Back in Sunday School, whenever we’d sit down on the floor cross-legged for story time, we were quickly trained to hiss should a Pharisee assume the stage in some flannel-board biblical drama. I packed those prejudices into my rucksack and carried them with me as I embarked on my adult “walk with Christ.” It seemed obvious. I mean, the Pharisees were about “religion”—rules. Good Lord, that’s what Catholics do!
For example, check this out from Leviticus 14. It’s what a leper has to go through should he want to be cleansed from his uncleanness.
- First the leper must bring the priest two clean birds—I said clean!—along with some cedarwood, crimson yarn, and hyssop.
- Then the priest sacrifices one of the birds immediately—over fresh water in a clay pot—and then dips the living bird, the cedarwood, the yarn, and the hyssop in its blood.
- Then the priest sprinkles blood on the leper and releases the living bird.
- Then, seven days hence, the leper washes his clothes, shaves off all his hair, and bathes himself.
- Then, on the eighth day, the leper takes two male lambs, free of blemish, and one ewe lamb, also without blemish, as well as a grain offering of choice flour mixed with oil, back to the priest, who will make of them a burnt offering to the Lord.
- Then the priest rubs a bit of the blood from the offering on the leper’s right earlobe, on his right thumb, and on the big toe of his right foot.
- Then the priest sprinkles the leper with the oil seven times. Not six. Seven.
- Then . . . only after all of this is complete shall the leper be considered free of the sin and guilt that led to his leprosy in the first place. Only then shall he be allowed to rejoin the community of God. Huzzah.
Oy. I think I’d just stick with the leprosy and a cold beer. What’s on TV?
The Pharisees were convinced that God was uber-strict about following the rules. Read the Torah. It’s full of rules. That’s just about all it is.
Which begs the questions: Is God as tightly wound as the Pharisees?
May my children and my children’s children be cursed up to four generations if I would ever suggest such a thing! God is great and all, but He didn’t write the Torah. People did. Think about it. I mean, c’mon. Why would God care whether you smeared blood on the leper’s left big toe or his right big toe? Rules like that come from humans, the same people who put those little tags on mattress that can only be removed under penalty of law.
It’s humans who are so concerned about rules, not God. God doesn’t judge. He just is.
Humans created religion to make themselves acceptable to God/appease God. Most religions, their answer is to just try really, really hard to be good—really. Christianity claims to have an out clause to this: You really do deserve punishment but God’s going to let you off this time because He’s so good and loving. All you have to do is believe in Jesus. That’s the good news of the gospel. But when push comes to shove, the gospel’s all talk. Christians are just as obsessed with not offending God as any other religion, just as wracked with guilt.
Everyone’s wearing a hair shirt, turns out.
Unnecessarily. God’s not keeping score. Once again, He just is. Our problem is we get caught up in our theological underwear, to mix metaphors, when we start with the assumption that God is a person. Since we are persons, we assume the highest form of being must be personhood. God is the greatest thing there is, so God must be a person of some sort. We care about right and wrong, so God must care, too. (That’s why suffering presents such a problem to organized religion. How can a good God allow us to suffer? We think, “I would never treat someone I love that way—and I’m not even that good of a person.”)
But God isn’t a person. He’s not less than a person. God is beyond personhood. God is the Reality we all come up against—a Reality that we are all subject to, that gives us our lives one second at a time and limits us and, yes, eventually takes our lives from us.
Right and wrong matter. But not to God. Right and wrong matter to people who suffer the consequences. We’re the ones whose loved ones are murdered. Were the ones whose moped is pinched from the curb when we just went in to get pack of smokes. We’re the ones who poop our pants (which is adding insult to injury, what with the hair shirt).
Real and unreal matter to God, because God is the reality we all live in. (That’s why it’s silly to speak of a spiritual real apart from the natural realm. There is only the natural, most of which we’ll never understand.)
So what does that mean for how we should live our lives? Well, for starters, stop worrying about what God thinks. It’s irrelevant. He doesn’t think about you. He isn’t a he. People think. God is beyond thinking, choosing, planning—punishing.
Rules are fine. They make golf possible.
But you don’t need God’s approval. Not that you couldn’t stand a little improving. Who couldn’t? But there’s not a Task Master in the Sky looking down at you disapprovingly.
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