It says right here….

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Matt 5, 17-20

Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

 Matt 5, 20

I got into an interesting conversation a couple of days ago with a wonderful Christian friend of mine who happens to worship our LORD in a different church.   She told me that she had been called upon to give the “children’s lesson” during a recent Sunday Service.  Her lesson, as she explained explained it to me, was to tell the children that it’s possible for us to always know what we should do because we’ve been given a “user’s manual” for our lives.  Then she asked the children if they knew what that manual was.  One little girl, according to my friend, raised her hand and said, “The Bible!”  This pleased my friend, so she praised the girl and then wrapped the lesson up so the service could continue.  

I’ve already shared some thoughts on the matter of “always knowing what we should do” and my friend’s comment about a user’s manual for life kept me thinking about the whole issue of proper conduct long after she shared her story with me.  What, I wondered, is the Bible actually for?  Why has God given us “the law and the prophets”?  Anyone, believer or not, who spends time with the Bible is going to find instruction about what should, and what should not be done.  People have long referred to the Bible as ‘The Law’ which makes a lot of sense because the Bible is where we find the commandments.  It’s where we find God’s commandments.

The Bible, does it not, actually tells us what the Bible is for:  “See, I have today set before you life and good, death and evil.  If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I am giving you today, loving the LORD, your God, and walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments, statutes and ordinances, you will live and grow numerous, and the LORD, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.  If, however, your heart turns away and you do not obey, but are led astray and bow down to other gods and serve them, I tell you today that you will certainly perish.”  Deut 30, 15-18.  Couldn’t be more clear, could it?  The path to life is the path of obedience to God’s commandments.  The path to death (which is, of course, the path we all were on) is the path of disobedience.

To live we must do what is right, and we can know what is right by studying the Bible.  That’s perfectly straightforward, and it makes perfect sense call it a “user’s manual”.

There’s something missing, though, and that ‘something’ is what Jesus was referring to when he told us that he came to “fulfill” the Law.  We know something is missing because experience has shown us that it’s actually not possible to fulfill the Law using our own efforts; and when I say ‘experience’, I’m talking about thousands and thousands of years of experience by billions and billions of people.  I want to be good.  I try to be good.  I fail at being good.  Man!  Is that frustrating or what??   After a while, it dawns on me that I’m not only incapable of doing good, I’m not even competent to say what good is.  The Bible is a “user’s manual” all right; but when I actually try to use it, the Bible gradually morphs into an impressive dossier of evidence — taunting me with irrefutable accusations about my own unworthiness.  Where’s the joy in that?

Theologians talk about ‘justification by works’, and theologians also tell us that our belief we can be justified by works is heresy.  It’s certainly heresy, but it’s a heresy that hoodwinks all of us from time to time.  Jesus warns us that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and the scribes.  There were Pharisees and scribes in Jesus’ time, and there are “Pharisees and scribes” today as well.

Who are these scribes?  Who are these Pharisees?  They’re the ones telling themselves that they can manage their lives and keep things under control.  They’re the ones telling themselves that they can learn to do what is right, and then they can do it.  They’re the people who are using the Bible as their “user’s manual”!  Every generation has a goodly crop of saints and sages who remind us not to rely on our own efforts of will, and in every generation we turn a deaf ear to the sages and the saints.

I said earlier that anyone, believer or not, can see that the Bible is a set of instructions.  Anyone can see that it’s a user’s manual.  You don’t need faith to learn the commandments, and you don’t need faith to figure out that people all around you are breaking the commandments.  Non-believers can figure this out, but what do we see when we come to believe?

Well it turns out that I don’t need a user’s manual.  I wouldn’t be able to make use of it if I had one.  I’m simply not smart enough to run my own life.  My only hope is to gather enough sense to realize that I don’t have any sense at all.  That’s something to pray for!  Why should I task my poor pitiful self with the job of taking command?  How could I ever learn what I’m supposed to do?  It would be like trying to teach calculus to a grasshopper!  What a joke!  As if I could figure this stuff out.  In fact, if I actually could figure out how to be good I’d be insufferable, because I’d be looking down my nose at all of you who haven’t figured out how to be good.

I don’t need a user’s manual; but I need the Bible, I need the ‘law and the prophets’.  It’s just that it’s a little tricky to understand what, exactly, I need it for.  The trick is that I’ve got to quit.  You read that right.  I’ve got to quit before I start.  I’ve got to give up, I’ve got to throw in the towel, I’ve got to holler “Uncle!”  It’s not about me doing something.  It’s about me not doing.  It’s about getting out of my own way so the LORD has some space to work.

While I’m without faith, and while I’m still full of myself, I look to the scriptures and I see what I must do to live a good life.  I see, but I can’t do, and I’m trapped by despair — which is the same as saying that I’m trapped by self.  When I repent, when I give Dad the car keys back, when I stop thinking the sun rises and sets around me, when I renounce accusation because I realize how desperately I need mercy, I see something in the Bible I could never, never have dreamed of seeing.  When I have faith, the Bible becomes something other than a compilation of do’s and don’ts.  When I have faith, the study of scripture becomes an encounter with Jesus, an encounter with God incarnate.

Without faith, the Bible is static and stale.  Static and stale doesn’t cut it.  I’ve written about it before, and I shall repeat here that the Bible needs to speak to us in the moment.  It has to be fresh.  It has to be alive — but it can only be alive after it ceases to be the manual that we have no chance of ever incorporating and becomes, instead, face time with the Author of Life Himself.


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About captaincatholic

Fifty Eight Year old 'Cradle Catholic'. Married for twenty two years to the magnificent Pam. Father to the unsurpassable Angelique. Parishioner at Sacred Heart Parish in Lexington MA.

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