Read Philippians 3:4b-14.
Rubbish. (Philippians 3:8)
May I drive 30 mph in a 25 zone? I have spent an embarrassing amount of time thinking about this question. For a time I religiously paid attention to speed limits and to my own speed. I think I’ve driven my wife to exasperation on more than one occasion, driving on freeways near Chicago at 55 mph with cars streaming past on both sides. Sure, Paul says that righteousness through my own effort of will to obey the law is ‘rubbish,’ but Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees.
Of course, Jesus’ point was that our righteousness must not just be something external but must come from inside, must be born out of love. I decided that the more fruitful approach was not to be concerned so much with obeying the letter of the law as with loving God and neighbor. I didn’t worry so much about rolling through stop signs on my bicycle when no one was around who would be affected. In fact, I blasted through them at full speed, just being careful not to impede traffic.
This didn’t sit entirely easily either, so I prayed, “Lord, if you care whether I roll through stop signs, you’re going to have to tell me.” He responded, “I care about what’s inside you.” That desire to have an easier ride, to save momentum, to get there faster, that desire itself was the problem.
What’s wrong with a desire to get there more quickly? First of all, such a desire makes it more difficult for me to make a rational decision about whether I should blast through stop signs. Desires lead to wishful thinking.
More fundamentally, the problem is that such desires push out other desires. They do battle with the desire for God, with loving God above all. When the desire is for holding onto something or for getting something, it is called avarice. Such a desire prevents us from knowing God, who is apprehended by love. Our love is instead for getting there more quickly.
One aspect of Paul’s teaching in this passage that I find curious is that Paul seems to oppose knowing Christ with obedience to the law.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as a loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as a loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
Surely he doesn’t really mean this? Surely obedience to the law is a good thing? Surely obedience doesn’t prevent us from knowing Christ? Perhaps the problem here is the desire for being a worthy person, for checking all the boxes, for having a good reputation. Such desire is called pride.
That religious obedience to the law that seeks to earn salvation also has a taint of self-serving. Pure love of God doesn’t have advantage for self as an aim. And it is the pure in heart who will see God.
When one loves God above all, even above self, the last thing one wants is to offend him or hurt him. In such a state it’s easy to stop at the stop sign if that’s what your loved one wants—to do anything else would be to hurt your love. This is the difference between obeying for hope of reward, as a servant does, and obeying for love, as does a friend of God.
Perhaps Paul’s setting obedience to the law in opposition with knowing Christ is deeper than simply rejecting pride or self-serving. Perhaps Paul is redirecting us to that overwhelming love for God, which also spills out to neighbor, that love by which we know Christ, that love that makes other desires seem like rubbish, that love that is free from self-interest, that love of God above all. That Spirit of love and faith naturally brings about a righteousness that is from God.
May I drive 30 in a 25 zone? Lord, increase my love for you.
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C