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The stairway of moralism

The stairway of moralism

I have to admit, these steps are impressive.

Not that I came to this suburban Atlanta park, in the brief time I have for an excursion on this business trip, to see them. I’m here for the waterfall. But noticing this complicated construct scaling the side of the hill in front of me, I have to stop. And ponder.

This morning, I studied Jesus’s “Seven Woes” in Matthew 23. His strong criticism of the religious leaders is startling. This is Jesus with his gloves off. For example:

 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to… you make (your converts) twice as much a son of hell as you are.” Matt. 23:13, 15

What are they doing that so outrages Jesus? They promise a relationship with God, but then build an elaborate structure for human behavior that actually keeps them from knowing him. And note that they have “success” in passing on this system. If the teachers have one hand on the railing of moralism, their disciples grip it with two.

I find this in myself. Recently, I wrote down my core beliefs to see how they guide my behavior, both good and bad. One of the latter is that I expect people to be considerate. When they aren’t, I struggle with the urge to correct and condemn – how DARE they!

Perhaps you know the feeling.

On my way onto the plane, a guy in front of me boldly took his three carry-ons despite the frequent reminders of the limit of two. After he stowed two suitcases overhead right in front of me, he turned and looked at me. On the tip of my tongue was something that started with, “Hey, man…” But I didn’t say it.

There is a place for correcting people. I’m not talking about being a silent witness to egregious or harmful behavior. I’m simply realizing how many of my daily interactions are being colored by my desire to make strangers better humans.

Like this intersection in the walkway under my feet, I have a choice. I can point people toward the stairs of moral behavior, acting like some kind of deputized Pharisee, making them think this is what Christianity is about. Or I can send them down to the river of grace.

I do get to the falls. And here, I carefully frame this shot to get contrast of the prickly pine against the silken flow of the water. I am that sapling – bristling with indignation, disliking the very people I am called to serve, in need of forgiveness.

Perhaps you know that feeling, too.

We are not ambassadors for a moral code. We are Christ’s representatives on earth. And what I want the world to see in me is Jesus – his beauty, his fullness, his grace, goodness, and yes, his righteousness. But his, not mine.

After all, making them better humans is the Spirit’s job.

What a relief!

Jesus, help us when we get in the way of what you want to do -- when we’re so focused on applying rules we lose track of, in your words, “justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Show us how to show you to the world.

Reader: Do you struggle with this, like me? If so, how do you combat it?

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Bruce Van Patter

As a freelance illustrator, graphic recorder, and author, Bruce is on a lifelong journey to delight in the handiwork of the Creator. And he’s always ready for fellow travelers.

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