Monday, November 12, 2007

Big on Law, Low on Principle

This sermon refers to Job 19:23-27a and Luke 20:27-38

A society organized and built on the basis of law and justice may tell two kinds of powerful stories with unique fascination. One we might call the story of the impossible possibility, the search for the perfect catch in the law, a form of parody that causes astonishment and dark laughter because it’s so ridiculous-- while also cutting to the heart of what matters. Jesus tells this kind of story today. The other is the story of when justice miscarries and an innocent man suffers. Our first lesson today gives us a famous slice of that kind of story, the stymieing story of Job. Both kinds of story shake our ordinary sense of justice, take us right to the edge of our imagination, and require that a legal mind give way to larger truth. Both stories show how insistently ancient Israel was organized and built on the basis of law and justice. And both speak to the question raised by the Roman poet Horace not many years before the birth of Christ: Quid leges sine moribus? “Of what use are laws, if we lack principle?”

Some very bright men come to Jesus today and tell a made-up story. Made for television, we might say—what a series this would be, “My Seven Husbands”. But that would be a different take on the story than our first-century clever men would have had; they couldn’t have cared less about the experience and rights of the woman. More and more, we are principled about the equality of women and men. That was not a first-century concept, though it was a passion of Jesus of Nazareth.

What is happening here is that smart legal minds are trying to back Jesus into a corner of impossibility. They are religious men who believe in God, but God, they say, is bound to obey the same laws that God has in place for us. St. Luke our story-teller implies at the start that these religious lawyers are about to confront Jesus with a test case intended to put him in the wrong. This is one of several times in the Gospels when people high on law and low on principles try to trap Jesus into saying something they could use against him—turning their encounter into a trial where they can catch him on cross-examination, get him to express a view that violated the laws of Israel or, even more dangerously, the laws of the Roman Empire.

They have heard enough about Jesus to know that he preaches a dangerous message about a Kingdom of God laying claim on daily life. To them, that sounds as if God might want to do something unexpected, even revolutionary, and they believed God would never do business that way. They have heard that Jesus speaks about angels serving the purposes of God and the needs of mortals, and about new life beyond the reach of death—and they thought all this was nonsense, because they could not find it anywhere in the law that a spiritual world could break in upon the physical, or that a person’s soul could live beyond the death of the body.

So they set up the case we heard: one after another, seven brothers follow the pattern of marrying this woman, then dying, leaving no children. Finally, the woman also dies—is it any wonder? If there is a resurrection beyond death, they want to know (but notice they aren’t principled enough to truthfully say they mean “if”—they speak as if they do believe there will be a resurrection), whose wife will the woman be?

Deeply committed to the rule of law, these men base their impossible possibility on a law that Moses taught. It’s found in Deuteronomy 25:5-6:

“When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.”

These religious lawyers agree that this is the only way a person lives beyond death: through his or her descendants. The way they see it, the right and legal answer to their question is: After death, we have no being except through our children. So this woman is no man’s wife because this woman is no longer.

I hear Jesus replying, “You are partly right, and enormously wrong. She is no man’s wife because marriage is only for this age of our earth-bound life. But if this woman were to step into the new age I am here to open to all, she would be so beyond death and so beyond all the bondings and ownings and dyings of daily life that she would be known not as someone’s wife but as who she is as God knows her. She will be a child of the resurrection. I will agree with you that God is not God of the dead, but of the living—not, as you suppose, because death limits God but because to God all the dead are alive, and intimately known.”

So Jesus gives his examiners a lesson about principle. This is an echo of what may be his signature lesson: when asked which was the most important of the laws of Israel, you remember his answer: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Driving principles of his preaching: love’s primacy, love’s inseparability as it flows through its own holy trinity of God, self, and neighbor, love requiring radical equality, the love of God giving human love the courage and power to be all it can be.

We know that Jesus did not invent these principles. Christianity does not claim that he invented them, but that he embodied them, uniquely, and by his Spirit we who live in him are made able to embody love in his way. While our Christian faith roots us in Jesus’s embodying of divine principle, our faith does not limit us, does not restrict us from admiring and appreciating other embodyings of love when we see them for what they are.

We get just a glimpse of one today, as four and a half verses remind us of Job. To hear his whole story is to watch colliding principles that attempt to explain the ways of God in the case of an innocent man whose suffering presents a miscarriage of justice, not just in his misfortunes but in what his very religious friends make of his misfortunes, how they slip from helpless silence into ill-advised blaming of Job for winding up in the plight he’s in.

If justice hadn’t been so important in ancient Israel, we’d never have had a story like Job’s. It’s for a sermon another day to go into that story, but let’s notice one thing: this is a story about an accused man who will not confess guilt. To explain away the awful things that have happened to him (the deaths of his children, wiping out his name; the loss of his home and wealth, a terrible disease of his skin—truly a dreadful list of impossible possibilities), to explain how this could befall a good man, his friends accuse him of somehow deserving it. Another case of legalistic minds run amok, unprincipled by love.

It is just when their toxic words bring him to the edge of final despair that out of Job erupts this explosion of hope that we heard today. “I know that my defender lives, and that at the last he will arise upon the earth—after my skin finally falls off, as it’s doing even now—But I would see God from my flesh, whom I would see for myself; my eyes would see, and not a stranger.”

Those words have been claimed by the Church and help open the rite of Christian burial. By the zeal of our theologians in the first centuries, the full embodying of love and justice in Jesus Christ have brimmed over to flow back and fill the scriptures of ancient Israel with meaning they didn’t have then. To say that Job speaks of what we mean by resurrection is unlikely. But what’s clear is that he would not give up on God and by that determination dares to believe that God will not give up on him.

And it takes that gritty an interpretation of Job’s words to ensure that we appreciate how he embodies love. He represents a sharp legal mind no less than Jesus’s examiners in Luke. The big difference is that his physical and emotional sufferings have shaken loose his ordinary sense of justice, brought him to the very edge of his imagination, and required that he step into the realm of spirit and truth. While his whole story is being told as if it were a trial being heard in a courtroom, his confrontation with God as the likelihood of death draws near causes Job to want help, and he imagines various heavenly figures who might come to his aid: an arbitrator, a witness, a defender. But in the end, as we heard today, nothing will satisfy Job except direct access to God. He says, to himself and to his smart but unprincipled friends, the same thing Jesus says to his examiners: Only God’s intimate knowledge of me can adequately judge and define and value me.

Can you hear the long-held detainees at Guantánamo saying this? I can.

Can you hear hard-working illegal aliens in this country saying similar words after being wrenched from their families in one state and driven far away to another for deportation hearings? I can.

Does a prisoner interrogated by water-boarding reach beyond himself with words like, “I know that my defender lives.. my life falls away, even now I would see God who alone knows how to see me.”

We are at war with more than terrorism. We are in collision with our own principles. Like ancient Israel, our society is built upon law and justice. Like ancient Israel, we must pay attention to our own stories of justice miscarried. With Horace, we must ask how laws can guide us if we lack principle. And with Jesus find divine principle announcing God’s sovereign defense of the dignity and value of every person, divine principle asserting what it means to live a just life.