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“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”

 

Luke 6: 46

I: — At one time I was a postgraduate student at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Several of us offshore doctoral students were drinking coffee in a common room. We were comparing notes as to what we had had to do when we entered Great Britain . The students from the USA had had to check in with the police department. I hadn’t had to, I said, inasmuch as I was a British subject.

“British subject“, one of the American students exploded, “How can you admit to being a subject of any sort? Even if you are one you shouldn’t use the word. It’s demeaning.” But I have never felt demeaned through being a British subject. I have never felt oppressed or cramped or belittled in any way. On the contrary I have always felt extraordinarily rich in being a British subject. After all, I belong to the oldest democratic tradition in the world. Because it’s the oldest, it’s the most trustworthy. (To what extent would trust the democratic “tradition” of Germany or Russia ?) What’s more, it was Britain that first insisted that no one could be jailed without being charged and convicted. It was Britain whose treatment of peoples subdued in military conflict was the gentlest. (Can you imagine where     Quebec would be today if New France had succumbed to the Spanish or the Dutch?) I have always thought it a privilege to be a British subject. The American student, on the other hand, thought it demeaning. Opinions were sharply divided.

 

II: — Opinions are divided in the same way when God’s claim upon our obedience is mentioned.

“Obedience”, someone snorts, “Obedience is demeaning. ‘Obedience’ is another word for slavery and misery. You’ve got to be your own person, subject to no one.”

The Christian disciple, on the other hand, knows that to hear the claim of God, to recognize the claim of God, to obey the claim of God — in short, to be subject to God — is a wonderful privilege that brings blessings. So who is right?

Whether God’s claim upon our obedience enslaves or liberates depends on the root human condition. As though it were yesterday I remember sitting on a park bench in downtown Toronto (it was outside St. James Cathedral) before Maureen and I were married. Maureen was an agnostic in those days (perhaps even an atheist.) She wasn’t gong to be stampeded in Christian “faith”, if she was going to move into it at all. “I don’t want to look at the world and life through spectacles (Christian faith) that only distort and falsify”, she said. As gently as I could (there was a great deal at stake for me here) I explained that her unconscious assumption plainly was that humankind, in its present condition, has perfect eyesight, a true view of life, and therefore spectacles of any sort, but especially religious spectacles, necessarily distort and falsify. Yet according to the gospel, humankind has a heart condition and a head condition that together produce defective eyesight, terribly defective eyesight. In fact it is only as we put on Jesus Christ in faith — i.e., only as we put on the corrective lens that he is — that we see truly, see profoundly, and therefore see adequately.

To put on Christ is always to put on all of him: to put him on as saviour or salvager, also as companion and judge, and certainly as Lord. In other words, to be a disciple is to obey. There is genuine faith only where there is eager obedience. Where there isn’t even aspiration to obedience then faith, so-called, is nothing more than romantic sentiment. For this reason Jesus poses the question starkly, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, yet you don’t do what I tell you.”

It has all come to our attention too many times over with the television preachers and others like them. Some people are terribly disillusioned by the disclosures; some are disgusted; some are angry. I am sad more than anything else; sad that anyone is so very self-deceived as to think that disciples can disregard their Lord’s claim upon them yet remain disciples.

 

III: — In all of this no one appears to understand a profound truth that riddles scripture: obedience means freedom. The obedient person — and only the obedient person — is the free person. To grasp this, however, we have to understand how scripture understands freedom.

Most people think that freedom is having several alternatives to choose from. A youngster goes to an ice cream parlour and finds that there are twenty-seven flavours available. Just imagine: twenty-seven, and she need choose only one. “What freedom”, she thinks. We all know what happens next. “I think I’ll have strawberry ripple; I mean Swiss chocolate; no, tiger tails. Do you have any liquorice and peanut butter?” What the child calls “freedom” — one choice among twenty-seven — is really indeterminism. No one is twisting the girl’s arm to pick a flavour. No one is determining which ice cream cone she is going to buy. Her situation isn’t characterized by freedom but rather by indeterminism: no power external to her is coercing her.

When the bible speaks of freedom, however, it means something entirely different; it means the absence of any impediment to acting in accord with our true nature. Our true nature is to be a child of God by faith, and to reflect the family-resemblance found in Jesus our elder brother. The free person is simply the person for whom there is no impediment (outer or inner), no obstacle to her living as that child of God which she is by faith.

As a disciple of Jesus Christ I am not “free” in the sense that I can choose among many alternatives; I’m not “free” because I can choose to be honest, or semi-honest, or completely dishonest. I’m not “free” in the sense that I can choose to be joyfully faithful to my wife, grudgingly faithful to her, or out-and-out promiscuous. I’m not “free” in the sense that I can choose to be kind or indifferent or outright cruel. To be sure, I can choose among all the alternatives I’ve just listed. But choosing from a list of alternatives has nothing to do with freedom. Freedom means that I have been liberated from any impediment to living as a disciple of Jesus Christ’ I have been freed from obstacles that would otherwise derail my discipleship. I may and do live as what I am: a child of God, recognizable from my likeness (however slight) to my elder brother.

Think for a minute of a railway train. Imagine that obstacles litter the track (say, a dump truck with granite slabs spilling out of it.) Since the obstacles are an impediment, the train isn’t free to run along the track. Once the obstacles are removed, however, the train is free. “But is the train free to fly like an airplane?” someone wants to say. The question, be it noted, entails a misuse of the word “free.” After all, trains were never meant to fly like airplanes; it isn’t a train’s nature to fly. It’s a train’s nature to run along tracks. Therefore a train has been freed when it is free to operate in accord with its own nature. All of which is to say that you and I are free when we cling to our Lord in faith and obey him in matters great and small and know ourselves children of our Father who reflect the family-resemblance of our elder brother. For then we are living in accord with our true nature. Obedience can only mean freedom.

 

IV: — All of which brings me to the last point. Our blessedness is found in obedience. So far from being a straitjacket that ties us up in frustration and self-contradiction and futility — curse, in short — obedience spells blessings. I am reminded of this every time I read my favourite psalm, Psalm 119. It’s the longest chapter in all of scripture; and in every line it exalts the blessedness that accompanies obedience. The expression in Ps. 119 that I like best is the psalmist’s cry that Torah, God’s claim upon our obedience, is sweeter than honey.

When Jewish youngsters first learn the Hebrew alphabet, they are helped to do so by playing with wooden blocks into one side of which there has been carved a Hebrew letter. The letter-surface is coated with honey, and as the children learn the letters they get to lick the honey. For the rest of their life they will know that the Hebrew language is sweet; and not only the language, but also Torah, God’s truth and God’s way that are described by the Hebrew language, the way that God has appointed Israel to walk. God’s way — i.e., obedience — is sweeter than honey.

In the Hebrew bible yoke is the commonest metaphor for obedience. Doesn’t Jesus say, “Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light”? His yoke fits well just because it and we have been made for each other. Since Christ’s yoke doesn’t gall or chafe, it is truly said to be “easy.” And since his burden is so very light as to be no burden at all, his “burden” is actually blessing.

Yet how few people understand this. When most people think of the concrete, everyday obedience that God requires of us they think of the Ten Commandments. The mere sound of the word “commandment” puts them off, because the sound of the word suggests a parade-square sergeant barking at them. But is the atmosphere surrounding our obedience to our Father that of a barking parade-square sergeant? Or is it that of the delighted child who learns that Torah, life’s alphabet, God’s way, really is sweeter than honey?

Concerning the Ten Commandments Martin Luther wrote, “Whoever keeps the first (the commandment to have no other gods) keeps them all; whoever breaks the tenth (the commandment forbidding coveting) breaks them all. In not coveting at all — nothing of the neighbour’s possessions, money, spouse, children, reputation or good fortune — we are blessed. Does anyone doubt it? If we covet our neighbour’s goods, we thieve; if his reputation, we slander; if her spouse, we commit adultery; if her popularity or power, we murder. Then Luther was right: to break the commandment that forbids coveting is to break them all.

Needless to say, if obedience spells blessings then disobedience spells curse. Is this really the case? Let’s look again at coveting. Insofar as we covenant what someone else has we shall first be profoundly and pervasively discontented ourselves; next we shall resent her for having what we don’t have; next we shall exaggerate character defects in her character or even invent them; finally we shall want nothing to do with her for any number of supposedly good reasons, all of which are actually the crudest, albeit unconscious, rationalizations thrown up by our envious heart. Insofar as we covet we shall be consumed with envy of her, resentment at her, contempt for her and hostility toward her. At the end of it all we shall be left friendless, isolated, stuck with our own embittered spirit. Is there any freedom here? There is misery and frustration and nastiness. But is there any freedom, any blessing? Manifestly not; there is only curse. On the other hand, to obey the command of God from our heart is to know blessing. Then the apostle John is correct when he says, “God’s commandments are not burdensome.” (1st John 5:3)

“It’s all too slick”, someone objects. “Christ’s yoke isn’t always easy, and his burden isn’t always light. For Christ himself insisted that the Way is a hard way, and the gate through which we enter upon this Way is a narrow gate.” We cannot pretend anything else. Jesus certainly insisted that the gate is narrow and the way hard. In other words, sometimes obeying God is demanding and abrasive. To be sure, there are times and places and situations where obedience is difficult.

After World War II Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch woman who was one of the few survivor of Ravensbrueck, was shopping at a department store one day when she knew, just knew, that the man three or four persons ahead of her in the line-up at the cash register was a guard who had abused her in that terrible camp where her sister Betsie had perished.   Suddenly she was on the point of becoming unglued. Still, as a disciple of Jesus Christ she knew what she was supposed to do. Certainty about what she had to do and rage concerning this man warred within her until the certainty bested the rage. She staggered up to the man and identified herself to him. She told him that in the name of Jesus Christ she forgave him.

Whenever she related this story subsequently someone in the audience invariably remarked how wonderful it was that the whole thing was over and done with at that moment, that she walked away from it right there, knew it was all behind her and never thought of it again. “Are you kidding?” Corrie always said, “Every morning when I get up I see that man’s hideous face again, and I go to the floor all over until I can stumble back to forgiving him once more.”

Parishioners often visit their pastor inasmuch as they are temptation-prone in one area of life especially. It can be any area at all. It’s not that life in general is hard for them (or at least no harder for them than it is for everyone else.) It’s not even that walking the Christian way in general is insuperably hard for them. Nevertheless, in the one area of their besetting temptation the Way is exceedingly hard. We shouldn’t pretend anything else. Jesus never suggested anything else.

Yet I am convinced that to “tough out” the hard spots is still to know blessing and freedom. When I was on a rigorous canoe trip a year or two ago I came upon breathtaking scenery, the glorious scenery that Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven have painted so very wonderfully. The scenery changed from quiet rivers to small lakes to Georgian Bay with its shoreside abandoned lumber town and the rich history one could imagine in such a place. But of course in order to lose oneself in this scenery and its beauty one had to get through the portages. Portaging, everyone knows, is never the fun that paddling is. Portaging in scorching summer heat while being buzzed by black flies you don’t have a hand free to swat — this is hard. Yet it is only as we sweat through the portages persistently, as cheerfully as we can, that we know and cherish the certain delight on the other side of them.

And therefore at the end of the day I remain convinced that obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ is the way to genuine freedom and profoundest blessings.

 

If we call Jesus “Lord” then we should obey him, especially since obeying him will alone prove that his yoke is easy, and prove as well that in shouldering this yoke we are living precisely as our Father intends his children to live lest they forfeit his reward.

 

Victor Shepherd

January 2003