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The Problem of Torah

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The Problem of Torah

Searching for the ideal in the desert of the real

by John J. Parsons

Imagine being married to a complete perfectionist. This man is scrupulous, principled, and entirely ethical in everything he does.  He never makes a mistake. Ever! From the moment he opens his eyes in the morning, through all the pressures and tensions of the day, his routine is marked by meticulous purity, fastidious virtue, ruthless honesty, faultless godliness, impeccable sanctity, razor-sharp righteousness, and that strength that comes from reflecting the moral truth in all that he does.  At the end of the day, he is iridescent in his perfections - shining clearly to everyone around him that he is entirely set apart as unapproachably holy and the ideality of all of life.

    But does such a man have compassion?
    Can he empathize with your struggles?
    Can he forgive your frailties and sins?
    Is he a good lover?
    Indeed, is it honestly possible to love him at all?

Perhaps you might come to find conditional acceptance in his eyes — so long as you dutifully submit to his governance and continually prove yourself faultless before him.  Perhaps if you undergo certain amounts of self-flagellation or self-abnegation he will acquiesce to your presence.  After all, as a true perfectionist, he can do no more than find satisfaction in the expression of his own adherence to the standards of perfection he possesses. He cannot do more, and he cannot do less.

Similarly, Torah has a "problem" on its hands. Like the supposed perfect husband, handsome beyond all description, flawless in every way, Torah is unrelenting in its demands that we adhere to its will. Should we demonstrate any manner of frailty, or should we ever deviate from its prescribed course, we are then subject to alienation, since Torah — as the expression of God's righteous perfection for human beings —  is without empathy for us.  There can be no mediation here: the untarnished glory of the righteous Law is inviolable and sacrosanct.  God can no more overlook the fault that can He deny his own inner perfection. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die."

Think about the ancient Greek philosophers who contemplated the rational perfections of God. Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover." The "Eternal Mind" that contemplates itself and its perfections for all eternity.  Plato's original "archetype" of Truth and Beauty and Goodness.  Parmenides' amorphous One that gives rise to the multiplicity of the world, and so on.  Are their ideas really so far removed from the views of Judaism and Islam, both of which posit a monistic Being that possesses complete moral perfections and demands slavish obedience to an external law code?

Such idealizations, whether they take the religious or humanistic form, are nothing but  trash talk when it comes to understanding a divine love that reaches down in compassion to heal and save those who are shattered by life in its concreteness.

Polishing a mirror — whether it be through more and more scrupulous attention given to the minutiae of an external law code (i.e., the holy books or its rituals) or through deeper and more profound apprehension of the divine through the light of reason – only reveals more clearly our imperfections and reveals the gulf between the "ought" and "is" of our lives. The Law of God meticulously, clinically, and mercilessly reveals our flaws and defects of character.  It reveals divine Otherness and Transcendence, but nothing of divine Compassion and Immanence.  It displays the ideal at the expense of the real.  It is powerless to deliver us from alienation and that sense of loss we all feel inside.  In short, the truth of the Torah (understood as prescriptive law) cannot set you free, any more than its possible to silence the voice of conscience without going mad.

Many forms of Christianity (as well as Judaism and Islam) place implicit conditions upon our value as human beings, understanding that there is something more required of us in order to obtain spiritual life.  Likewise, more traditionally understood "Eastern" religions reverse the condition and seek to empty the mind in order to escape the ubiquity of maya, illusion, thereby negating the empirical for the sake of the ideal.  Invariably the cases are the same, at bottom. 

For those who are not spiritually comatose or asleep, life is indeed tragic. Everything around us is literally dying, yet by what wonder of heaven is it that we can hope to overcome our fate through feeble attempts at either self-reformation or escapism? We live in a world that is on fire, and learning punctilious forms of religious expression will NEVER overcome the existential void within our hearts, no, not even if we learn them as fluently as a Zen master pours his tea.

CONSENSUS

Of course, there is also that unthinking form of despair that is revealed in the life of the hedonist, who hopes to be so engaged in the immediacy of the moment that he can squelch the voice of conscience with its warning that his life is under examination. The hedonist is not rightly understood as a person, however, since he is fragmented, unwilling to stand back far enough to see himself as a eternal soul with a history.

His is the world of the chameleon, transforming his identity to match the fickle mood of his ambient conditions. His despair is so great that he feels no tension between the ideal and the real.  For him, the real (i.e., the immediate sense perception and mood of the moment) is the only thing that matters, since it is tangible and subject to manipulation from him in another fleeting moment of absurd existence. As such, he disregards the ideal and embraces his own self-defined form of reality, but at the expense of shared reality, and hence his own soul.

There is another way, however, that was accomplished by means of the "blood work" of Yeshua as the High Priest of the New Covenant. Listen to Ray Stedman speak of this:

The death of Jesus was by means of the cross, and the cross was designed for only one purpose: to end the existence of an evil man! Those who were crucified had no life in this world beyond that point. It may sound strange to us to apply the term "an evil man" to Jesus, but it must be remembered that a little further on in this very letter the apostle says, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Literally, he was made sin. He became what we are. When he became what we are (evil men), there was nothing else God could do except to put him to death. That is what God does with evil people; he puts them to death. Thus, in the cross of Christ, God took all that we are in Adam, all our natural life with its dreams and hopes and resources and brought it to a crashing end by the dying of Jesus.

The cross of Jesus put to death the proud ego within us. It wrote off as utterly worthless that faculty within us which wants to blow a trumpet whenever we do what we think is good. It sentences to death that inner desire which wants no one else to be as educated or as popular or as skillful or as beautiful as we. It is the thing within us which struggles to be at the center at all times and expresses itself in self-pity, self-indulgence, self-excuse, and self-assertion.

I must clearly understand that it is not up to me to put this natural life to death – it has already been done. I am only expected to agree with the rightness of that execution and stop trying to make it "live" again before God. When a son was promised to Abraham, he cried to God, "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!" (Genesis 17:18). But God refused, for Isaac was the child of promise, not Ishmael. Abraham must learn that though Ishmael was permitted to exist, God would fulfill none of His promise of blessing through him. Only through Isaac would the blessing come.

Thus when I cease trying to justify and excuse the activities of the flesh and agree with God that the flesh is rightfully under sentence of death, then I am fulfilling this powerful figure of always carrying around in my body the death of Jesus. If I welcome the cross and see that it has already put to death the flesh rising within me so that it can have no power over me, then I find myself able to say no to its cry for expression. I can then turn instead to the Lord Jesus with the full expectation that as I will to do what he tells me to do in these circumstances (love my enemies, flee youthful lusts, wait patiently for the Lord, and so forth), He will be at work in me to enable me to do it. Thus the life of Jesus will be manifest in my mortal life.

It is this necessity to agree with the implications of the cross in terms of actual experience which Jesus has in mind when he says, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). The key to the new life is the belief that the old has been rendered of no value whatsoever by the cross. And throughout Scripture the order never varies. First death, then life. Death is intended to lead to resurrection. "If we have died with him, we shall also be raised again with him." When we consent to death, then the life of Jesus can flow unhindered from us. It is never the other way. We cannot claim resurrection life first, and then by means of that put the flesh to death. We must first bow to the cross, then God will bring about the resurrection.

We cannot obtain life by means of our all-too-human aspirations (i.e., the "flesh" and its attempt to be justified in light of the truth of God's moral law), but rather through agreeing with God's verdict and surrendering ourselves to His salvation in Yeshua.

"The soul that sinneth, it shall die." The alienation of man is NOT caused by the revelation of Torah, but the Torah nonetheless reveals the truth of our condition of brokeness and need.  Torah by itself is powerless to save us, and that's precisely why we need Yeshua as our Savior. "God made Jesus, who knew no sin, to become sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor. 5:21). The gift of life is freely given to all who trust in God's loving provision for their need as revealed in the face of Jesus.

This appeal is unsavory to all forms of human pride and conceit, since it renders all the mummeries, good deeds, and philosophizing of the human soul as little more than religious trifling.  If you want to be set free from slavery to the ego, you must accept the truth of your condition and do business at the only true altar of God Almighty - the Cross at MoriahThere you can both acknowledge God's perfect justice and yet appeal to His chesed (love and mercy) as given in the Person of Yeshua.

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?

For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.

Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

2 Cor. 3:4-18

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