No Special Standing

Friday, March 1, 2013 — Week of Lent 2 (Year One)

David, Bishop of Menevia, Wales, c. 544

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 952)

Psalms 69:1-23(24-30)31-38 (morning) // 73 (evening)

Jeremiah 5:1-9

Romans 2:25 – 3:18

John 5:30-47

Paul’s argument in the early chapters of Romans has been to assert that there is no moral advantage for the religious over the non-religious. (He speaks of the Jew and the Gentile; the analogy seems to read better in our culture if we read it the Christian and the non-Christian.) If a religious person acts unjustly or unethically, that person has no privilege before God just because that person is a believer. If a non-religious person acts justly and ethically, that person is acceptable before God despite having no religious conviction or a different religious belief. Paul’s purpose is to challenge those who believe their religious belief and practice gives them privileged standing. He challenges them especially when they fail to live up to their highest religious values.

Ultimately all need God’s compassion. That’s where Paul is headed. And God’s compassionate love and acceptance — God’s grace — is a gift freely given, not an accomplishment to be earned through religious practice or through moral exercise. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.” It is important to recognize that Paul’s primary target for this charge was the religious person. It was those who conscientiously observed the moral religious laws who believed themselves to have standing before God. No, says Paul. No standing. You have failed. But happy failure! Your failure has opened up the door of fellowship with God’s people to the Gentile non-believers. Look what good God can accomplish through our failure.

Jeremiah strikes a similar theme. He runs through the streets of Jerusalem and cannot find a single person “who acts justly and seeks truth.” They are religious people — they say, “As the Lord lives…” But rich and poor alike have proved unfaithful. His indictment of the rich is particularly vivid: “When I fed them to the full, they committed adultery and trooped to the houses of prostitutes. They were well-fed lusty stallions, each neighing for his neighbor’s wife.” Such a culture cannot stand. Their nation’s destruction, seen by Jeremiah as punishment from God, is inevitable.

In John’s gospel we find Jesus engaged in a similar dispute. He is speaking to religious people “who search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life.” Yet these are exactly the people who are challenging and rejecting him. The poor and the non-observant accept Jesus and his gentle ministry of healing, compassion and forgiveness. But those who have studied the scriptures do not accept him.

It is easy to understand why the Biblically literate did not accept him. Jesus did not fulfill many of the Messianic expectations. He did not come with power to restore Israel by violence and force. That’s what the Bible-people expected. They still do. Jesus did fulfill the scriptures, but only those that were oriented toward healing, compassion, reconciliation and forgiveness. That wasn’t good enough for the religious. Jesus tells them that the source of their hope will accuse them. Moses and the scriptures will accuse them for missing God’s visitation in the unexpected one.

These are strong Lenten cautions for all of us who call ourselves religious. We have no privilege because of our religion. We are not better because of our belief. There is goodness and godliness present in the non-religious and other-faithed person. God comes to us in the unexpected one. Our theological presumptions, even when founded on the scripture, can be wrong or shortsighted. We all need God’s compassionate mercy. We’re all in the same boat, believer and non-believer alike. So, we can be modest and gracious, especially toward the ethical person whose belief is different from ours. We can be open and expectant that God will continue to surprise us by bringing blessing from the unexpected ones.

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