Sunday, January 29, 2012

Incident at a Bus Station

During my college life in the mid-seventies I carried on a long distance love affair. Most of my readers know how problematic such an arrangement can be; but when you’re in love, no obstacle is so high that it can’t be overcome. And we were in love.

On one of those storied warm and dry summer evenings that would prove instrumental in transforming the sleepy little city of Colorado Springs of my day to the urban sprawl of today, my girlfriend and I sat in the bus station waiting for the 9:15 to Denver.

The crowd was fairly sparse that night. A thirty-something woman sat alone reading a book on a bench that made up one side of a U of which ours was the horizontal member. The remaining bench of the triad was vacant. An older couple sat on one of several benches behind us; he read a newspaper while she knitted something from out of a large tote at her side. Paula and I held hands, quietly recounting the events of her visit and making plans for the future.

At some point during this serene public happening, a twenty-something man staggered his way into the depot. Quintessential in his attire of bellbottom jeans, sandals, paisley shirt, turquoise jewelry, and long unkempt hair, the stranger moved about the room hesitantly as if he were in two different places at the same time. He ended his meanderings standing before us in a state of calm agitation.

With each twitch, shiver, shake, and shift of his body, my admiration of the human brain grew. I marveled at how his brain worked deftly through what had to be nearly insurmountable adversity in order to keep him erect. He paused as if trying to remember something before he spoke.

“Hey, man,…d…an…to…y…am…id?”

“What was that?” I replied.

He blinked a few times, and repeated, “Hey, man, …d…an…to…y…am…id?”

This time Paula answered, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand you.”

Then from what appeared to be nowhere, a flash of lucidity that would only last a moment, like the glow of a firefly, managed to part the clouds in his mind; a luster returned to his dull bloodshot eyes. He looked at Paula, then me, and back at her. Convinced we were genuinely interested in what he had to say, he straightened his head and said, “Hey, man,…do you…ant…to buy…sum… acid?”

Oh,” Paula and I responded in stereo, “no, no thank you.”

Our disinterest with his wares didn't seem to bother him much. He collected himself, made some calculations in his head to negotiate the necessary turn, and stumbled over to the woman with the book. We watched to see what sort of pitch he would use on her.

“Hey, man,…d…an…to…y…am…id?”

She looked up from her reading. “What?”

“Hey, man,…d…an…to…y…am…id?”


The would-be salesman heaved a deep sigh, tried to stand more straight, and said, “Hey, man,…do ya…want…buy…sum… acid?”

The woman scrunched up her face, and said, “No.” She paused as if convincing herself she was even having the conversation, shook her head slightly, repeated, “No,” and plunged back into her book.

By this stage, the doings of the curious fellow fully engrossed us. We were careful, however, to avoid gawking at him. Instead, we discretely followed his erratic movements, periodically exchanging glances of amusement. Eventually he made his way to the cluster of benches behind us. Paula peeked around surreptitiously and nudged me. He had landed in front of the older couple. He hovered there a moment as he had done with us and the woman, and recited his script.

"Hey, man,…d…an…to…y…am…id?”

The old man let the top of his newspaper dip slightly, and peered up at the stoned quest. His wife stopped her knitting and also attended the stranger. Her husband said, “What’s that?”

Flailing his arms, the hippie complained, “OH, WOW, MAN!,” and hurried for the exit, catching himself on a trash receptacle here and a pole there on his way out.

In the morning, a couple of weeks later, I was sitting in the same station waiting for the 10:15 from Denver, when a voice came from behind me: “Hey, man, wanna buy some acid?”

I turned to find my dad in his three piece business suit. Knowing I’d be there waiting for Paula, he had snuck in from his office only a block away. He always does cool stuff like that; sometime I’ll have to tell you how he came home one evening with a 45 rpm recording of Hey Jude when it first came out because he had heard it on the radio during his lunch hour and liked it; or, because another girl I had liked had a near obsession for carnivals and carnies, my dad went to a carnival one afternoon and took the owner out for a cup of coffee just to learn what it was all about. I’m telling you, they don’t make many fathers like mine anymore.

Do you see God’s love at work in my father’s actions? God’s love says I understand your situation because I have come to your level—your world. My dad left his own adult world and comfort zone to enter my world to try to see things through my eyes. Similarly, but at a scale beyond comprehension, God took on flesh and dwelled with us. Not that God needed to learn something about us—the infinite/ personal God knows everything and is unchangeable—but lowered Himself that we might be assured of His great love for us, and confidently trust Him. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.[NET]

God’s love also protects. It recognizes our weaknesses and our blindness, runs interference for us, and opens our eyes to the dangers ahead. My father went before me to see what I probably didn’t see in my twitterpation, so he could effectively guide me to safety. As the Psalmist avers, our Father in heaven loves us the same way: Indeed, you are my lamp, Lord. My God illuminates the darkness around me. Indeed, with your help I can charge against an army; by my God’s power I can jump over a wall. The one true God acts in a faithful manner; the Lord’s promise is reliable; he is a shield to all who take shelter in him. [NET]

My father’s actions illustrate for us why we can confidently walk with King Jesus by faith in His kingdom; God is faithful to His promises to keep us secure and progress us in His kingdom, even in our ignorance or self-deceptions.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

I'm Sorry....

When I was a young dad, I over-reacted or some such thing—I don’t exactly remember—to something my toddler son had done. So I knelt to look him in the eye, gave him a hug and a kiss, and I told him I was wrong and I was sorry. Another adult who witnessed this little father-son moment, told me emphatically, “Ah, don’t ever apologize to your children. When they’re twenty-four, they’ll be able to sort it all out for themselves.”

The Bible has a lot to say about forgiving others, and rightly so. We all love to be forgiven; indeed, we fully expect others--almost as a right--to overlook our indiscretions. But there seems to be a great silence on the subject of asking others to forgive us for something we’ve done to them. We don’t like to do that, nor do we want to talk about it. Let’s face it; we don’t like to admit when we are wrong.

God calls us to repentance. As Christians, we usually don’t mind talking about confessing our sins to God; after all, that’s expected; we discuss it with great humility and importance; yet the concept of repentance somehow gets lost between the sky above or the dark corner of our prayer closet and the person two feet away. Why? I propose that, quite ironically, repenting to God often serves to exalt us, whereas repenting to another person—especially one we have to live with each day—is, well, humiliating. Besides, confessing to God is really abstract compared to that neighbor of ours; we can only imagine what God’s expression might be and we are fairly certain He will be accepting of us, not necessarily so the person we have wronged. God would never take advantage of our moment of weakness, but another person might.

The famous thirteenth century theologian, Thomas Aquinas, made a careful distinction between attrition and contrition. The former says “I’m sorry” such as you might mean when caught filching a cookie from the cookie jar; you are only sorry you got caught or for being stupid enough to get caught; and given another opportunity you would steal a cookie, again, but with better stealth. We shouldn’t limit this to trivial situations such as going off our diet. Sadly, people use the same approach for murder or adultery or saying something hurtful either at or about another person. Attrition is self-serving humiliation.

Attrition is the type of apology we use out of expediency. King Saul when confronted by the prophet Samuel for disobeying God said he was sorry only to try to smooth things over with everyone. We can use attrition as a defense mechanism during arguments; it can be a means of garnering sympathy from our opponent in order to move him to capitulate or at least cool his aggression; or, dripping with qualifiers, we can employ attrition to spread the guilt or shift it wholesale—“I’m sorry, but….”

Contrition knows that what we have done is an effrontery to God, so that when we repent we truly mean not to do it again and, as much as in our power, to make amends for what we have done. A contrite heart wants to be taught to change, accepts guilt unqualifiedly, and seeks restoration of the broken relationship for God’s sake and the other person’s benefit. When Nathan confronted King David with David’s horrible sin, David repented with a contrite heart and accepted the loss of his son as a consequence of what he had done. David did not attempt to smooth things over, but understood the depth of his sin against God.

We should understand that contrition is a means by which God makes us more like Him so that we can fully share in the Divine nature. Through contrition, we in essence ask God to make our heart pure and our spirit upright. Contrition serves as one means of seeking God’s grace.

Any time we wrong someone, which always amounts to putting ourselves ahead of the other person in some way, we wrong God. In every case we should tell both the person we wronged and God, “I’m sorry” with a contrite heart, and seek forgiveness—we repent. We shouldn't tarry in this because the opportunity could be lost forever.

If we claim to be Christ followers, we are living sacrifices; our life is an altar before God. We delude ourselves if we believe our life to be a pure offering to God when we have left wrongs we have done to another unresolved. Jesus said, “So then, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift.”[NET]

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What Does it Mean to Honor Our Parents? (Part 3)

What should we make of the rather enigmatic closing statement of my last posting? Certainly practical and pragmatic are synonyms. Even though they both deal with observable facts and situations, pragmatism, at least in my mind, connotes expediency. When it comes to the actual practice of loving our neighbor, God demands that we place the needs of him or her ahead of our own. And rarely is such self-sacrifice expedient.

Therefore, we love our neighbor as God has loved us. Jesus taught us through his parable of the good Samaritan that everyone is our neighbor. But our parents are our first neighbors and hold a special place in our life: we are to honor them.

The Hebrew word for honor is kabad. It means to grant the appropriate measure of authority due and to highly value and to care for and to respect. Kabad also has the meaning of weight. Kabad was translated in the Greek, as by Paul in Ephesians 6:2, as timao. Timao means to ascribe great value to something, revere, or to venerate.

To properly honor our parents begins with knowing the authority that they are due. If we love God first, then we seek Him to define our parents’ due authority. We glean the following from our conversation thus far.

As pre-adult children we must obey our parents, learn from them, and depend on them; indeed, it is an obligation for parents to provide for their children (I Cor. 12:14-15). But I interpret Paul here to mean pre-adult children. Once children separate as adults from their parents, such children are obligated to meet their own needs, and, in fact, be prepared to meet the needs of their parents. As pre-adult children then, God has given our parents supreme authority over us. Consider Luke’s account of the child, Jesus:

Now Jesus’parents went to Jerusalem every year for the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. But when the feast was over, as they were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but (because they assumed that he was in their group of travelers)they went a day’s journey. Then they began to look for him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts,sitting among the teachers,listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Jesus were astonished at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were overwhelmed. His mother said to him, “Child,why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” But he replied,“Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Yet his parents did not understand the remark he made to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. But his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and with people.[NET]

Jesus was without sin, so He did not wantonly dishonor His parents by staying behind in Jerusalem. One can only wonder how powerfully the divine nature in Christ moved Him while He sat amongst the Doctors outside the temple. But it was not the right time for Jesus to pursue His calling this way because he remained under his parents' authority, as shown by Jesus honoring His parents by going with them and thereafter obeying them.

When we pass into adulthood our relationship with our parents shifts from one of authority to duty; we are no longer obligated to obey them, nor are we to depend on them. But we have the duty to care for them and heed their advice, which might still amount to obedience. The word kabad means weight; hence, honoring our parents means bearing the weight of duty to our parents that God has placed upon us; in this way we honor God whose weight of authority should not be superseded.

We satisfy our duty to care for parents and so honor them as adult children by, as first priority, readily providing for them financially, and giving them shelter, food, clothing, medical care, and company (both with us and their grandchildren).

In our modern world, now so big, that last obligation can be overlooked. But in light of spirit of Proverbs 17:6, we have a duty to be with our parents and allow them access to their grandchildren as much as possible.

Our parents are forever older than us, and that experience is a treasure. We have a duty to our parents to consider their advice in matters. I struggled with a difficult conflict with another person and told my parents of the situation. They advised me to take the high road and wait for the proper time to challenge the person. It was immediately evident to my heart that they advised the proper action, even though I wanted desperately to confront the person. No matter how old we get, or how much formal education we might have on our parents, our parents deserve our ear because they have experienced more than we have. And this duty of respect becomes even more crucial if our parents are true Christ followers.

Do we ever have to obey our parents as adult children? Must we always heed our parents' advice? As with all matters of the Kingdom of God, the answer is found in our first love for God. Even as pre-adult children there can be, and I say this with sadness, demands made by our parents that we should never obey. And all such rogue demands can be traced to inconsideration of the principles and meanings of one or more of the other nine Words of God. Again, our first obligation is to love God.

Yet, even though we no longer have to obey our parents as adult children, we might still need to obey our parents in some instances. Sometimes God clearly uses our parents as vessels to direct us, as in the situation with my parents I related earlier, or as in the case of Jesus and his mother, Mary, at a wedding in Cana, as recorded in the second chapter of John’s gospel.

Now on the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding. When the wine ran out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no wine left.” Jesus replied,“Woman, why are you saying this to me? My time has not yet come.” His mother told the servants, “Whatever he tells you, do it.” Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washing,11 each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus told the servants, “Fill the water jars with water.” So they filled them up to the very top. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the head steward,” and they did. When the head steward tasted the water that had been turned to wine, not knowing where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), he called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the cheaper wine when the guests are drunk. You have kept the good wine until now!” Jesus did this as the first of his miraculous signs,in Cana of Galilee. In this way he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.[NET]

Jesus obeyed His mother, and demonstrated to all of us the honor due our parents. His apparent initial balking at her request was not resistance but a way of defining the meaning to what would transpire: the kingdom would come in power (the impossible made possible), redemption (the sacrifice in death--blood symbolized by the wine), resurrection (the water transformed into the best wine), and how the Law would move from outward practices (symbolized by the water in jars reserved for ritual hand-washing) to the pouring out of love in the hearts of the dwellers by the Holy Spirit (the wine). It was not yet time for all of this to happen—Jesus spoke truthfully--but stood poised at the door. Jesus obeyed His mother because it served God’s purposes for Him at that moment; it kindled the coming of the kingdom of heaven, which is His glory.

God demands us to honor our parents, and He measures out the proper weight of that obligation for us both as pre-adult and adult children. If we profess to be followers of Christ, then we dwell with God in His kingdom. And as kingdom dwellers we must love God above all else, and through that preeminent love, love our neighbors. And this love for our neighbors starts with our parents who are our first neighbors.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

What Does it Mean to Honor Our Parents? (Part 2)

One of my readers asked me why I referred to the commandments as words (e.g., the injunction to honor our parents as being the fifth word). Well, I wanted people to think about it, and it's my understanding the Hebrews used this vernacular. Mainly though, I wanted us to see what Jesus meant when He reprimanded the Pharisees for forsaking the word of God for their traditions. God revealed something about Himself when He verbalized what we commonly refer to as the ten commandments. By following the Hebrews on this by calling them the ten words, makes it more difficult to take for granted what God has done. The ten words are not merely a set of rules, but a concise verbal picture of the necessary state of the kingdom of God. The ten words clearly describe what the relationships between the human members of His kingdom and Himself and each other must be because the unchanging God is holy and is Love.

If we don't fully understand the basis and purpose of the ten words, we will end up taking up a post-modern approach to answering the dicey question of what it means to honor our parents; we will resort to privatizing our interpretations rather than seeking to please God first and last (see last week's posting). The fifth word under investigation here, as with the other nine words, must flow from a heart that seeks to love God first and therefore love others, rather than one covering its backside by attempting to follow all the rules.

We must love God first because it is through this exchange of love between us and our Creator that we learn to understand the heart of God expressed by the ten words and be empowered by God so to love others effectively and completely. It is for this reason--and it is no accident--that God gave us the first four of His ten words:

1) You shall have no other gods before Me.
2) You shall not make an idol.
3) You shall not worship an idol.
4) You shall keep the Sabbath holy.

We cannot analyze this in depth here. But summarizing we have: we must acknowledge God alone because there can be only one god. A multiplicity of gods would only mean there is no ultimate authority, which is tantamount to no authority at all. And to love God is to obey Him because of His authority that He expresses through a love for us; our obedience must be to God, alone; therefore when we make idols for ourselves, either consciously or not, we end up dividing our heart--one cannot serve two masters; by worshiping an idol, we really seek to control the god we have created for our selves--we no longer love God on His terms; finally, God has given us the Sabbath as a time to set aside all of the things in life that distract us to focus on Him, listen to Him, seek Him, and learn from Him because He is the necessary source of understanding and power by which we will succeed in living the ten words and be the kingdom where He dwells with us.

The remaining six words describe how this preeminent love for God will express itself to others; in other words, how the love that begins with God defines and empowers the love that drives and defines the relationships within His kingdom:

5) Honor your father and your mother, so you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
6) You shall not murder
7) You shall not commit adultery
8) You shall not steal
9) You shall not give false testimony
10) You shall not covet your neighbor

When Jesus summed up the Law and the prophets—that is, what defines the purpose and governance of the kingdom of God—He said first to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength--every part of us placed in submission to God--which, of course, are the first four words. This preeminent love for God is essential because it must define, dictate, and drive the second purpose Jesus tells us for the Law and the Prophets: to love our neighbor as our self--to obey the remaining six words. And the second purpose is like the first because the same love unites them all.

The reader should ponder these six words. What he/she will discover is every possible cause for failure to love each other--that is, every cause for failed relationships--can be explained by failure to obey the last six words. If we fail to honor our parents, no doubt we have failed to love them or others as God has loved us.

Let's put some meat on that last point by asking the question: Is it possible to attempt to love our neighbor at the expense of a preeminent love for God? Or to narrow it for our discussion: Is it possible to honor our parents at the expense of our first love for God?

The question is interesting because one of the main reasons children are to honor their parents is because the parents are to be the primary source of educating them of whom God is, His faithfulness, and, therefore, the need to believe, trust, and obey Him—that is, to walk in faith. Indeed, God likely placed honoring our parents as the first of the last six words because of their role in focusing the new generations on God. So do our parents carry ultimate authority? Can they ever demand too much of their children?

Well, Jesus, by his admonition recorded in 10:34-39 of Matthew’s gospel, does seem to suggest the possibility of putting our parents before God:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it,and whoever loses his life because of me will find it."[NET]

Luke in 14:26-33 of his gospel records it this way:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, wanting to build a tower, doesn’t sit down first and compute the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish the tower, all who see it will begin to make fun of him. They will say,‘This man began to build and was not able to finish!’ Or what king, going out to confront another king in battle, will not sit down first and determine whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot succeed, he will send a representative while the other is still a long way off and ask for terms of peace. In the same way therefore not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his own possessions."[NET]

Much can be seen in Jesus' words, but clearly it is possible for us to put our parents before God. As with all earthly attachments—even those right and proper—we must willingly give them up for God. Our possessions, aspirations, relationships, and yes even our parents can become idols to us. And we justify turning our parents and family traditions into idols by isolating the fifth word from the other nine.

For example, I know a person who will not be baptized or take communion because he was taught this by his father, and so does not want to dishonor his father. That person has placed his father ahead of God, which is actually dishonoring to both; the person has placed his familial relationships before the kingdom relationships; the person hasn't properly assessed the cost of following Christ, and has left himself outside the kingdom. The reason is it hasn't ended there for the person, other relationships have also suffered. You see, misappropriating love in one area of the kingdom, if left unchecked, will always distort all the other areas, eventually.

We are now ready to tackle the meaning of honoring our parents in more specific and practical ways--the place I suspect you have patiently awaited. But I have spent two blogs bringing us to this point in order to instill in us we can only love others (e.g., honor our parents)on the basis of a preeminent love for God. Therefore, practical must never mean pragmatic.

Monday, January 2, 2012

What Does it Mean to Honor Our Parents? (Part 1)

Last month I was asked to teach a class on the time of life when we have aging parents. Presumably this should be from a Biblical perspective; so the question became for me: What does the Bible teach concerning our obligations to our parents? Or, what does it mean to honor our parents?

The fifth of the Ten Words given by God to us through Moses is “Honor your father and your mother (Exo. 20:12 [NET]).” That it is included in the most sacred and definitive revelation of God should awaken us to its importance; indeed, in case we miss this point, the Lord later tells us: “Whoever treats his father or his mother disgracefully must surely be put to death (Exo. 21:17 [NET].”

This admonition also serves to instruct us of at least one way it means to honor our parents: to never make light of them, or besmirch their character or reputation, disown them, curse them, defame them, ridicule them, belittle them, disavow them, or hate them. This provides a useful locus of our quest, but to honor our parents encompasses more. But before we can explore the meaning of honoring our parents further, we need to understand more clearly the purpose of the ten words God gave us so we can place the fifth word in the proper context.

If we see the ten words as purely legal concepts, then it is possible to stack them up against other legal constraints and begin trading one off for the other. This is exactly what the Pharisees were doing with the legal concept of Qorban.

In Mark 7:1-13 we read:

Now the Pharisees and some of the experts in the law who came from Jerusalem gathered around him. And they saw that some of Jesus’ disciples ate their bread with unclean hands, that is, unwashed.(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they perform a ritual washing,holding fast to the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. They hold fast to many other traditions: the washing of cups, pots, kettles, and dining couches. The Pharisees and the experts in the law asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with unwashed hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written:‘This people honors me with their lips,but their heart is far from me. They worship me in vain,teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.’Having no regard for the command of God, you hold fast to human tradition.” He also said to them, “You neatly reject the commandment of God in order to set up your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’and, ‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.’But you say that if anyone tells his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you would have received from me is c(q)orban’(that is, a gift for God), then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like this.”[NET]

As the Priests became more corrupt in Israel after the return from exile in Babylon, as exemplified by their pandering to Hellenism, a group during the time of the Maccabees (second century BC) called the Hasidim (or Chasidim) arose that held to strict conformity to the Laws and traditions of Israel. The Pharisees and the Essenes descended from the Hasidim. Now, the Priests were supposed to be the interpreters of the Law, but they became increasingly less trustworthy because of their political and social aspirations (a characteristic of them in even Jesus’ day), so the responsibility of interpreting the Law shifted to the Scribes. These Scribes, who were the Elders referred to in the Mark's narrative (above), meticulously dissected the Law at the atomistic level, writing provisions upon provisions to insure that no Law was disobeyed. An example of this was the ritualistic handwashing the prompted Jesus’ response in the above account.

Don't miss what was happening. The Scribe's legalism functioned to protect the national ethnic status of Israel from all (e.g., the Greeks) who might attempt to assimilate it into their own culture. We might think this to be what God wanted. But no; God gave Israel the Law that they would represent Him to the rest of the world, so that the outside cultures would recognize him as the one, true, and only God (e.g., see Is. 42:18-25). The original Law was meant to point everyone to the Kingdom of God that God had created us to dwell with Him. The legalism that arose in the short time before the advent of Christ devolved into an expression of national pride that by its very nature was exclusionary. In the hands of the Scribes the Law lost its purpose of revealing God's holiness in the Kingdom of Heaven and served to isolate Israel from the rest of the world. And in the pride expressed by their legalism, they actually failed to be holy in the way they and all of us must to dwell with God in His kingdom.

In the hands of the Scribes, the Law became a incapacitating legalism. The handwashing ordinances were but one example of this. Vows constituted another example of this extremism in interpreting the Law. A vow once given had the legal clout to prevent a person from touching something that was his own property for his own use, or from another person availing himself of same property. The interesting thing about this is a vow was binding even if the person did not use votive words such as “given to God” (Qorban) or “let it be established”. The reason being that it was understood that the person’s hand was always on the Qorban; the Qorban sanctified the vow—even to the extent of overriding the fifth word.

Jesus teaches us that the Law is not a static outward practice, but must be an inward condition of the heart; He directs us back to the original purpose of the Law as the necessary nature of all who would dwell in His Kingdom. We see this in the follow-up of the above narrative in 15:10-20 of Matthew’s account:

Then he called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What defiles a person is not what goes into the mouth; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person.” Then the disciples came to him and said, “Do you know that when the Pharisees heard this saying they were offended?” And he replied,“Every plant that my heavenly Father did not plant will be uprooted. Leave them! They are blind guides. If someone who is blind leads another who is blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Jesus said, “Even after all this, are you still so foolish? Don’t you understand that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach and then passes out into the sewer? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person.”[NET]

The ten words God has given us define the necessary heart condition of everyone who truly walks in the Kingdom of God. When we miss this vital connection, we lose our way just as the Pharisees lost their way. If our focus is on the outward practice of the Law, we actually end up breaking it. Case in point: a person dishonoring his parents by failing to care for them financially because he had been prevented through a vow that redirected the funds. If God’s Law were in that person’s heart, he would have never made such a vow, even though he legally could, because to do such a thing would dishonor his parents and ultimately displease God.

The Law is not about distinguishing ourselves from others, as a kind of spiritual hauteur and elitism--whether we be Jewish or Christian--but the condition of the heart of one who seeks to love God and therefore please Him only.

When the person stood on his vow at the expense of honoring his parents, he gave lip service to God, as Jesus said, but his heart was far from Him. When our heart is truly fixed on God, then we want only to please God. Paul asserts this driving prinicple constantly throughout his writings. In I Timothy 5:3-4, Paul couches the fifth word in terms of pleasing God:

Honor widows who are truly in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn to fulfill their duty toward their own household and so repay their parents what is owed them. For this is what pleases God.[NET]

We must see ourselves first and last as dwellers in God's Kingdom as we grapple with the command to honor our parents. If we understand the fifth word as purely a legal injunction, we will treat it--consciously or not--as a series of static amendments instead of what it really is, which is an expression of love for our neighbor born out of a preeminent love for God.

[More on this next week]