A few additional words on this Sunday’s reading from Romans.
“Let us then throw off the works of darkness
and put on the armor of light;
let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day,
not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in promiscuity and lust,
not in rivalry and jealousy.”
At first glance this list is a bit unconvincing. I sure don’t participate in any “orgies.” (I had to look that up. The root meaning of the English word has to do with very drunken parties; by extension it sometimes includes the sexual wildness that might ensue at such a party. The Greek is komos, which has to do with literally being laid out on the ground, but by extension is used for the kind of party that might leave you in such a position.) Anyway, I don’t go to orgies, and I’m not promiscuous. What does this have to do with me?
But St. Paul tends to do a kind of nasty number, where he lists some really big sins – and then punches you with a sin you commit too, in the same list with that really bad stuff!
And so after orgies and promiscuity, just when I am feeling really good about myself, he slips in “rivalry and jealousy.” Darn. It’s almost funny, how we first try to defend ourselves by saying, “nope, I don’t go to orgies” and then, at the end of the list, we have to take the opposite tack, by saying, “oh, come on Paul, rivalry and jealousy aren’t so bad . . . are they?” But Paul puts them in the same list as promiscuity! Don’t count me with them! Just because I’m always competing with my coworkers, and comparing myself (favorably) to my friends and family? That’s not so bad, is it?
Notice, in fact, that Paul does the same thing in the earlier part of the list. Our eyes can slip past this. “In orgies . . . and drunkenness. In promiscuity . . . and lust.” Oh, come on, Paul! Promiscuity is one thing, lust (the word he uses just means lack of self-control) is another! Sure I like to drink, but I don’t attend “orgies”! I’m not one of those people! I’m not a sinner!
Of course, this is the same thing Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ . . . but I say unto you . . . whosoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” What?! Look, I haven’t killed anyone. It was just a couple little mean words. Words can never hurt you!
“You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, whoever looks on a woman to long for her [yes, that’s all the Greek says] has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Come on! No! I’m not a sinner!
In fact, even the Ten Commandments play this trick on us. Have I committed Murder? Nope. Adultery? I’m good. Theft? Not recently. False witness? Not under oath, anyway. Hey, look at me! I’m righteous! Coveting? Oh. Shoot. Really? I can’t even covet my neighbor’s house? I mean, stealing is one thing. I don’t steal anything, I just wish it were mine . . . .
Here’s the point: Christian morality is about our heart. What is your heart set on? Coveting really gets to the heart of the Ten Commandments. Treating other people as fools is just as bad as lusting in our hearts, which is well along the same path as murder and adultery. The real problem is that we are meant to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. We can’t just say, “I haven’t killed anyone.” That doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.
In our holiday drinking and celebrations, the question is not “how much is too much?” Not even, “I’m not really drunk.” The problem with drunkenness is the same problem as orgies: where is your heart? Do we love our God and our neighbor? We can certainly express those loves through conviviality – but do we love God, or do we really love food and drink?
Our reading from Romans ends, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” Oh, have an egg nog! But only in Christ, only for Christ, only with your heart set on the things that are really worthy.
How do you find yourself “making provision for the desires of the flesh” instead of “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ”?
Yeah, and the heart is the hardest thing to change on my own!
Ah, Chris, how you get to the “heart” of the matter!
The most important thing, in spiritual theology and moral theology, is to see the connection between the means and the end: if we want to get to God, we need God to help us.
In other words, there’s no point talking about the moral demands of the Gospel if we do not preach the Gospel of Grace: Jesus helps us! So really, the most important part of that reading from Romans is not “make no provision for the desires of the flesh,” but “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Without him, without the power of the Holy Spirit, we don’t have a chance. Because nothing is harder to change than our own hearts.