Obedience or Righteousness?

JOB 1:1, 2:1-10
HEBREWS 1: 1-4; 2:5-12
MARK 10:2-16
Trinity Long Green, MD
Oct. 7, 2012


For much of my life, I would have considered myself someone who played by the rules. Like many first-born children, I chose the path of obedience. I was “the good girl.”

Every family has one – the “good child,” the obedient child, or as my brother’s youngest daughter refers to herself, the “pure and wholesome one.” Not always the first born, as in my niece’s case, but every family seems to have one – just as every family has a black sheep.

Job was such a person. He followed the law. He lived his life according to God’s precepts. Not even his wife or children were guilty of any great sin – for all the good it did Job! In fact, his uprightness made him the perfect target for Satan.

Our Old Testament lesson this morning sets the stage for the book of Job. Remember this is just that – the “set” against which the book will discuss the problem why bad things happen. We should not rush to assume that either God or Satan is accurately portrayed.

According to the “set,” Satan claims that Job’s righteousness depends upon his many blessings – wife, children, flocks, good health, etc. – Job had everything that defines the good life. God knows that Job’s righteousness lies in his character, not in his circumstances, so God allows Satan to attack Job, sparing only his life. The remainder of the book of Job consists of Job’s so-called friends, offering the usual explanations for why bad things happen, accusing Job of sins (which he denies) of which he has not repented. Even his wife is against him.

Job has a reputation for patience, but unless patience can be defined as Job not killing his friends (and divorcing his wife), then I am hard put to call Job patient, Faithful? Yes. Righteous? Yes. But not patient. Job rails against God, “Why? Why? Why did all this really bad stuff happen to him, of all people?

Two weeks from now, we will hear God’s answer, which I warn will probably not satisfy. Tune in then, or go discover it for yourself. I don’t intend to go there this morning.

Instead, I want to focus on the issue of obedience of action versus righteousness of character. Or to put it in ethics language – deontology versus virtue.

For much of my life, I fell into the deontological camp. You were supposed to follow the rules, do what was right, don’t swear, don’t get drunk, don’t do drugs, no sex before marriage, etc. etc. etc. It was all about rules. If you follow the rules, everything will work out right, at least in the end.

Job followed the rules, and see how that worked for him!

The Pharisees in today’s gospel definitely fell into the deontological camp, the rules camp. Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?

Is it lawful? Not it is right, or good, or proper; but is it lawful.

For a man to divorce his wife? Not whether it was lawful for a woman to divorce her abusive husband. Not what might be a justifiable reason for divorce, such as adultery. Not whether the man must provide for the woman’s welfare post-divorce.

Simply, Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?

For those Pharisees, law was all that mattered, and obedience to law defined righteousness.

Jesus’ response will make better sense if we step back from the emotionally laden divorce question for a moment.

As a child, did you wonder why buses had to stop at “Bus stop” signs as well as the octagonal red “STOP” signs, while cars only had to stop at the red signs? I did, until I realized that the two stop signs meant different things, and only one sign, the red one, applied to everyone.

Not long after I learned to drive, and passed a test that included understanding what that red STOP sign meant, I began executing a “rolling stop” at a lot of those red signs in order to save a second or two, always checking for traffic and police cars, of course. I suspect most of us use the ‚Äúrolling stop: as often as we can.

Still, a red STOP sign means STOP, right? Even if we don’t exactly obey it, it still applies to everyone, right?

No doubt some of you have already thought of exceptions – fire trucks, ambulances, police cars. They need not stop at STOP signs or red lights, provided they are on emergency business. We make exceptions to the rule for the sake of persons with emergency needs.

By making these, and similar exceptions in other situations, we demonstrate our belief that, as important as the law is, people matter more than law, circumstances and intentions trump obedience.

Which is one point Jesus makes with the Pharisees by reminding them that the source of the law they cite is Moses, not God; and that divorce was made permissible because of the sinful condition of human beings. The Episcopal Church makes the same point by acknowledging that sometimes marriages die – because they were not entered into properly, or because one party is abusive or unfaithful, or because the marriage wasted away due to inadequate care and attention.

God’s intention, however, was that two people should be united in the covenant of marriage for life. It is not good for a human being to be alone, and the joining of two people in the covenant of marriage addresses this need. The intention of “marriage” is the life-long covenant of two people for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as they both shall live – a covenant as readily made and kept by two adults of same gender as by a man and a woman.

It might be lawful to divorce, and indeed, like a fire truck running a STOP sign, divorce might save one or more lives, if not literally, then at least figuratively. And one must “look both ways” to be certain no one’s need for food or shelter or healthcare is lost in the process. The better course, nevertheless, is to enter into life-long mutual commitment and keep that commitment.

Which brings us around to the obedience versus righteousness question presented by both our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning; a question or principle that we would do well to address in most ethical decision making.

That which is lawful, legal, keeps all the commandments, doesn’t step outside the law, may not be righteous. Righteousness sometimes leads a person to break the law, even compels you to do so, to engage in civil disobedience, to march for civil rights or peace, to protest injustice outside the state house, to write letters to the editor or “bend the rules” to allow someone a second chance.

Law considers only the cold, hard facts, the written code, the constitution of a country or the canons of a church. Righteousness considers the person, and the impact a particular action or decision will make to that person’s well-being.

Law gives us an easy way out. We don’t have to struggle to determine the best course of action – the answer is always “what is legal.”

Righteousness calls us to a more difficult path. To walk that way of righteousness, we must determine what is in accord with God’s will. Jesus gives us one tool for determining what that is – discerning what might advance the welfare of the least, the most helpless, the most vulnerable person in the equation.

Let the little children come to me … for to those like them belongs the kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God will not be ushered in by means of Law, only by practicing the way of righteousness.

One comment on “Obedience or Righteousness?
  1. Fran says:

    As this past Sunday was a “Family Sunday” the 10 AM congregation heard something different than is posted here. I began with a Children’s Sermon that expanded the STOP sign discussion, and then, after I sent them back to their parents, talked a bit about the Episcopal Church’s postion on divorce and same-sex blessings. The content was similar to the posted sermon, but not quite the same.

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