Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Null and Void
Ps 15; Jas. 1:26-27; Mk. 7:1-13[1]
We live in a society that is saturated with words. Cable television and satellite radio, broadband internet and digital cell phones—we are surrounded by words. Whether you’re driving to work or eating in a restaurant, shopping for a pair of shoes, riding in an elevator—or even pumping gas in your car—we are surrounded by words. But the more words bombard us, the less they mean to us. In a very real sense, words have become null and void in our culture. Part of the problem is the way we use our words. With our words we profess our love for others, or we foster hatred for others. With our words we make promises to reassure others and we try to persuade others to do something that may not be in their best interest. With our words we inform and we deceive. Because of our misuse, words are virtually null and void. They mean next to nothing.
Unfortunately, that applies to words of faith just as much as they apply to words in advertisements or campaign speeches. It is all too easy to turn the words of our faith—words of Scripture and worship, words of admonition and assurance—into just another means to manipulate people. All you have to do to confirm that is to listen to a few sermons! Even the way we profess to revere Scripture often becomes a means of misusing it to achieve our own ends. We call it “the word of the LORD,” and “the word of God,” but what we really mean is “I’m right and should agree with me.”
It seems to me that kind of attitude toward words is at least part of what Jesus had in mind when he criticized the religious leaders of his day for nullifying the word of God. The particular example he cites is actually quite blatant. Jewish tradition had interpreted the fifth commandment, “you shall honor your father and mother,” to include supporting them financially in their old age. But in Jesus’ day, there was a procedure called “Corban” by which someone could “dedicate” their possessions to the Temple. It is unclear, but it seems that it is the original “charitable annuity,” where you give your assets to an organization, but you get to continue using them until you die.[2] Jesus completely dismantled this rather elaborate and insidiously pious means of subverting the fifth commandment—the word of God.[3]
James and Jesus were in complete agreement about those who profess to be pious but their words and actions betray their hypocrisy. They not only make their own words null and void, but in the process they make “God’s word” null and void! Let me hasten to add that I don’t think this was confined to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day![4] This problem is still very much a part of religion today. [5] I find it interesting that words—the very means by which they portray themselves as pious—are what betrays them. As James puts it, “If you think you are being religious, but can’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and everything you do is useless.” (Jas 1:26, CEV). And the Psalm gives us a concrete example—using our words to slander another is blatant contradiction of the kind of piety that is genuine (Ps. 15:3). Among other things, by our words we make “God’s word” null and void!
The flaw in that kind of piety[6] is the fact that it misses the point of it all: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). I like the NIrV: “You must treat people fairly. You must love others faithfully. And you must be very careful to live the way your God wants you to.”
The point of it all is that true piety translates into action.[7] That’s always been the point of the commandments, the teachings of prophets and apostles, even the gospel—to create a community of people who put into practice the commitment to “live the way your God wants you to.” Call it what you will: in Deuteronomy it’s “keeping the commandments” (Deut 4:1); in the Psalm it’s doing “righteousness” from the heart (Ps. 15:2). [8] Elsewhere in Scripture it’s called living in covenant with God (Exod. 19:5), doing the will of God (Matt. 7:21), and seeking God’s kingdom (Matt. 6:33). What it boils down to is making God’s ways the guiding orientation to all of life.[9] Anything less than a sincere effort to do so inevitably turns into making “God’s word” null and void. James is convinced that what God considers “pure and genuine religion” is demonstrated not by words but by actions: it means “taking care of orphans and widows in their suffering and keeping oneself from being corrupted by the world” (Jas 1:27 TEV).[10] It’s when we miss that this is the point of it all that we tend to make “God’s word” null and void.[11]
You may be thinking, “How can anyone ever attain ‘pure’ religion”? That’s a natural reaction. But I don’t think James was insisting on perfection here.[12] I think James points us in the right direction when he says that the way to respond to “the word” is to “humbly accept” it (Jas. 1:21, NIV).[13] I don’t think that means that we are to swallow at face value everything that is presented to us as “word of God,” but rather we are to humbly seek to understand and then put into practice the teachings we discern in our faith and in Scripture. I think the humility has to come from the realization that we are all fallen and therefore also flawed our endeavor to do that.
One of my heroes is a German scholar named Adolf Schlatter. Prof. Schlatter was fervent Christian, so scholars of the day looked down on him; but he was also a genuine scholar, so faithful also looked down on him. Schlatter sought to hold together the two—deep respect for Scripture together with the integrity of a scholar. There’s a story about Schlatter that I’ve always felt illustrates the kind of humility Scripture has always encouraged. Supposedly, Prof. Schlatter shared a cabin on a train with a gentleman, and in the course of their discussion, the other man discovered that that he was talking with the great Professor. At that point he expressed his pleasure by saying rather piously, “I understand that you take your stand on the word of God”—apparently to indicate his own orthodoxy and his agreement with Schlatter’s outlook. As the story goes, Prof. Schlatter simply replied, “I take my stand under the word of God.” It seems to me that those who “stand on the word of God” are those who trample it underfoot and make it “null and void.” Only by humbly standing under it can we hear it in a way that transforms our hearts and is translated into the way we live our lives.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/30/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Jon Nelson Bailey, “Vowing away the Fifth Commandment,” Restoration Quarterly (2000):193-209.
[3] Cf. David E. Garland, Mark, 274.
[4] Cf. Garland, Mark, 282: “we should be careful not to belittle first-century Judaism as a dead letter, awash in legalism, when our own Christianity can be just as dead and just as legalistic.” He adds wisely, “We should recognize that what we derisively call legalism today was to the Pharisees a sincere effort to apply God’s will to everyday life.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:365, describes this problem when he says that to hear the word only and not obey it “would mean that we maintain our autonomy over against it as those who know the Word and are interested in it and reverence and adore it. But although we can do this with the word of man, we cannot do it with the Word of God. Because it is the Word of the Lord, to hear the Word of God is to obey the Word of God.”
[6] Cf. Luke T. Johnson, James, 214, where he translates “deceive” themselves as “indulge” themselves. Perhaps there is some truth to this perspective, for typically this kind of superficial piety is incredibly self-indulgent.
[7] Cf. also James L. Mays’ comment on Psalm 15: “The insistence on the correlation between righteous God and righteous people in the psalms is unrelenting in its pervasiveness.” See James L. Mays, Psalms, 85.
[8] Cf. Patrick D. Miller, “Poetic Ambiguity and Balance in Psalm XV,” Vetus Testamentum 29(1979):422, where he argues that all of the phrases in Ps. 15:2 “describe right conduct in general or abstract fashion”: walking blamelessly, doing righteousness, and speaking truth.
[9]Patrick Miller, Deuteronomy, 213; cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 98-99, 126-27, 168, 254-57, 301, 381-84.
[10] The Bible demands compassion toward the vulnerable: the orphan, the widow, and the alien are named in the Bible, but we could add the unjustly convicted or the mentally ill. See Exod 22:21; 23:9; Lev 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Num 15:29; Deut 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jer 7:6; 22:3; Ezek 22:7, 29; Zech 7:10; Mal 3:5.
[11] Cf. William Barclay, James: “the finest liturgy you can offer God is service of the poor and personal purity.”
[12] Cf. the discussion of “perfection” in James and the NT in David E. Garland, “Severe Trials, Good Gifts, and Pure Religion: James 1,” in Review and Expositor (1986): 387.
[13] Cf. Sophie Laws, James, 82: the “implanted word” is most naturally the gospel; yet Johnson, James, 205 makes a good point when he insists that there is no hard and fast distinction in James between the word of creation, the word of Torah, and the word of the Gospel.

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