Getting the Rules Right

In the fall of 2008, our family (myself, my husband, and our two children, then 11 and 9) set out on a Grand Tour of Europe. It was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime kind of adventure. Our trip began in September in London, where we stayed for about nine days, and then we went over to the Continent, to Belgium, Amsterdam, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and France. The Tour ended in Paris in the middle of November.

Among many other things, the Tour involved a great deal of family time—close, almost always together, family time. It didn’t take long, therefore, for a set of rules to be developed:

1. Paws off! (Keep your hands, and all other appendages, to yourself.)
2. Stay on the BUS (Butt Upon Seat)
(this was especially important when eating, in a restaurant or whatever place we were calling “home” at the time)
3. No swatting Dad on the butt
4. No turning off the lights in the bathroom when someone else is in there.
5. Don’t be an insufferable know-it-all.
6. Don’t be a mindless buffoon.
7. No snarky insolence.
8. No calling Daddy unflattering names.

During the past few days, I’ve been thinking about these rules for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’m preaching tomorrow on the Gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary, Matthew 5:21-37, where Jesus seems to be talking about well-known rules, and then taking them up a notch. The second, more or less related reason, is that I’m thinking about how much the Church has taken up the cause of “rules,” so much so that it’s strangled the life out of them, to the point that people have finally had enough and are leaving the Church.

In the Matthew passage, Jesus lifts up well-known rules for living, those ten commandment kind of rules, and seems to take them to a whole new place. According to Matthew, Jesus said, “‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Is Jesus really stating that even seemingly minor infractions of the rules for living will subject one to eternal damnation? Could it really be that Jesus is encouraging us not only to get busy correcting and guiding certain actions, but also to see what we can do about reading the minds of people as well?

I’ve been thinking about the rules that we developed on our family trip through Europe, rules that in many ways are still part of our family life. The rules didn’t just come out of thin air; they were solidly grounded in our experience. For instance, we had a problem, especially with the kids, physically needling each other—poking each other, and so forth. What family doesn’t? So, Rule #1: Keep your hands to yourself.

The rules were not set up to keep the individuals in our family from having a good time. The rules were not set up to squelch all of the fun out of our trip. Instead, the rules were set up so that we could all have a reasonably good experience on our trip. The rules were set up to remind us all of a certain level of respect we needed to have for each other, and the need to preserve a certain level of dignity.

In short, it’s really all about the relationships.

I think it should be the same way for religion. The rules that appear in the Bible are not simply about how we can squelch all of the fun out of life, so that our actions and our thoughts should be always so pure just so we can please our Creator.

The rules, instead, should be considered in light of how we live together and how we interact with our Creator. It doesn’t take much thought, for instance, to see that the Ten Commandments are really about relationships—relationship with God, and relationship with each other.

It’s not simply that murder and adultery and lying are things that God doesn’t like, so don’t do them. It’s that murder and adultery and lying are not good for human relationships. The rules, then, should not be viewed in a vacuum as if rules have no context and no purpose other than just to be rules.

Rules for living are grounded in community, in relationship, and in the love and grace of God. Do I really think that Jesus wanted us to try to get inside each other’s thoughts so that we could try to figure out some way of policing thoughts as well as actions? I don’t think so.

Tomorrow’s Gospel lesson reminds us that Jesus cared a great deal about community and relationships. His “taking it up a notch,” I believe, was to try to encourage his followers to think about themselves and others in context, in their relationships with each other. The standard rules for living should be something that give life, that encourage and guide good relationships, instead of something that sucks the life out of living.

But, the Christian Church, over the millennia, has been much more interested in understanding and appreciating the rules in a sort of a vacuum, that rules should be mindlessly followed, as if that’s the only way to show honor and respect for God. Finally, people have had enough and they have gone away, searching for other ways of finding worthwhile, life-giving and life-affirming, community and relationships.

The Church should, instead, be exploring new ways of fostering good relationships, and good community—especially because the Church actually has some very good things to say about such things. Our holy book is full of good guidance—life-giving and life-affirming guidance. We just need to find a way to steer clear of approaching that guidance as simply a list of rules that exists solely for the sake of having rules. And, instead, we should appreciate and promote the guidance of our Holy Book in context, as a way through which we show respect and dignity to each other, to our Creator, and to ourselves, and how we build and shape good community and good relationships.

After all, “paws off” is always good advice and it’s never a good idea to shut the bathroom light out when someone is in there, especially when the only switch is on the outside of the bathroom. Respect, dignity, good relationships, good community. The Church could go a long way in promoting such things, and helping to foster meaningful life and living.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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