Saturday, September 3, 2011

Perfect Freedom Through Serving God

Few things evoke more fear and trembling among Episcopal seminarians than the General Ordination Examination.  In seven three-hour essay questions administered over five days (shortly after the New Year of the seminarian's senior year), the GOEs cover the seven canonical areas of Holy Scripture, Church History, Christian Theology, Christian Ethics and Moral Theology, Studies in Contemporary Society, Liturgics and Church Music, and Theory and Practice Ministry.  It's an exhausting week of writing.

Even though I did not attend the three years of seminary at Sewanee because of my work at Vanderbilt Divinity School and the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University, I was still required during my year of Anglican Studies at Sewanee to take the GOEs.  Given the focus of my work in Vanderbilt's Graduate Department of Religion in the "Religions, Ethics, & Society" program, I recall some concern about how I would do in the canonical area of Holy Scripture.  I was pleased to see that one of my highest scores was in this canonical area.  I came across that GOE response while going through some old papers recently, and I thought I'd post it here for the heck of it.

Canonical area of Holy Scripture.

Limited Resources: Bible, Concordance, and Book of Common Prayer.

The Collect for Peace in the Prayer Book addresses God with the words "whose service is perfect freedom" (page 57) and "to serve you is prefect freedom" (page 99).  The Prayer Book's understanding of freedom is deeply rooted in Scripture.  This question asks you to analyze two biblical passages relating to these words of the Collect, and to reflect on their significance for Christian life today.

A. Address the following with reference to Exodus 19-20:
  1.  The context of these chapters within the book of Exodus.
  2. The significance of the context for understanding these two chapters.
  3. The themes of service and freedom as they are linked in these two chapters.

B. Address the following with reference to Matthew 5:17-48:
  1. The context of this passage within the Gospel according to Matthew.
  2. The significance of Exodus 19-20 for interpreting this passage.
  3. How does the distinctive character of discipleship in Matthew 5:17-48 reflect the themes of service and freedom?

C. Using your exegetical work, show how service to God is prefect freedom for the contemporary Christian.

Part A
1.  Chapters 19-20 of the book of Exodus narrate the Sinai theophany, the giving of the Decalogue to Moses on Mount Sinai, and Moses' giving of the law to the people of Israel.  Positioned in the middle of the book, these two chapters form the heart and the turning point of the exodus story.  In the crucible of the wilderness, Exodus 19-20 narrates the formation of a disparate group of former slaves into a people set apart by and for the will of God.  Viewed in light of a general overview of the entire book of Exodus, as well as the particular events before and after chapters 19-20, one can discern an overall narrative structure.  This structure moves from slavery to freedom through through the wilderness.  The movement is accompanied by God's giving and the people receiving laws for the sake of serving God.

In broad strokes, chapters 1-18 of Exodus narrate the birth and the call of Moses as the leader of the enslaved Israelites, Moses' confrontation with the Pharaoh, the plagues sent by God on Pharaoh's house, the release of the Israelites and their escape from the Egyptian army through the Red Sea, and the beginnings of their long sojourn in the wilderness.  Chapters 21-40 outline additional laws for the Israelites, instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant and the tabernacle, the calling of Aaron and his sons as priests in service to the Lord, the Israelites' apostasy in worshiping a golden calf, and the renewal of the covenant relationship with God.

2.  The context of Exodus 19-20 is important for understanding the significance of these chapters.  The overall context affirms the intrinsic connection between law and loyalty, service and freedom.  A closer examination of the immediate context before and after chapters 19-20 underscores a central point of the book of Exodus: the intrinsic relationship between the Israelites' freedom, God's loving-kindness, and the requirements of God's law.

After the initial euphoria of escaping from the Egyptian army through the parted waters of the Red Sea, the Israelites face a number of crises.  In particular, they face food and water deprivation (chapters 15-17), and they must contend with the hostile Amalekites (chapter 17).  These incidents underscore a truth that many of the Israelites find difficult to accept: their new-found freedom entails hardship and suffering, the challenges of social cooperation, and the need for ongoing trust in and obedience to God.  For example, when God shows Moses how to give the Israelites water in the wilderness of Shur, the text ties this gracious act of care to teh service God requires of the Israelites: "There the Lord made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he proved them [i.e., tested their faith]" (Exodus 15:25 RSV).

The chapters immediately following Exodus 19-20 recount additional laws for governing the Israelite community.  In addition, detailed instructions for the liturgical and priestly service to God are provided.  These chapters may seem odd in the context of a people living on the move in the wilderness.  Perhaps they reflect the experience of the community at a later time when they have settled in the Promised Land.  However, these chapters successfully underscore the centrality of obedience to law and service to God as the cornerstone of Israelite freedom.  God liberated the Israelites, not for the sake of securing their autonomy, but for the sake of forming a people whose very identity lies in serving and worshiping God.

3.  A closer examination of Exodus 19-20 not only confirms the intimate relationship between service and freedom established by the book as a whole; it also provides the theological legitimacy for this linkage.  With respect to this linkage of service and freedom, God's words to Moses in 19:4-6 makes four important points clear.  First, God's powerful act of liberation provides the foundation for the covenant relationship that Gods wants to solidify with Israel (v. 4).  God is the initiating agent of freedom and relationship, not Moses or the Israelites.  Secondly, the conditional structure of the covenant relationship outlined in verse 5 ("if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, [then] you shall be ...") demonstrates God's willingness to honor the newly granted freedom of the Israelites.  Unlike slavery under Pharaoh, covenant with God entails a rejection of coercion in favor of the people's voluntary consent.  Thirdly, God's liberation of Israel and His desire to live in covenant relationship with them demonstrates the extravagant and unmerited grace of God.  Even though the whole earth belongs to God, He nevertheless chooses the Israelites from "among all peoples" as "my own possession" (v. 5).  And finally, God explicitly links the Israelites' freedom to obedience and service.  God has chosen and liberated the Israelites to serve as "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (v. 6).

God demonstrates that these words are not just empty rhetoric by allowing Moses to present the covenant offer to the elders of the people.  The text makes clear that God does not coerce a relationship that links freedom to service.  Rather, God honors the freedom of the Israelites to either accept or reject the covenant relationship.  In response, the people voluntarily agree to do all that God speaks to them (cf. Exodus 19:8).

The Ten Commandments revealed to Israel in Exodus 20 further clarify the linkage of service and freedom constitutive of the covenant relationship.  According to The Book of Common Prayer, the Ten Commandments teach two overriding duties: "our duty to God, and our duty to our neighbor" (p. 847).  The Ten Commandments, in other words, form the cornerstone of moral meaning and moral order for Israel.  As such, the commandments explicitly link the freedom given to the Israelites with the service God expects of them.

Service to God includes loving and obeying God, putting nothing in the place of God, showing respect for God in thought, word, and deed, and intentionally worshiping, praying, and studying God's ways on a regular basis (BCP, p. 847).  Service to neighbor includes loving and honoring parents and other authority figures; respecting life by working for peace, cleansing our hearts of hatred and malice, and extending kindness to all of God's creatures; rightly acting on our bodily desires; acting towards others with honesty and fairness; truth-telling; and active resistance to the temptations of envy, greed, and jealousy (BCP, p. 848).

In short, the Ten Commandments underscore the teleological character of freedom.  God gives the Israelites freedom so that they may rightly pursue the ends of serving God and their neighbors for God's sake.  God's laws stipulate the goods and ends to which authentic freedom is to be ordered, and the wrongs freedom must shun.  This means that Exodus does not view the obligations and service dictated by the law as alien to freedom.  On the contrary, God's giving of laws to form the boundaries of covenant relationship is internal to the very meaning of freedom.  The service of God, in other words, forms the very foundation for freedom.

Part B
1.  The most immediate context for Matthew 5:17-48 is the section of this gospel traditionally referred to as the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:27).  The teachings of the Sermon on the Mount comprise the charter "document" for life in the kingdom of heaven.  As will be discussed below, the codification of Jesus' teachings in this section of Matthew's gospel provides a way to demonstrate the continuities between the Christian gospel and the formation of Israel as God's covenant people in the Old Testament.  Instead of replacing the Jewish law, Jesus' teachings and deeds fulfill the law (5:17).

Looking at the broader context of the passage, the salvific deeds and proclamations of Jesus surround Matthew 5:17-48.  Immediately prior to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims his central message: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17).  The call to "repent" is a call to return to the right way, suggesting that the people of Jesus' day had wandered from the right relationship required by God's covenant. Jesus then calls the first four disciples (4:18-22), preaches the gospel, and heals the infirmities of the people in Galilee (4:23-25).  Jesus' words and deeds form "great crowds" of people, suggesting that God acts through him to reform, heal, and renew a covenant people (Matthew 4:25 RSV).  As soon as the Sermon on the Mount concludes, Jesus immediately resumes his healing ministry by cleansing a leper (8:1-4), healing a centurion's servant (8:5-13), and healing Peter's mother-in-law (8:14-17). The overall context suggests God's work of calling people into relationship and restoring people to wholeness through the words and deeds of Jesus.  Matthew's Jesus, in other words, incarnates the spirit of the divine law by freely responding to God and neighbor in words and deeds of love, trust, and truthfulness.

2.  Exodus 19-20 provides an appropriate hermeneutic lens for interpreting Matthew 5:17-48.  This is particularly due to the concern in Matthew for demonstrating the continuities between the gospel revealed in Jesus Christ and the ancient faith and practices of the Old Testament.  The author and audience of Matthew's gospel were most likely Jewish Christians concerned about the place of Jewish law in their new faith.  What was the significance and role of the law, and what had happened to the covenant, now that God's kingdom has come near in Jesus Christ?  Were Christians liberated from the service requirements of the Jewish law?

Matthew's Jesus provides a clear and decisive answer to questions about the status of law in the Christian life: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5:17 RSV). Jesus continues by noting that anyone who "relaxes one of the least of these commandments" and teaches others to do the same "shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven;" by contrast, persons who obey the commandments and teach others to do likewise will be greatest in the kingdom (Matthew 5:19 RSV).  When Jesus exhorts his hearers to a righteousness beyond that of the scribes and the Pharisees, he makes it clear that treating the law as a collection of external rules heteronomously imposed from without represents a complete misunderstanding of the law.  Such a view of the commandments severs the individual's freedom from the service that fulfills the law.  Jesus wants to restore the wholeness and unity of service and freedom by teaching the commandments, not as authoritarian imperatives engraved on tablets of stone, but as the source of life-giving freedom and service engrafted on tablets of flesh (cf. Deuteronomy 11:18 & Proverbs 3:3).

Matthew's emphasis on the requisite interior dispositions for living in a covenant relationship of service to God and neighbor echoes themes that surface in Exodus 19-20.  In particular, Matthew adopts the Exodus narrative's insistence that God's law is the foundation of life-giving freedom in community rather than an external burden.  In addition, the Exodus narrative's teleological conception of freedom finds a place in Matthew's gospel.  Jesus Christ has come in the flesh to fulfill the law for the same reason God liberated the Israelites: to empower persons to pursue the related ends of serving God and neighbor.

Just as Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the law from God, so, too, Jesus ascends the Mount of Olives to impart a right understanding of the law.  Rhetorically, Matthew 5:21-48 is structured as follows: "You have heard it said ... but I say to you."  Instead of abrogating what "was said to the men of old," this rhetorical device allows Matthew to show how Jesus reveals the inner spirit of obedience to God's commandments (Matthew 5:21 RSV).  Within this rhetorical structure, Jesus cites specific commandments revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai in Exodus 20 (as well as other parts of Jewish law).  In the process, Matthew's Jesus reveals how true obedience to the commandments revealed to Moses in Exodus 20 requires an even more radical form of service to God and neighbor than even the best contemporary interpreters of the law could imagine.

Two examples of Jesus' invocation of the Ten Commandments will suffice.  Exodus 20:13 reads, "You shall not murder."  Jesus teaches that it is insufficient obedience to simply refrain from murder.  Fulfilling this commandment requires persons to expunge the roots anger from their hearts (Matthew 5:21-22).  In Exodus 20:14 one reads: "You shall not commit adultery."  Jesus teaches a more stringent obedience to this commandment than simply refraining from the act of adultery.  He says "every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27 RSV).

3.  In his words and deeds, Jesus fulfills God's law in Matthew's gospel.  In his teachings on the law in Matthew 5:17-48, Jesus exhorts his followers to do likewise in this concluding exhortation: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).  Implied within this statement is a vision of Christian discipleship consistent with Exodus 19-20 in its insistence on the unity of service and freedom.

The concluding exhortation of Matthew 5:17-48 echoes the Old Testament command of the Lord: "Be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44 RSV).  In addition to the mysterium tremendum of God's presence (revealed in clouds and thunder on Mount Sinai in Exodus 19), God's holiness entails loving-kindness and justice.  By giving the Ten Commandments as the foundation for the covenant relationship, God teaches the Israelites that, in their words and deeds, they are to grow in the image and likeness of the One who liberated them.  God's character must become Israel's character.  God freely chooses to live in covenant relationship with the Israelites, serving them with his mighty acts of grace and power.  So, too, the Israelites are to freely serve God and one another.  Likewise, as Jesus teaches in Matthew's gospel, Christians are to observe not merely the externals of the law but its spirit as well.  In doing so they will grow into the image and likeness of the God who calls them into covenant.  This a God "who makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45 RSV).  As followers of Jesus Christ - the One who perfectly incarnates the law of God's love for all creation - Christians must do no less.

Going beyond the merely negative connotation of not doing something wrong, Jesus insists that obedience to the commandments must convey positive, life-affirming connotations.  Instead of an attempt to avoid unpleasant consequences by keeping things squared with God, a right understanding of living by God's commandments points to the cultivation of those virtues of character that rightly dispose persons to freely give themselves to service of God and neighbor.  Jesus wants persons to transcend rote obedience by joyfully and freely giving themselves in service to God and the world.

Part C
Exegesis of Exodus 19-20 and Matthew 5:17-48 provides biblical support for the theological claim that serving God entails perfect freedom.  In addition, it provides ways for seeing how this can be true for Christians today.

The Israelites discovered that liberation from external coercion was only the beginning of their new life of freedom.  Lacking shared goods and ends, the Israelites' new-found freedom would have dissipated into the aimless wandering of a mere collection of individuals who would likely have ended up under the dominion of another imperial power and/or losing their divine calling by assimilation into an alien society.  The gift of the law gave the Israelites a set of moral standards for exercising their new freedom in service to the common good of "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" set apart for the service of God (Exodus 19:6 RSV).  Likewise, Jesus' call to return to the wholeness of the law by cultivating the necessary dispositions and virtues for rightly serving God and neighbor underscores the internal connection between human freedom and service.

In both Exodus and Matthew, Holy Scripture affirms a teleological conception of freedom directed towards the end of serving God and neighbor.  Somewhat paradoxically, scripture teaches that those who find true freedom are also the ones willing to give up their autonomy by freely accepting the reciprocal rights and responsibilities of life in community.  In both the Old and New Testaments, scripture unapologetically affirms loyalty to the realization of God's will in a covenant community as perfect freedom.  At the dawn of the twenty-first century, this is a counter-cultural proposition.  It flies in the face of an individualistic, consumer culture that idolizes freedom as liberation from all external restraints and relations for the sake of self-actualization and self-fulfillment.

It is precisely in its counter-cultural implications that the biblical connection between service of God and perfect freedom finds its relevance for contemporary Christians.  From a biblical perspective, the Western obsession with autonomous freedom comes dangerously close to equating liberty with license.  Lacking an adequate sense of shared purpose and acknowledgment of ends for which we live together, human life degenerates into a series of trivial pursuits.  In an age characterized by unprecedented powers of technical control, the sovereign self has remarkable freedom to exercise its autonomy while lacking much of a self through which to be autonomous.

The biblical message provides an alternative vision of freedom.  The message turns the sovereign self on its head by exalting the covenant community as the locus of the good life.  The biblical message paradoxically insists that human beings find self-fulfillment only by abandoning the search for self-fulfillment through selfless service to God and neighbor.  By demonstrating in word and deed the truth that service and freedom are interconnected, contemporary Christians who serve God by serving their churches and their needy neighbors provide powerful testimony to the relevance of the gospel for a world enthralled by the idol of the sovereign individual.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Was a time you just has to be a fisherman :)