June 13, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
What do you suppose they were all so afraid of? After all, that is the bottom line of this dramatic and startling story in Luke 8: all the witnesses and all the townsfolk were afraid.
What was it that did them in, fear-wise? Was it the sight of all those dead pigs floating in the water and even now starting to wash up on shore? Was it the sight of this nut job of a human being now clothed and in his right mind? Was it the idea that despite the other explanations people had bandied about over the years (he’s quirky, he’s angry, he’s just not well adjusted) that it turned out there really had been a legion of demons in this man after all? Did the demons frighten them all? Did this reveal to them that the world is a more spiritually fraught place than they had previously guessed? The transfer from the man to the pigs had shown the truth of the situation and maybe retrospectively that shook them up, given what had been really lurking in their midst all along.
So is that what they were afraid of?
Whatever it was it was so overwhelming a fearful feeling—Luke tells us they were flat out “overcome” with fright—that they asked Jesus to leave. And maybe just there is as good an answer to this question as any. The spectacle had been shocking and shocking things have a way of producing unsettled feelings, even fear sometimes. The loss of the pigs had been a blow to the local economy perhaps but in the end the pigs could be replaced. The man himself was a sight to see now that the wildness and untamed nature of him had been put aside but whatever and happened and however it had happened, he was not a very scary spectacle just sitting there. In any event no one from the town suggested that he hit the road. They’d put up with his rabid nature for years without banishing him (and without, apparently, being too terribly afraid of him) so he was surely no source of fear now.
But they asked Jesus to leave and there’s really only one explanation for this: they collectively decided that he was the source of their overwhelming fear. Maybe if he left, their fright would depart with him. If your child is afraid of the stuffed bear in the corner of her room because she thinks it is looking at her when she sleeps and might come alive during the night, you take the bear out of the room. If a community is afraid of some peeping Tom who keeps peering through window panes at young girls as they get undressed, the police seek to find and remove this person from the streets (and no one sleeps well or feels settled until this source of fear and intrusion is properly locked up).
These people were afraid of Jesus. That’s why he had to go. The one the demons properly pegged as “the Son of the Most High God” just couldn’t stay there because his presence was unmaking people, terrifying them. The man who had been delivered? He could stay. The demons—wherever they had scooted off to once they lost their temporary home inside the pigs—could apparently stick around, too. But not Jesus. He had to go so people could breathe easy again.
Can it be that the presence and power of God are a source of fright? Apparently. And I wonder if even us religious types wouldn’t find this to be true in case the palpable, physical presence of God showed up even some Sunday morning while we are in the act of worshiping God. We are surely fooling ourselves—but we surely do this all the time, too!!—if we assume that were Jesus to show up at one of our worship services, he would ever and only smile upon and bless everything we are doing and saying. Maybe we do have everything absolutely correct in terms of who God is and how he likes to be worshiped and spoken of. Maybe every socio-political stance a given church advocates and every program it carries out and every decision it makes on how to spend money in the church budget—maybe ALL of it just fits God to a T.
Maybe. But I have this sneaking suspicion that if Jesus really did show up, he’d prove to be plenty unsettling to even us buttoned-down religious types even as he might just surprise and shock us. We might come to see just where and how we are significantly out of alignment with Jesus after all and as it is at the office when the boss shows up and starts very carefully going over all your work and all your files and all your emails . . . well, sooner or later the knot in the pit of your stomach signals to your heart one undeniable fact: you are afraid! What might the boss uncover if he looks that closely at our work?!
But if that could be true of us even within Christ’s Church today, how much more true for hapless and clueless folks such as the people of the Gerasenes in Luke 8? The thing about having the one true God in your midst is you have this feeling that the incident with the pigs could be just the tip of this divine iceberg. Who knows what would be next but it’s surely not beyond the realm of possibility that this Jesus person, the Son of the Most High God, could end up shaking up everything and that is, well, a frightening thought for most people.
In the tradition of the church the sin of sloth, of acedia, is regarded as one of the Seven Deadly Sins and although in the popular imagination sloth is reduced to mere laziness or being sluggardly, the actual essence of sloth is spiritual boredom. It’s an inability to get excited about things that are truly good and wonderful. Sometimes the spiritually slothful are anything but slothful in other areas of their lives it’s just that what most energizes them are sporting events or NASCAR races or finding out there’s a new microbrewery opening up in their neighborhood. They get excited all right, but just not about the right things. A hockey game is something to look forward to all week but the things of God . . . not so much.
A desire to NOT change, to not do what needs doing in order to make one’s life better, often underlies sloth. It’s easier to stay the same—even if “the same” is not all that great—than let someone put you through the wringer or confront you with this or that truth about your life or this culture or this world that you’d just as soon not know. For the people of the Gerasenes life with a demon-possessed crazy man in their midst was no picnic. He terrified neighborhoods, was a cause of fear for parents of young children, was a public nuisance and embarrassment when friends from out of town would come by for a visit. But as they say, better the devil you know . . . better the devil you know than the God you don’t know but who looks to promise a whole lot of change that just maybe it’s easier not to do.
Of course, when God shows up to shake things up it’s finally a grace that he brings to us. It goes without saying that his deliverance of this hapless man was an act of grace and mercy but so are the other things Jesus can do for us in our lives, painful though some of those things may be for us as we find the need to change course or give up certain things.
As Luke 8 concludes, Jesus sails away even as the folks of the Gerasenes go back home, unchanged. Just the one man is left on the shore waving furiously in gratitude to the man who saved him. He’s got a job to do in telling people the great things God had done for him.
I wonder if anyone in the Gerasenes listened . . .
In his perennially best-selling book years ago, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck opened by saying that across his many years of practice as a psychologist, the number one obstacle he encountered in helping people get better had nothing to do with stubborn chemical imbalances in the brain that were resistant to medication but rather the #1 obstacle was people’s unwillingness to do the hard things that needed doing to make the necessary changes in their behavior. It’s not that Dr. Peck could not come up with good programs of activities people could engage in that would make a difference. But getting people to act on those programs . . . well, as Johnny Carson used to like to say, you can lead a horse to water but to get him to swim the backstroke is tough!
I Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
Author: Doug Bratt
Discouragement can be a devastating feeling. A national news magazine once labeled it “the social disease of the 1980s in America.” One biblical commentator suggests “listlessness, despair and resignation are crippling people across the nation in a wave of chronic cynicism.” As evidence, he points to the surging tide of teen suicides and an exploding drug epidemic.
Virtually all preachers, teachers and their hearers have experienced some form of discouragement. Those who preach and teach 1 Kings 19 may want to explore reasons for such discouragement. People become discouraged because they can’t seem to make or keep any close friends. Workers become discouraged because they don’t seem to make any headway or progress in their daily work.
God’s children may even become spiritually discouraged. Some know the disheartening feeling of distance from God. We know the discouragement of feeling in a spiritual rut, with no growth in our walk with the Lord.
As 1 Kings 19 opens, nearly all of Israel has turned away from Baal and toward Yahweh, the living God. Her king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel, however, stubbornly cling to their idols. So when Jezebel learns Elijah has ordered the execution of her gods’ prophets, she orders his execution. She brazenly promises to kill the prophet within twenty-four hours.
Perhaps surprisingly, Elijah’s courage seems to melt in the intense heat of the queen’s white-hot rage. In fact, he’s so frightened that he races for his life into the desert. When the prophet finally becomes so exhausted that he can run no farther, he plops down under a tree. There Elijah is clearly a broken, disappointed man. Under the tree, Elijah begs God to do what Ahab and Jezebel for so long have tried to do. “Take my life,” he groans in verse 4, “I am no better than my ancestors.”
God, however, has plans for Elijah. Death isn’t the solution to the prophet’s predicament. The Lord, however, doesn’t dignify the prophet’s death wish with a verbal answer. Instead God just lets him sleep and then, as God earlier did through ravens and a starving widow, God feeds God’s hungry prophet.
This time it’s an angel who apparently somehow provides Elijah with “a cake of bread baked over hot coals and a jar of water.” However, the angel’s visit and gift don’t seem to change anything substantive. Elijah, after all, apparently remains exhausted and discouraged. After the prophet eats and drinks God’s gift, he simply goes back to sleep.
So Elijah seems prepared to sleep away his life. Yahweh, however, still won’t let his prophet die. So the Lord again touches and awakens Elijah through an angel. Again Yahweh gives his prophet food to eat and water to drink, this time enough to fuel a forty-day and forty-night trip to Horeb.
This journey, however, is not like Elijah’s earlier flight from a vengeful tyrant that he planned and carried out himself. This time Elijah’s race is planned and led by God. When, after all, he finally gets to Horeb and settles into perhaps the same cave in which Moses earlier met the Lord, Elijah finds God.
When Yahweh meets the prophet there, God wonders just what he’s doing. This, as one biblical scholar notes, brings into focus the central question of what will define Elijah. Will it be his fear of Jezebel? Or will his faithfulness to God shape the prophet’s life and his mission? Elijah answers the question of his identity by affirming both his faithfulness and Israel’s faithlessness that has isolated him. “I am the only one left,” he mourns in verse 10.
The Bible doesn’t often talk much about the psychological health of people. In fact, it’s almost always dangerous to speculate on its characters’ mental well-being. Here, however, the Bible gives a strong sense that Elijah is very discouraged.
Such deep discouragement sometimes prevents people from making accurate observations and good decisions. One noted preacher, in connection with this passage, has written that “Despair is always color-blind; it can only see the dark tints.” So when Elijah claims to be alone in service to God, he forgets Obadiah’s one hundred rescued prophets. The prophet has also clearly forgotten Israel’s mass conversion on Carmel.
Of course, there’s more accuracy in Elijah’s next assertion. He’s right in claiming that those who have already succeeded in murdering the rest of God’s prophets are now trying to kill him. This realization seems to have pushed Elijah past the point of caring anymore. He’s simply ready to die, just as Ahab and Jezebel wish.
So we might expect God to reassure Elijah that God will protect him. You and I might expect God to immediately insist that the prophet isn’t, in fact, God’s only surviving prophet. But what does God command Elijah to do? “Go out and stand on the mountain, in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then God stops talking until after a storm, an earthquake and a fire pass by.
Yet while God seems to somehow send those natural phenomena, God doesn’t directly identify himself with any of them. God doesn’t speak through the storm, earthquake, fire or, later, silence. The Lord isn’t “in” any of them.
Of course, Elijah might never have noticed God anyway. After all, the prophet’s in the exact same emotional and physical place after them as he was before those phenomena. In fact, he doesn’t even obey God by going out to “stand on the mountain” until what verse 12 calls “a gentle whisper” somehow propels him out of his hiding place.
We sometimes link that “gentle whisper” to some kind of “still small voice” of God. But most new translations of the Bible won’t let us do that. According to verse 13, only after he hears the gentle whisper does Elijah hear a voice again ask him what he’s doing there. So instead of speaking to God’s prophet through some dramatic natural phenomenon, the Lord speaks quietly but directly to him.
Elijah certainly needs to hear God. After all, the physical phenomena haven’t changed his understanding of his relationship to God. God’s prophet’s heart and mind remain frozen by fear. So when God asks him again what he’s doing in the cave, Elijah answers in the exact same way he answered God earlier. Clearly he feels just as sorry for himself as he did before those dramatic displays of God’s power.
Elijah, after all, again mourns his isolation. The prophet again says that he fears for his life. Elijah apparently remains skeptical about God’s protection, even after all the pyrotechnics of Carmel and Horeb.
So how does God encourage God’s discouraged prophet? By first, as my colleague Jack Roeda points out in a sermon on this passage, reorienting Elijah’s perspective. Elijah sees himself as all alone, as the only survivor of a vengeful and immoral kind and queen. Yet how does God see Elijah? God knows God is Israel’s kingmaker who has the power to take down rulers and put new ones in their place. God sees his prophet Elijah as God’s faithful kingmaker.
So the living God sends Elijah right back to where he came sprinting for his life from. There, God says, the prophet must anoint a new king, Hazael, over Aram and a new king, Jehu, over Israel. In other words, God creates a new reality for Elijah by enlisting him to create a new reality in Israel.
God’s sons and daughters can always count on God to provide us with every good thing they need in any kind of wilderness. The One who fed both Israel and Elijah in their wildernesses is, after all, the source of every good thing, including food and water, in our various “deserts.”
Sometimes, however, even that wonderful providence isn’t enough to restore courage. Some of the most well-fed and watered people are also the most discouraged ones. Sometimes, as with Elijah, not even the most spectacular displays of God’s presence and power are enough to restore courage.
God essentially sends Elijah right back to his work as prophet in a way not unlike the way the resurrected Christ sent his disciples back to their work after Easter. By refusing to let him quit, God calls Elijah back to his work of subverting Ahab and Jezebel’s wicked, destructive and oppressive regime.
Essentially, then, God restores Elijah’s courage by giving him more work to do. God knows, after all, that one remedy for discouragement is becoming busy. So the Lord basically shrugs off God’s prophet’s complaints and commissions him for more important work.
God’s 21st century discouraged people may not hear God somehow speak directly to us. However, the Lord certainly gives us enough to do, just as he gave Elijah enough to do. After all, there’s enough for all of God’s adopted sons and daughters to do in our churches, homes, communities and workplaces.
God’s remedy for Elijah’s discouragement includes both new jobs and the promise of a future that doesn’t depend on his personal success. In light of God’s coming kingdom, Elijah’s life proves to be worth living after all.
In her book, No Greater Love, Mother Teresa writes, “Always be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little . . . Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God . . .
We must deliberately renounce all desires to see the fruit of our labor, doing all we can as best we can, leaving the rest in the hands of God. What matters is the gift of your self, the degree of love that you put into each one of your actions. Do not allow yourself to be disheartened by any failure, as long as you have done your best. Neither glory in your success, but refer all to God in deepest thankfulness.
If you are discouraged it is a sign of pride because it shows you trust in your own powers. Never bother about people’s opinions. Be humble and you will never be disturbed. The Lord has willed me here where I am. He will offer a solution.”
Author: Stan Mast
I can easily imagine a 21st century psychologist reading this Psalm for the first time and calling it “The Bi-Polar Psalm,” because of its sudden wild swings of mood. The Psalmist seems to have two totally different minds here. Are these the words of a person driven to mental instability by the clash between his faith and the awful facts of his life? Or are these the words of a perfectly normal believer, an everyman or woman struggling with the seeming absence of God in the midst of life’s intractable problems? Most of us preachers will undoubtedly opt for the latter interpretation, because of the way it anticipates the suffering of Jesus. But that psychological take on Psalm 22 should alert us to the deep agony of this Psalm.
Psalm 22 is the confession of a normal believer. It reminds us that the normal Christian life can be very difficult. Following Christ isn’t easy, as our other readings for this sixth Sunday after Pentecost show us. The alternate Psalm selections (42 and 43) have been called “the Depressive Psalms,” because of the Psalmist’s repeated question. “Why are you so downcast, O my soul?” In I Kings 19 we meet Elijah in a deep funk after his battle with evil. And in Luke 8 Jesus delivers a man who has been imprisoned by demonic forces so powerful that everyone is terrified of him. I can imagine how modern day psychologists would have diagnosed him. Life is full of dark moments that plunge us into psychological and spiritual distress, even if we are fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Psalm 22 is, in fact, the model prayer of a perfectly normal believer.
We can be more certain of that interpretation because Psalm 22 was the prayer of Jesus on the cross. Not only did he quote verse 1 in the depths of that supernatural darkness at noon, but also some scholars are convinced that he murmured the entire Psalm there in the darkness. That is very tough to prove, but the parallels between Psalm 22 and Jesus’ crucifixion are uncanny. Verses 7 and 8 anticipate the mockery of the crowd (Mt. 27:39-43). Verse 15 foreshadows his dehydration (Jn. 19:28). The NIV translation of verse 16 points ahead to his piercing by nails. Verse 18 was fulfilled in John 19:23, 24. And verse 22 is put on Jesus lips in Hebrews 2:11, 12.
Psalm 22 is quoted or alluded to in the New Testament more frequently than any other Psalm. The early church surely saw it as a Messianic Psalm. So does today’s church; the lectionary refers to it in Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, using it in combination with no less than 9 other passages. All of which is to say that this is not only the model prayer for a perfectly normal believer. It is also the prayer of The Perfect Man, our Model for and our Savior in the darkness. When we go to him in our dark times, we can use his prayer when he doesn’t seem to be anywhere close.
That is one half of the big problem in Psalm 22 and in our lives and on the cross of Christ. God doesn’t seem to be anywhere close. Thus, our reading for today begins with the impassioned plea, “But you, O Lord, be not far off.” The other half of the big problem in Psalm 22 is suggested by that “but.” It refers back to the previous verses, in which “they” are all too close. God seems far away and “they” are breathing down our necks. One of the problems in slicing and dicing up the Psalm for today’s reading is that we lose the flow of the Psalm. Not only do we not know who “they” are, but also we have no sense of the shocking juxtaposition of fear and faith that has preceded this reading.
So, before we proceed, let’s place our reading in the overall structure of Psalm 22. It begins in verses 1-2 with that invocation of dereliction we hear on the cross followed by a powerful complaint that God doesn’t answer the Psalmist’s prayers. Then in verses 3-5, there is an expression of deep trust, followed in verses 6-8 by another agonized complaint about his situation. Verses 9-10 contain another powerful confession of faith in God’s lifelong care for him, followed in verse 11 by a brief petition based on that care. But then verses 12-18 we hear one long and detailed complaint about the enemies that surround the Psalmist, as well as a painful description of his physical condition as a result of their attacks. He compares his enemies to animals—bulls, lions, dogs—and then speaks of being pierced (by their swords?).
Now, here in verses 19-31, the Psalmist turns decisively away from those enemies who surround him and toward the God who has seemed so far away for so long. For the first time in the Psalm the Psalmist refers to this distant God as Yahweh. His foes have used that name in mockery in verse 8, but here the Psalmist somehow comes back to his covenantal senses. (Cf. Lamentations 3:21, “yet this I call to mind.”) He calls Yahweh “my Strength,” using a word found nowhere else in the Old Testament. He begs God not only to come near, but also to make it snappy. “Come quickly to help me.”
In spite of his ordeal and his loud lamentation, he has not lost his faith in God. Indeed, a careful reading of the laments will reveal that they are born of faith—faith disappointed, but faith nevertheless. Now his faith cries out for deliverance, using multiple words—deliver, rescue, save—and reversing the order of the enemies—sword, dogs, lion, and bulls.
And just like that, it’s over and he is vowing to praise God in the great congregation and urging everyone to join him in praise. Some locate the shift in mood in verse 21, where the verb “save” is in the perfect tense, as opposed to the three imperatives that precede it in the prayer for deliverance. Noting this, some scholars translate that last clause of verse 21 as, “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.” That’s a plausible reading, though it seems a very abrupt change in the flow of thought.
Even if we don’t accept that reading of verse 21b, there is an abrupt shift in verse 22. After multiple verses focused on his troubles, the Psalmist is now consumed with gratitude and praise. Indeed, some scholars maintain that the shift is so dramatic and unexplained that verses 22-31 must have been an independent psalm that somehow got appended to Psalm 22. Such a reading of our text robs it of its resonance with the perfectly normal life of a believer. What has happened here is what happens to us—grace has broken through suffering, unannounced, unexpected, unexplained. There’s an old scatological saying about the prevalence of trouble in life. I’ll give you the bowdlerized version. “Hey, stuff happens.” Well, Psalm 22 shows us the other side of the equation. “Hey, grace happens.”
When grace breaks into life, life changes dramatically. Psalm 22 shows us a couple of changes that we might not think of. First, the Psalmist makes a vow. “I will declare your name to my brothers (and sisters, of course); in the great congregation I will praise you.” The practice of making vows can be abused. We can use vows to bargain with God. “If you do this, then I promise to do that.” But that’s not what the Psalmist does here. “Because you have graciously broken into my misery, I will do this.” The grace of God prompts a promise. That’s something that will preach. How often do we experience sudden grace, breathe a sigh of relief, and walk away unchanged?
The Psalmist vows to do something that would make most Christians’ knees buckle. “I will go public with my praise.” In our age of individualistic spirituality, we keep our praise private. We have a right to privacy, and that extends to worship. “That’s between me and my God.” Well, no, says the Psalmist. If God has done this great thing for me, I have to share it with others in the great congregation. This Psalm filled with trouble so severe that it tests faith ends with a long vow and expansive praise.
Indeed, that’s the word scholars use to describe the last 23-31—expansive, or even explosive. Not only will the Psalmist praise God himself, but he also calls all Israel to join him in verse 23. His personal deliverance has national implications, because not only individual Israelites but also the nation has experienced the absence of God while surrounded by the presence of animalistic enemies. So they need to be reminded that Yahweh “has not despised or disdained the suffering of his afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” Israel needed to hear that and join the Psalmist in his praise.
So does the world. What has happened to the king of Israel happens around the world to all kinds of people. So the Psalmist turns outward, assumes a missionary posture, and calls upon the whole world to praise Yahweh– from the poor to the rich, from the Promised Land to the ends of the earth, from the children of Jacob to the families of the nations, from those who have gone down to the dust to those who are not yet born. This is extravagant, unprecedented praise. The nations are often “the Enemy.” Now they are invited into the choir. The “dead praise not the living God.” Here they join the praise. How can people not yet born praise God? But the Psalmist calls on fetuses to raise their voices. The poor are often oppressed by the rich. Now they join the rich at the banquet table of the Kingdom? That’s what the now delivered Psalmist calls for.
And that’s what the Perfect Man died for. His God forsakenness on the cross and his subsequent deliverance from all his enemies had not only personal significance, not only national significance, but also worldwide significance. The One who emptied himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross, will one day be exalted. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus the Christ is Lord. (Philippians 2) Psalm 22 gives us a Christ-centered prayer for the darkest days of our lives, when there seems to be no hope for deliverance. It moves that huge distance from complaint and lament to deliverance and praise in the space of half a verse (21a), or in the space of three days. Grace can be sudden and unexpected.
I love the way Eric Mathis puts it. “Yes, even when we are faced with suffering—whether we find ourselves among the weak or the powerful—we will move from darkness to dawn and proclaim the deliverance that come from God to God’s people. This is the Psalmist’s story. This is Christ’s story. This is our story. And this is the story for generations to come. Thanks be to God.”
You probably won’t have to look very far to find examples of people who can voice the prayer of Psalm 22. But if you are looking for a particularly honest and godly example, look no further than J. Todd Billings. A theology professor at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, Billings was told at the young age of 39 that he has incurable cancer. In his wonderful book, Rejoicing in Lament, he wrestles with all the questions such a diagnosis raises in a man of faith. The big question is, of course, “why did God let this happen to me?” The issue at the heart of that question is the sovereignty of a good God. Here a few thoughts that might help you preach on Psalm 22.
“It is faith in a sovereign God that causes confusion in the Psalms of lament. Why does an all powerful King suddenly and inexplicably no longer bless, no longer order life, and no longer hold things together. If a person did not believe that God is sovereign, there would be no cause for lament. It is precisely out of trust that God is sovereign that the Psalmist repeatedly brings laments and petition to the Lord.”
“In what sense, exactly, does the Psalmist blame God amid crisis? The psalmist does not ‘blame’ God in the sense of a judge who blames a defendant as he delivers a verdict and dismisses the defendant from the courtroom. Instead the psalmists blame God in the interrogative, with raw, unanswered questions that cling to the hope of God’s covenant promise: Why am I in this crisis if the Lord’s covenant promise is true?”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Once Paul turned the corner on what he thought about God’s Law, he turned hard and never looked back. Indeed, Paul devotes some considerable space to this topic in his various New Testament epistles, coming up with ever-more creative ways by which to reframe the role and purpose of God’s Law. The end of Galatians 3 is one such passage and it introduces a very curious image indeed.
But first: we need to remember that prior to getting knocked flat on the Damascus Road by the very Jesus whose name Saul was intent on wiping off the face of the earth, Saul’s view of the Law was radically different. The Law was its own kind of savior. The Law was your ticket to the heavenly kingdom of God. I know that in recent years the ins and outs of all this have been endlessly debated by old school scholars and “new perspective on Paul” scholars and I admit that it always takes a bit of review for me to re-understand the finer nuances among the perspectives as to what Second Temple Judaism Jews like Saul of Tarsus would have thought about the role played by the Law.
No doubt there was still some sense that the Law was God’s gift to the people to keep them healthy and safe AND that the Law had been given at Sinai only after the people had already been redeemed. Salvation comes first (and by God’s covenantal grace alone) and Law comes second as a response to that grace. The indicative precedes the imperative. True enough. But we also know that keeping the Law—including the “fence around the Torah” and all those extra laws that got added to protect the REAL Law at the center—had come to be the defining mark of a true believer. The cart did get in front of the horse eventually (this has happened in my own Reformed tradition too) and so there was confusion. Keeping the law peerlessly slowly on morphed from a SIGN that you were a true believer into the WAY you become a true believer.
As C.S. Lewis wrote, it is the easiest thing in the world to confuse fruit with root. You cannot see the roots of a tree but only the lovely peaches that grow above the soil on the tree’s branches. Of course, no roots, no fruit but the fruit is so much easier to see that sooner or later its production becomes so fascinating that we forget about the roots. It’s the same with Christian work and keeping the law: what we do is visible on the surface of our lives. That it is all fueled by the roots of grace is harder to spy and, therefore, to remember, and so sooner or later most of us are far more proud of the bumper crop of spiritual peaches we have produced than we are cognizant of the grace that alone made that possible in the first place.
To invoke Lewis’s famous analogy: Suppose a 6-year-old boy asks his father to give him $5 to buy him a present. The father gives the boy the money and is then thrilled with the gift the little tyke later brings to him. But, Lewis observes, only a fool would conclude the father came out $5 ahead on the transaction!
If we don’t get the grace, the energy, the “money” from God in the first place, we’d have no spiritual work/fruits to give, and pleased though God is with our lives of discipleship, he never thinks that this is how we saved ourselves in the first place.
Paul’s own testimonies in Galatians and Philippians and elsewhere to his former way of thinking is abundantly clear: he was God’s favorite person because he was near perfect in keeping the Law. But once Saul-turned-Paul got literally and metaphysically blinded by the searing grace of God that shines from Christ’s cross, he looked back on his own past accomplishments and suddenly the whole thing looked like a stinking pile of cow crap (skubala in Greek).
But a yen to make law-keeping a key player in salvation is like the proverbial bad penny: it just keeps turning up. It did in Galatia, too, as previous sermon starters on this epistle have displayed. So Paul had to reframe the Law over and over and in Galatians 3 he comes up with another reframing image: a babysitter.
The Law up until the time of Christ was, Paul says in the Greek, our paidagogos. Some translations now render this “guardian” but “babysitter” is not far from the mark. A paidagogos was someone who watched over a child when the child was too young to take care of him- or herself. The babysitter is not the child’s parent or probably a family member of any kind and, as every child happily anticipates, neither is the babysitter going to be permanently necessary. For any given human being, a babysitter is a temporary presence in a person’s life until a time of greater maturity is reached after which babysitters are no longer needed.
Of course, the principles of the babysitter never go away. Or better said, what happens when a child matures is that he or she internalizes what the babysitter would say or do in order to keep the child healthy and well. You sort of do it for yourself, and apply those same lessons of care to others who may come under your care someday (your own children or someone else’s kids in case you become a guardian or babysitter). The freedom that you later enjoy in life stems from the fact that someone once upon a time both took good care of you—and how could you ever feel negatively toward that person, therefore—and the fact that you now know how to do this for your own self.
This passage ends with soaring words about how now in Christ the old demarcations of sex, gender, legal status, and nationality are stripped away, drowned out and washed out in the waters of baptism. We now have a unity and a freedom in Christ and in his overflowing grace that we could never have conceived of before. The babysitter is gone now but we would never be where we are without that guardian having been there. And that guardian is still with us—the reason we can treat each other in love and with such generosity over and above the distinctions in life that so often keep people apart is because we have internalized the Law of love and all its myriad implications.
We no longer need to be told to keep the Law—the Spirit that lives in us on account of baptism keeps it for us and in us and goads us in gratitude for our salvation in Christ to follow God’s ways joyfully.
In the movie The Sound of Music, Sister Maria is sent to the Von Trapp family as governess over the seven children of a wealthy widower. The children range in ages from 5 to 16 and were notorious for having run through a fair number of recent governesses who apparently fled the household in despair. When Maria arrives, she discovers quickly that the oldest of the children, Liesel, is 16 years old and sees no need for a governess. Maria responds, “Well, then I guess we will just be good friends.” Later, when Liesel gets herself into a tight spot with her father only to be saved by Maria’s standing up for her, Liesel confesses that maybe she does still need a governess after all.
But, of course, Liesel and Maria do end up actually becoming friends even as Maria becomes a step-mother to all the children after she and Captain Von Trapp fall in love and get married. Maria is no longer a babysitter or governess for Liesel but she is still necessary, still welcome, still useful in Liesel’s life.
Something about all that made me think of Paul’s image of the Law as our babysitter. Paul never says the Law is now gone, disappeared, useless. It’s still here but in Christ and as we live into the perfect salvation Christ delivered to us, the Law is now a friend, a partner, a still-useful guide to Godly living even if its days as our babysitter are long gone.