What Must I Do?
“Dr. Robinson, what do I have to do to get an A in this course?” My father heard that question over and over again from students in the last years of his teaching career. “I want an A. What do I need to do?” I think the question was one of the reasons he decided to retire early. He was frustrated. “They don’t really want an education,” he complained. “They just want a grade!”
Dad saw real value in a true liberal arts education where students studied literature, philosophy, religions, history, sociology, government, mathematics and different branches of science. He wanted his students to encounter his specialty, physics, and begin to see the world in new ways-to marvel at the intricacies of the atom and to wrestle with the vastness of the universe. He wanted them to ask questions, not just spew out answers. What does this tell me? How does this connect with or challenge my experience of the world so far? He didn’t expect everyone to be a physicist. But, he was hoping that the university would produce graduates who were thoughtful rather than robots who could spew information without having any idea what it meant.
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” a man asked Jesus. Jesus gave him the syllabus: You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.” “Teacher,” he said, “I have kept all these since my youth.” You can almost hear his excitement. “I’ve done it! I’ve earned eternal life!”
Rabbi Kula spoke of a student who referred to these commandments as “common sense.” Kula points out that as soon as we say, “of course” to any commandments we are, in essence, saying that we don’t really observe those commandments. He wrote, “When we dismiss anything out of hand, we are preventing our own growth and expression; we become less intimate with our impulses and desires. ‘Do not murder’ invites us to meditate on who we want to murder. Who gets under our skin; who enrages us beyond reason; who cheats us or betrays us? Who are the people about whom we have those delicious, if only fleeting fantasies of murder or revenge, or whom we wish would disappear off the face of the planet?”
Kula notes that we perceive commandments as “external directives or repressive limitations… contemporary religions have portrayed them as instruments of social control.”
“Contemporary religions have portrayed them as instruments of social control.” Not only religions, but politicians and those in power in the United States have often understood the commandments in this way. So, we have judges and community officials who want the Ten Commandments placed in our public buildings – engraved for all to see. I’ve heard them say, “People need to remember that this is the standard by which we live.” We have many who would choose to legislate morality – according to their own “of course,” “common sense” views of the world.
I went back to Kula because he provides the tradition that would have been familiar to Jesus. Kula says that the Torah never uses the word commandment. Now, in this story, Jesus referred to the commandments, but I have to wonder if that is a word that has been mistranslated or misused because of language differences and cultural differences. In the Torah the word is “devarim” which means “words” or “utterances.” Kula describes them as a “poetic and profound series of intuitions about human behavior.”
They are not external directives to be followed to earn eternal life. They are a pathway to life deeply lived, to a life that is more intimately connected to God and to other human beings.
I have a little book titled Peace Prayers. In it there is a chapter called “Mindfulness Must Be Engaged.” It is filled with observations from great leaders representing many traditions and walks of life. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote: A society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of mediocrity that paralyzes man’s (humanity’s) noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to bear up to the trials of this threatening century with nothing but the supports of a legalistic structure. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King observed, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighter did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’”
The prophet Jeremiah wrote of God’s new covenant which would be “written on their hearts.” It would not be external. It would be deep within them, a part of their very nature. The man who came to Jesus was in every way a “law abiding, practicing, faithful man.” Yet, his observance of the law had not touched who he was. It had not transformed his heart. His observed the law as an external directive.
Do you remember the Jesus movement? I think it started in the late 60s and went into the early 70s. Young people began to discover faith in a new way. I think every generation has its own incarnation of the Jesus movement! Each is a little different. They find new ways of expressing the faith in worship and community and service. (We might look at the music of the church and see the generations reflected! I always have to laugh when someone says, “I like the old hymns.” They usually don’t mean the oldest hymns of the church – chant and plainsong – or even those from the 16th century. The old hymns tend to be the hymns of one’s youth – the familiar.) The reason I remember the Jesus movement is that many of its adherents criticized the faithful churchgoers of the older generations. They saw faith that was little more than habit. It’s an unfair generalization – based more in a lack of understanding and in the arrogance of youth. Yet, there is always the challenge before us to make sure that our faith life is deeply rooted in God – and not merely habit.
“I’m a good person. I go to church every Sunday! This shouldn’t happen to me!” I’ve never heard that said quite that way. But, I have heard the sentiment. We are so influenced by the world’s assumption that people get what they deserve. So, the poor and the sick and the injured have somehow “earned” their troubles, their misfortunes. When we throw faith into the picture, it’s easy to think that if we live carefully – according to the rules – we will earn God’s approval, God’s acceptance – even the promise of eternal life.
We want an A from God, from Jesus. “What must we do? Go to church? Be nice? Support good causes? What does God want from us? How do we get the reward?”
I was re-reading the introduction to the book Living the Questions. It spoke of the unchurched in our society who are not here because “[they] simply cannot suffer the shallow message of the churches of their birth any longer.”
It’s easy to get hung up on the conversation that Jesus had with the man who came with the question. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” We hear, immediately, all the things about money. It sounds so unreasonable. But, maybe we’re to hear, first and foremost, the invitation. “Come, follow me.” It is the invitation that the disciples had accepted. They had followed. The relationship with Jesus took precedence in their lives – it transformed who they were, what they did, how they lived.
The other part of that conversation is a reminder that we cannot be in a true relationship with God without being aware of other human beings. If the man had accepted Jesus’ invitation, he would have become part of a community that followed Jesus. He would have seen Jesus’ concern for the poor, the marginalized, the sick and the hopeless. Albert Schweitzer said, “Concern for people is the beginning of hope.” The power in that conversation between the man and Jesus is Jesus’ challenge to the man to look beyond himself. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asked Jesus. We hear the same self-interest when people demand others live certain ways so that their own relationship with God is preserved. I think of Kim Davis in Kentucky. Every one of her pronouncements is about her purity in her relationship with God. There’s little acknowledgement of what her demands do to others. Whenever we become the moral police, we tend to sacrifice true community. We choose the shallow way. Christianity, when lived legally, according to a moral checklist, tends to be self-centered and selfish.
Living the Questions says, “It is a common temptation among faithful Christians of all stripes to believe – deep down—that if we’re good, God will protect us and rescue us from life’s difficulties. But being in relationship with God does not create some sort of divine force field protecting us from harm. Being in relationship with God strengthens us for living life, come what may.”
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It was the wrong question. It was self-serving – selfish, in fact. It was based on a legalistic approach to faith that reduced his relationship with God to a careful, yet shallow, living with or within the law. He had reduced God to an award giver who would recognize good behavior. It would be easy to dismiss him – except that his careful legalism is a tempting approach to faith. And so his question challenges us to ask ourselves, “How do we understand God’s call in our lives?” Do we see God’s call to be law-abiding or God-abiding?