Sixth Sunday after Pentecost - July 9, 2023
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Zech. 9:9-12 + Ps. 145:8-14 + Rom. 7:15-25a + Mt.11:16-19, 25-30
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. + I speak to you today in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
7:15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 17 [Indeed] I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 22 [Though] I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23…I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive. 24 Who will rescue me from this body doomed to death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Here in Romans 7, an impassioned Paul speaks for all of humanity as he confesses with deep vulnerability and careful nuance his own inner struggle with the Law. As a member of the Pharisee party, Paul spent his lifetime devoted to the Law and inquiring about what it meant to follow the Law. Interested not as much in legalism (as the Pharisees are often portrayed) but in the question of obedience, it was the Pharisees who devised rules to help the common person navigate ambiguities in the Law. For example, Jews were enjoined to “keep the sabbath”? That’s the Law. But it was the Pharisees who helped to clarify what that actually meant: what actions constituted keeping or breaking the Sabbath and so on.
It was his encounter with the Risen Christ in the so-called “Damascus Experience” that radically re-oriented his relationship with the Law. And we might summarize this new orientation as follows:
Paul is very clear about the fact that the Law is good: I know the law is good because it comes from God. Notice Romans 7:22: “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self…” It is not a burden, but a delight. A privilege to follow it as the elect of God.
But he goes on to acknowledge that there are nevertheless two problems with the law:
First, although it rightly opens our mind to understand right from wrong (Do this. But don’t do that.), the Law does not have the power to make us do the right thing! Thus, vs. 23: Yet, I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive.” But secondly, not only is the Law impotent to make us do the right thing, even more detrimental is the fact that precisely in the moment the Law is introduced, it introduced temptation.
“Whatever you do…DON’T look behind door number three.” Exactly. That’s all we can think about now isn’t it? What’s behind door number three? And this is the problem Paul is grappling with mightily in Romans 7: How to maintain that God’s Law must be good (because it is revealed by God intended for our good), yet at the same time to realize it introduces these profound moral dilemmas: One, it opens my mind to know the difference between good and evil without giving me the power to do the good. And second, it introduces temptation to act contrary to the very good it seeks in me. So, perhaps a brief modern autobiographical anecdote might help elucidate Paul’s dilemma in our own lives. Modern, that is, if you consider me being four years old being modern times.
I never knew where it came from. It was just ‘there.’ Every morning, of every day, faithfully appearing before me on the breakfast table in any one of four colors: Red Cherry, Purple Grape, Green Apple, and…well…Orange, Orange. I was never permitted to eat it until after finishing my breakfast, and then at last I would savor it for as long as I could, until…my patience inevitably running out: crunch, crunch, crunch, and down the hatch it would go. Of course, this rich culinary experience I describe is brought to you by none other than Flintstones Vitamins, or what I simply thought of as “candy.” Just candy.
So, one day I asked my mother if she might consider giving me a second piece of ‘candy’ – in exchange for my promise to ‘be good’ that day (whatever that slippery language meant in the mind of a four-year-old). Without a moment’s hesitation, however, she declined my offer of a day-long peace treaty, replying instead with a firm but loving, “No.” “That’s not candy,” she went on to explain. “It’s medicine…and you can get sick if you eat too many of them. “Now…Don’t ever take them without telling mommy,” She chided, even as I watched her place the candy high on a shelf in a kitchen cupboard to the left of the sink.
Location Noted. Check!
Many days had passed while I, playing with my G.I. Joes and Tonka trucks, would often think fondly of that cupboard and the treasure trove of candy that it held. Each time I would run past the kitchen, or commandeer my G.I. troops around the corner into the adjoining room, some part of my inner attention thought ever-more fondly of that cupboard even if I dared not divert my eyes in it direction. Until one day, the moment had come. In a time before cordless or mobile phones, we, like so many middle-class families, had a standard dial-up equipped with a long twisty wire, linking the dial and the receiver. And there in all its 1960’s ‘avocado green-ness,’ it hung on the kitchen wall just to the left of a doorway that led into my parent’s bedroom.
Having just taken a phone call, my mother walked out of the kitchen, into the bedroom where she sat down to settle in for a long conversation. I knew this, of course, because the tension on the twisty wire (now wrapping around the wall into her bedroom) was taught as taught could be. No slack. No give.
This was my chance.
Pulling a kitchen chair up to the counter, I scrambled onto it, and opened the forbidden cupboard. Reaching as far as my little fingers would allow, I managed to secure the prize. Pushing the chair back under the table I made a Bee-line – a bottle of candy in hand— down the long hallway that led to my play room.
Closing the door, I put my back against it as I sat cross-legged on the floor and quickly dumped the entire bottle of candy in front of me, separating out all the colors in small piles, ranking them from left to right in order from my most to least favorite: Red, purple, green, orange. And then one pile at a time, I gorged myself with candy. Of course, it never occurred to me that I needed an exit strategy or at least some way of covering my tracks by getting a soon-to-be empty candy bottle back in the cupboard, much less how I would explain its emptiness the following morning. I was merely living in the bliss of the moment.
I had just barely finished downing my third pile, that is the Green Apple of Flintstones vitamins when there came a rapid knock on the door, “Vinnie, what are you doing?” came the urgent call of my mother, as she began to push the door open behind me.
The scene of the crime was no doubt sufficiently conspicuous for my 20-something year old mother to have realized in her horror what I had done. In a complete panic, she called our pediatrician who diligently prescribed “Syrup of Ipecac” which, for those who don’t know, it is a rapidly-acting emetic drug. That is to say, taken to stave off the ingestion of poison. Once taken it promptly induces vomiting, as is evidenced by the fact that I spent the remainder of the day throwing up in technicolor.
Now, you see, what Paul would say is that the Law set down by your mother was good. It’s intention was not legalistic but loving: “Do not OD on Flintstones vitamins.” That’s the Law. But like the Law of God for Israel it contained two inherent problems:
Until the day my mother laid down the “only-one-vitamin-per-day” Law, (as she placed the candy jar in the cupboard) it did not even occur to me to think about what was behind cupboard door number three, as it were. But from that time forward, that’s ALL I could think about.
And secondly, the law, introduced by my mother for my own good, was the very thing that ironically introduced the temptation to break the law.
And once I did, the deleterious consequences, seemed to me to be as swift as they were merciless…indeed, seemed to me like punishment. Yet, from the broader vision of my adulthood I now understand that being forced to ingest Syrup of Ipecac was but the actions of a loving mother desperate to purge her son of the toxins introduced by Fred Flintstone and Company.
And there you have it, the primordial dilemma of the human condition, already on full display in a four-year-old. Roman’s 7 in a nutshell. But of course, for Paul, the answer to his rhetorical question: “Who will rescue me from this body doomed to death?” is ultimately, “God – thanks be to him – though Jesus Christ our Lord!” as we read in the crescendo of his chapter in verse 25.
And here, I believe, is the meaning of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Matthew today:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mat. 11:28-30).
Paul was weary. Weary of a lifetime of trying to prove himself worthy before God. Weary of trying to get it right, weary of trying without success to remain righteous, justified, acceptable in the sight of God. Forever burdened by the yoke of a Law he could never perfectly fulfill.
Every time he made some inadvertent misstep, accidentally broke the Sabbath, touch a person who was unclean, or transgressed any number of infractions either through temptation or human miscalculation, there was a solution. Return to the Temple, make the right offering and be restored again to righteousness with renewed hope that this time…this time… he would succeed. But inevitably his humanity, like ours, intervened. And he would find himself again making a new offering with a new resolve to live a new and righteous life, worthy before God.
It was his journey on the road to Damascus that opened him to a new vision. Not one that rejected the Law or the good intended by it, but that transcended the Law, by letting go entirely of the need to save himself, to make himself righteous, to make himself worthy. In Christ, he realized, all of this burden was lifted from his shoulders forever.
How, after all, could the finite ever reach the infinite? How could a mere mortal ever prove worthy to the immortal God of Israel. In short, we can’t. But the good news is, in Christ, we don’t have to. Only the infinite could bridge the infinite gulf between heaven and earth. Only the Eternal could descend into the abode of time…the abode of history, and as such (says Paul), Christ stretching his arms upon the Cross bridged that infinite gulf between heaven and earth.
In an ironic twist then, Paul comes to the realization that while the Law is indeed good, for Christians it no longer serves as an act of faith to follow the law but now for Christians, following the Law has become an affront to God. Why? Because as long as we continue to try to save ourselves, we are unwittingly holding onto an insurance policy, a method or means by which we might save ourselves, justify ourselves, “just in case” Christ hasn’t really done it for us. And hence is that tenacious struggle even within Christianity to turn again and again toward legalism.
The Yoke that Jesus begs to take from us is not merely the yoke of our emotional distress, life struggles, or the crises we face – although it’s certainly all of that. But he wants something more from us. He wants from us the very yoke that crushes us under the weight of illusion of our unworthiness. What Paul came to realize on the Road to Damascus and what he desperately wants each of us to know now is that it is all Love.
The vitamin that appears on your table.
The gentle reprimand of the Law: This is not candy.
To the Syrup of Ipecac that purges us of the toxins of our false choices
All of it – born of LOVE.
A Mother’s LOVE forever grounded not in the Law but in the very heart of her relationship with her Children. A relationship in which the idea of worthiness is as far apart as East is from West, as Day is from Night, indeed, as Time is from Eternity. May you know all is Love.
+ The Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.