We are all familiar with the story of the woman about to be stoned. When Jesus came upon the scene, he stopped the process then commanded only one who had never sinned could throw the first stone. As the story goes, it did not take long for the crowd to leave as no one but Jesus has ever lived a sinless life.As I reflect on that Gospel story, I have to wonder if things would have turned out differently had St. Paul, prior to his conversion, been there. Based on Luke’s account in Acts, we know St. Paul was the driving force behind the stoning of St. Stephen. Also, knowing how arrogant he was as a Pharisee, I suspect Paul may have actually believed he was sinless.
This is what makes this morning’s passage from Romans interesting. Not only does Paul ramble on about the law, but he also admits to his own inadequacies in living out the laws of Torah.
I know for many of us, today’s Epistle sounds as if Paul is talking in circles, some may even wonder if he was fully sober at the time he was dictating this part of the letter. But as one reads the passage line by line we realize he is sharing his own struggle with sin and Torah by accepting the higher expectations of God in Christ. He then realizes how valuable the gift of grace is.
When Paul talks about being a slave to the Law, he is talking about the 613 laws of Moses as contained in the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. These laws cover every aspect of life from the familiar dietary laws still held by many Jews today to the rightful use of land and care of animals to everything in between. Keeping these laws to the letter was a full-time job which ultimately required resources that many Jews of Jesus’ day simply did not have. It was easy to keep the laws if you had Gentile servants who could care for the livestock and keep the fire burning in winter so one could rest and pray on the Sabbath.
This morning as Paul speaks to the Roman Church, he reflects back on his desire both as a good Jew and now as a Christian to keep the Law, but then realizes, how inflexible and tyrannical life became when he tried to keep Torah. In our passage this morning, he basically says, prior to Christ we were enslaved by the Law, it was a standard set so high that no one could live up to it. This left most with no hope of having a right relationship with God because the taint of sin is incurred with the breaking of the Law either consciously or unconsciously.
As Paul wrote this passage, he was also keenly aware that he is not as in control of his life as he thought he was. In the letter he speaks of the constant cosmic battle between sin and righteousness that goes on within each of us. “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” Later he goes onto say that evil is deep within his members.
Approximately 200 years later, Augustine will address the sin Paul speaks of from a different perspective. Augustine taught that we are born free and clean of sin, yet into the cloud of sin that encompasses this life. The scales he said are stacked against us and eventually we all fall into sin. Augustine went onto teach that even when we think we are doing right, we are doing wrong.
An example of what both Paul and Augustine spoke of comes in the form of Hobby Lobby. Many of us are familiar with the Supreme Court ruling between the owners of Hobby Lobby and the Affordable Care Act. On religious grounds, this family owned company won the right not to pay for any birth control products they felt conflicted with the family’s religious values.
It is not my intent to discuss the court case, that was discussed in the media a long time ago. What I want to look at is how the company on the surface does attempt to operate based on Christian values. Hobby Lobby is one of the few major retailers which pays its full-time staff a starting wage that is considered a living wage in most areas of the country. It is also one of the few retailers which continues to be closed on Sunday’s in order to allow all employees Sabbath rest. However, despite Hobby Lobby’s attempts at providing a fair and just working environment, like any institution, and any of us, it too has clay feet.
In the weeks after the court case several editorials were written exposing the other side to Hobby Lobby’s business practice. Like any major retailer, all of their inexpensive merchandise is made in China where labor laws are notoriously lacking. To this day, Chinese laborers are expected to work twelve plus hours per day, often in unsafe and deplorable conditions for only pennies a day. China continues to be a country where child labor laws are largely ignored and sweat shops are the norm. However, in order to compete in the retail industry, price is everything and the cost of production determines the price on the shelves. Like St. Paul, even when they think they are doing good, evil lies close at hand.
In my previous parish, my last years with the vestry was spent discussing how and where we would invest our forming endowment. At the beginning we began the discussion by my asking if it is right to profit from injustice. We agreed it wasn’t. We then came to learn that no matter how socially conscious we tried to be with our investments, we would never achieve perfection because no company is perfect.
As we explore Paul’s quandary with the law and sin, we are led to ask why bother. We will never win, and truth be told, we are powerless to sin. This is exactly where Paul wants us land because this is where Christ comes in. Through Christ, we are the heirs of grace. No longer is our ability to be in relationship with God dependent on our ability to be without sin, but based on what is in our hearts.
As Paul concludes, we all have clay feet, we all fall short of God’s law and expectation. The good news is, God’s love for us is not contingent on our keeping of the law to perfection but what is in our hearts. Our desire to love God and to love others is what God asks of us. God knows we will fail, we fail every day, but through Christ, God is able to overlook our failings and love us anyway. The challenge we face. . .is to do the same.