to walk worthily of the Lord, pleasing him in all respects

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lent, day 7: Buying the Stairway to Heaven, part 1

"Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or  sabbath." (Colossians 2:16, RSV)

It seems a bit counterintuitive in this season of fasting, bookended as it is with holy days (Ash Wednesday and the Tridiuum), that we should consider this passage from Colossians. Instead of luanching into a screed against my liturgically inclined brothers and sisters about how restrictions on diet and observance of holy days is wrong (and after, "hello, pot, this is kettle"), it is better for all involved to recognize that the issue before us is not really the matters of food and drink or keeping holy days, but the Greek word 'krineto,' translated above as 'pass judgment" or elsewhere as 'condemn.'

Recall from yesterday that the Colossians incline toward a world view where spiritually potent forces exist between them and heaven and heaven's God. These forces are as capricious as they are powerful, and the Colossians must contend with them, like it or not. Some, we don't know precisely who or how many, are 'encouraging' the Colossians to navigate the forces through ritual observances and radical self-denial (tomorrow, we'll talk about the worship these troublemakers advocate and on Friday, we'll talk about the aceticism they admire). Here, in 2:16, it's clear that the practices involve something similar to the Torah observances of Judaism (in fact, this verse is the main reason why many scholars think the troublemakers were Jews or Jewish Christians, akin to the Judaizers of Galatians).

Such a comparison is valuable since it reminds us that the NT generally does not condemn these types of observances, but attacks the spiritual worldviews that misuse them, that elevate the observances unduly, that emphasize them over "the weightier matters of the Law" (cf. Matthew 6:1-18, where alms giving,prayer and fasting are not rejected but recast for a more authentic spirituality; or cf. John 5 and 9, where Jesus does not reject the Sabbath but recasts it in the light of his divine identity [on the Sabbath, see also Mark 2:27-28]).

Paul will recast these 'questions' of diet and holy days in v. 17 in the light of Christ (we'll talk about this later). But just because Christ has come, we should not think that religious practices are void (or that religion is 'bad' - contra this frustrating video that makes me scream at my computer). Colossians 3:1-4:6 describe a good kind of religion, and much of the argument of Colossians relies upon the believers' experience of their baptism (esp. Col 2:9-15), a ritual.

So what's the problem here? Two things. First, it is the notion that holy days and religiously motivated diets have some effect on appeasing the spiritual forces of the universe. If you really think that the acts of fasting, receiving ashes on the eponymous Wednesday, or participating in the Easter vigil will protect you from the Devil and get you closer to heaven, you are, um, well, you need to read Colossians again. Our religion only makes sense when it starts with Christ and what Christ has done. Without Christ, anything you can do, the 'rulers and authorities' can do better. Furthermore, anything you can do, they can twist into their purposes. Without Christ, you are always (!) playing at their game.

Second, the problem is also that there are people, maybe even our brothers and sisters in the church (maybe even ourselves), who capitlize on the notion that religious practices are required to get you out from under spiritual influences and into heavenly security. Perhaps they themselves are well practiced in such acts, or perhaps they just put up a good show, but regardless, those who judge (v. 16), who disqualify (v. 18), who shout "Don't, Don't Don't" (v. 21) are not only trading in faulty commodities, they are in fact promoting a grand ponzi scheme, and to their own (short-lived) benefit.

What's the take away? With regards to the first problem - stop and ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. If it is to get something you've already got, then I'd suggest you reconsider what you are doing. For me, I am travelling Lent not out of fear or to grab hold of heaven; I travel the way of Lent in order to know Christ better, and I can only do that because he's arleady mine, or better, I'm alrady his (Philippians 3:12-14).

With regards to the second problem - stop letting people judge you and stop judging people. For those who judge you, it seems to me that not listening to them will help quiet them down a little. And for your own judging, I don't mean stop being discriminating (in the the good company or good wine sense, not the racist sense) and I don't mean be silent in the presence of injustice or sin. I mean, stop trading in faulty spiritual commodities, stop holding people to standards that don't matter, and hold on to the Standard that matters, the one who is the true Judge, who has dealt with our sins and theirs, our limitations and theirs, and has done so in a rather effective way.

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