Like most kids, I grew up being taught I should do good and avoid evil. For the most part, I did. But when I asked myself, “Why?” I usually came up with the answer, “I’m afraid not to do good.” Very early I learned that if I did something bad I got punished. So I choose the path of least pain.
Later, when I started to study my catechism, I discovered the punishment for some of my actions could extend even beyond this life; a few might even merit eternal punishment – a terrific motive for staying on the straight and narrow.
Then I began to study Scripture.
I quickly learned that practically all the authors of the Hebrew Scripture (including today’s Exodus writer) knew nothing of an after-life as we know it. This naturally forced them to develop a system of reward and punishment that was limited to this life alone.
Yet as we hear in our Exodus reading, the ancient Israelites were motivated by more than just the fear of punishment. As faithful Jews, they tried to pattern their behavior on Yahweh’s behavior. Since they only knew about Yahweh’s behavior from Yahweh’s actions in their own lives and history, they were expected to treat people as Yahweh had treated them. For instance, “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” Yahweh’s generous treatment of them when they were helpless slaves set the standard for their treatment of the helpless among them; especially widows, orphans, aliens, and the poor.
God’s unique behavior is perfectly described in the last line: “... I (Yahweh) am compassionate.” Jewish morality was based on the conviction that those who related to others as Yahweh related to them would experience a happy, fulfilled life. A terrific motive for doing good!
Paul also employs an imitation model for doing good. But in his case, he encourages those in the Thessalonian church to imitate not only God but also himself. “You know what sort of people we were among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and the Lord, receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit, so that you became a model for all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” Because they’ve faithfully copied God and Paul’s behavior, now others are copying their behavior. It’s a “benign circle.”
Yet for Christians, Jesus is always the person who begins the circle. In one of the best-know passages of Scripture this Galilean carpenter compresses all 613 Mosaic laws into two essential commandments; the two commandments which governed his own life and ministry.
Perhaps too frequently I remind my classes of a mid-sixties national survey. Roman Catholics were asked a legitimate question: “Which is the more important law; love your neighbor or give up meat on Friday?” More than half of those questioned responded, “Give up meat on Friday!”
At some point along the more than 19 centuries of Christianity Jesus’ command to love God and love your neighbor as yourself was relegated to a back burner. Rules and regulations became more important than imitating a person. Friday abstinence from meat was black and white. Loving God and our neighbor is always a little “hazy.” Thankfully the obligation of meatless Fridays was lifted shortly after the survey.
Perhaps our recent return to a rules and regulations church can best be explained by the fact we who should be imitating Jesus rarely convey an image others can imitate. I suggest that in the next couple of days we all go online and Google Rodney Atkins’ old country/western hit I’m Watching You, Dad.”
If we don’t have someone of faith to watch, rules and regulations can easily become the center of our faith.