Did you have trouble figuring out exactly what Paul was getting at in that passage from Romans? It’s about as tangled as Paul’s arguments get – and that’s pretty tangled! He’s trying to explain to a Christian community the tension that exists between doing what is right according to the Jewish Law and realizing that even when we fully intend to do right we can get it terribly wrong! For Paul the Law of God is both a gift and a problem. It’s a gift, because it provides a guide for holy living; it’s a problem, because when we try to live by it, we will inevitably fail – or at least, that seems to have been his experience. This is the secret fear in the heart of any person whose goal in life is to be as good as possible, as holy as possibly, or as righteous as possible. It is a worthy goal – but underneath it all is the niggling fear, the voice that says, “Are you sure you’ve got it right? What if you’re wrong? You know they say, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’!”. That’s what Paul’s wrestling with in this reading. His way of explaining that tension is to describe a kind of internal war between the spirit and the flesh: his inner self wants to be good, and his outer self keeps letting him down!
Let’s just take a really simple example of that from everyday life. We’re all hearing constantly about how we need to eat more healthy foods and exercise more. Yet how many of us when we’re having a low energy day just can’t resist reaching for the calorie-laden latte instead of going for a brisk walk or a trip to the gym? We know it’s the wrong decision, but our body’s saying, “Give me caffeine! Don’t make me move!” and we listen. Paul seems to have that kind of trouble – perhaps over much more serious issues, though we don’t really know.
As much as I disagree with some of the things Paul writes, I find myself feeling empathy toward him. I wonder if you feel some kinship as well? I’m guessing we can all think of times when we’ve said or done the wrong thing, or failed to do the right thing. We may judge others because they’re not living the way we think they should, and yet hear a voice inside ourselves saying, “Look who’s talking, you!” I remember one meeting of Manitoba and Northwest Conference where we had listened with great emotion to a speaker sharing his experience of Indian residential schools as child. We could hear how badly our church’s good intentions had gone astray. On a later issue, after a vote was taken, a woman stood up and said, “I just hope that we don’t turn around 50 years from now and realize we made as serious a mistake today as we did over residential schools.” I was on the opposite side of the issue from her, and I thought to myself, “How self-righteous of her!” And then a little voice in my head said, “But how do you know? What if she’s right and the rest of us are wrong? And who are you to judge?”
I tell you, living in Paul’s head must have been exhausting! It’s certainly been exhausting inside of mine at certain times of my life! I think Jesus understood that exhaustion. The first part of the passage from Matthew is a bit confusing, but in essence he’s saying, “First you folks judge John because he was strict in his way of life; then you judge me because I enjoy life more than you think I should!” It’s like little children who only want to play a game if their friends will play by their rules! I think Jesus is saying, “Let it go! Let go of righteousness that becomes self-righteousness. Let go of those fears of not being good enough that cause you to judge others and judge yourself. Rest in the grace and mercy of God. Rest in God’s love. Rest in me.”
How quickly both Paul and Jesus move from condemning sin and self-righteousness to the gift of comfort and rest. I guess they know that we humans are a bundle of contradictions: hard and vulnerable, sharp and tender, judgemental and judged, excluding and isolated. All of us need a kick in the pants or a course correction at some times; all of us need reassurance and a comforting hug at others.
So neither Paul or Jesus say, “You must always do the right thing at every moment and at every time.” Nor do they say, “Do whatever you want. Don’t even bother trying to live according to God’s will.” Paul says, “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Jesus says, “Come to me, and we’ll walk the paths of righteousness together. “ Sharing a yoke means sharing the load – distributing the weight – pulling together. If we walk with God the way Jesus did, with humility, with kindness for ourselves and for others, then we won’t feel so at war with ourselves and the world. There’s rest and peace in that promise. Amen.