The Very Reverend John Hall Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 9th September 2007
Deuteronomy 30: 15-end; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14: 25-33
For the Deuteronomist, there is one clear path to life. He sets before his hearers “life and prosperity, death and adversity” and calls on them to “choose life … loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him.” The way to life and happiness for the Deuteronomist is no way of hedonism, the unbridled pursuit of pleasure, but a simple way of obedience to the commandments of the Lord, that is the Ten Commandments and the commandments laid down in the books of Moses and updated in Deuteronomy itself. Follow the commandments and you will live.
This probably feels familiar to us, whilst not being especially comfortable. It is a challenging approach to life, but nevertheless clear and straight-forward. Every parent and teacher understands that children are happier knowing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. If the boundaries are unclear, they will push further and harder seeking some sort of barrier. Make the boundaries clear from the start and there will be less trouble. I suppose that is a modern interpretation of the old-fashioned and now unacceptable ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’
However, there is a problem. Familiar though it may be as a concept, ‘follow the commandments and you will live’ is easier said than done. Who can follow the commandments? This issue exercised some of the Jews of our Lord’s day so greatly that they tried to take absolutely literally the very words of all the commandments themselves, every jot and tittle. Jesus makes fun of them because this concentration on the detail has led them away from the meaning and purpose of the law itself. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” The Pharisees obey the law of tithing, offering a tenth of the harvest for the work of God, but take it to a ridiculous level, offering a tenth of the herbs they have plucked from the garden whilst preparing a midday meal.
There is more than fun and ridicule here. There is a profound disagreement between Jesus on the one hand and the scribes and Pharisees on the other about what makes us right with God, what leads to the fullness of life. Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan helps us see it more clearly. The priest and the Levi who pass by on the other side, and thus avoid contact with the robbed man left for dead, are driven by their obedience to the commandment that would have made them unclean if they had touched a dead body, and thus unable to fulfil their duties in the temple in Jerusalem. Following the details of the commandments makes them unable to obey one of the two greatest commandments, to love our neighbour. Their legalistic tradition, intended to protect the keeping of the commandments, has rendered obedience to the commandments of God impossible. Jesus makes the same point in another way again in dispute with the scribes and Pharisees when he accuses them of allowing money to be offered for religious causes as Corban that should have gone for the support of people’s parents. The word of God, to honour your father and mother, Jesus says, is made void through the tradition that the Pharisees have handed on.
So, if ‘follow the commandments and you will live’ is easier said than done, what hope do we have of salvation? What is the good life? If obeying the law is too difficult to be a sure way, perhaps we should give ourselves up to hedonism, the unbridled pursuit of pleasure. Well, not so. Jesus himself shows us another way: to be his disciple. This is certainly no easy way. It may not even seem to be a way of life. He puts it starkly in today’s gospel. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate … even life itself cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
“Choose life!” said the Deuteronomist. “Hate life!” said Jesus. But how is that compatible with Jesus saying in St John’s Gospel (10: 10), “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”? Are the gospels at war with each other? By no means! We are faced with the paradox that, to quote Jesus’ words in St Matthew’s Gospel (16:25), “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
This very paradox is at the heart of the Christian faith. Cling on to life and you will lose it. Put another way, live a life of self-indulgence, of unabashed hedonism, or live a life dedicated to amassing power, wealth, honour for its own sake, and it will all turn to dust. How can we doubt it, who have seen it in practice so many times?
The contrast is the life of Jesus, who gave up everything, even life itself on the cross, in obedience to his Father’s will, in the fulfilment of his God-given purpose, and who won in return resurrection and eternal life, not for himself alone but for all who live in him. The only way to have life in abundance is to be willing to give it up, to live not for ourselves, but for love of God and for love of our neighbour. This dying to ourselves and rising to Christ is modelled in the descent of the catechumen into the waters of baptism and his rising as a new creation in Christ. Dying to ourselves and rising to Christ is the great theme of the Christian life, in which the reality of our baptism is lived out and worked out through the struggles and challenges of our daily lives until life in Christ becomes the core reality of our personality. Then we shall have the truly abundant life, life eternal with him – now, and in the joy and glory of heaven.