If you would be an Olympic gold medal athlete, an accomplished musician, or poet, or writer… or if you would be a renowned scientist, or at the top of your profession, or a successful businessman, you will be required to live a disciplined life. You will have to observe a rigorous set of rules and not allow yourself to wallow in your own lazy and easy self-indulgences. Being the best in any field requires that you sacrifice many things, set aside your pleasures and focus on what you value over and above a whole range of other things.
Those of us who fail to follow the rules, who give ourselves license to do whatever makes us feel good, will end up being held as slaves to our own feelings.
Our urges, feelings, and drives can hold us in unyielding bondage and slavery, slaves to our own selves. In biblical language that slavery is called hell. We end up living in hellish self-condemnation, damning ourselves mercilessly for what we could have done but did not do, for what we could have had but now do not have.
Above all else the ancient Israelites cherished and revered the Law of God, the Torah. Orthodox Jews and some Jews of our day still possess that reverence. They realize that those who, with humility and perseverance, hold themselves to the laws and regulations handed down to them from the Torah will be given the strength and power to pass through life free of this world’s seductions, distractions, and diversions… and so find their way to God.
The tyrannical Pharaoh of Egypt who held the Israelites in bondage is but an image of an even more merciless tyrant, namely our own Imperial Self. Following Moses, that great leader sent to them by God, the Jews were eventually able to find the freedom to belong to God and to belong to Him totally and without any external restrictions imposed upon them by the principalities and powers of this world. What was true for them back then is true for us today. Similarly, each one of us must come out of our own captivity each and every day.
Over the years religious Jews rejoiced in the Law of God. By their observance of God’s Law they witnessed to the saving God who cares for them and loves them… so much that He gave them the Law. The problem is that, as with so many things, we easily slip into a mere external observance of the laws, rules, and disciplines that can guide us, that can liberate us and so free us to accomplish good and even great things.
What happens to an athlete who fails to keep his or her training discipline? Or a musician who fails to practice? What happens to an artist or poet who throws off the discipline of his or her craft? Greatness eludes them.
Laws are too often seen from the wrong perspective. They are seen as restricting us rather than liberating us. To be sure they restrict and control our urges, drives and feelings. To be sure they keep us from doing what we feel like doing when we feel like doing it. But that is not their chief purpose.
The chief purpose of law is to free us to be focused, to keep us centered on what we can do in order to live wholesome and healthy lives, not just for ourselves but for the sake of helping and building up others. To quote Lord Acton, a famous British philosopher: “Freedom is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”
Good laws enshrine values. Good laws, rules, and regulations keep us in the game. That should be obvious when you watch any football game, or basketball game, or any other sports event. Laws keep us disciplined and on track. They free us from the worst in ourselves and allow us to bring out the best in ourselves…to be winners.
Most importantly, laws and rules should shape our inner selves, shape our hearts. Mere external observance of them leads to terrible consequences. Simple compliance with laws, rules, and regulations quickly leads us to defiant compliance. Once defiance enters into us we are only a step away from breaking away from our discipline and becoming once again slaves to our own selves.
One of the chief problems Jesus faced was that many of the people around Him, and particularly the religious leaders, were not truly and sincerely religious. They were merely externally complying with their religious rules and laws. They were hypocrites, frauds, and phonies. They saw only the external letter of the law and lost the vision of its inner spirit. Not only that, but they were imposing their phoniness onto the people whom God had sent them to serve.
After dealing harshly with the religious leaders He turned to the ordinary folks who were following Him. The words He spoke to them are words He speaks to us here and now, today in our Church. They are words we need to hear, living as we do in a surrounding culture that has become horribly self-indulgent, self-gratifying, and self-justifying… a culture that blames everyone else for what’s wrong. Aren’t you as sick of the blame game as I am? Aren’t you sick of the constant blaming of everyone else while there is a total neglect of taking responsibility for what’s in their own hearts and admitting what they have done that’s wrong?
Many people these days are fond of saying that Jesus accepted everyone and tolerated everything they did. As we’ve just heard, that is simply not true. God’s laws are His gifts to us. They protect us from ourselves. They give us freedom and lead us to what we dream we want to be, and for what Jesus Christ died for us to have. God’s laws enshrine values, shape our hearts, overrule our tyrannical urges, and lead us into the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God.
We have all heard some people railing against the Roman Catholic Church, saying that it should get out of trying to manage people’s private lives. Individual’s private lives belong to them and to them alone, we are told, and that the Church has no business rummaging around inside their hearts, their minds or their souls. It’s all a private matter they insist.
Curiously, others scold the Catholic Church for being so public. It should stay out of public politics and stop attempting to impose its values on others as the critics like to claim.
The Catholic Church, once again it seems, is damned if it does and at the same time damned if it doesn’t. It’s a position in which the Church frequently finds herself. We’re damned for being silent about the Holocaust and damned for speaking out on the slaughter of abortion on demand.
The refreshing thing about Jesus’ teaching is that it locates the problem. He tells us where moral pollution really comes from. Jesus tells us that we’re wasting a lot of spiritual energy and engaging in massive denial when we look to external sources, claiming that the system makes us do what we do. When we blame our faults on the up-bringing our parents gave us, or blame it on the politicians, or people of other races, or whatever, we’re simply repeating Adam’s weak excuse when he blamed it all on Eve.
Jesus cuts through all of the excuses and denials; He cuts to the source. When it comes to assessing the source of moral pollution we need not waste time examining other people’s lives, or the causes of their evil behavior, we need only assess our own lives and the source of our own personal misbehavior, our own moral pollution and evil acts.
We’ll never overcome our own personal moral failures if we are busily engaged in examining others’, or absorb ourselves in examining the reasons why others act as they do while ignoring our own. That’s the big point missed by the Pharisees… and Jesus wouldn’t let them off the hook.
Finally we need to recognize that any political system, economic system, or social ethos isn’t something that dropped down upon us from somewhere out in the cosmos. No, each and every one of our human social systems or cultures is the product of our own individual decisions.
They are the sum totals of personal moralities and individual choices. So, says Jesus, if you want to change the world then look into the individual soul and make the needed changes there. If you want your family to be a better family then begin by making yourself a better part of it.