop pretending … that we are able to become who we were created to be.  It is about surrender.  It is about getting into right relationship with God.  If you have pain in your life, if your life feels out of control, then let me tell you how to get out of it.  Be honest with God about who you are.

If anyone can take it, he can.  Be honest with God, and give yourself to him.