There is a trilogy of books called the Divergent Series that was popular a year or two ago. It is about a society that tried to govern itself in a way that they thought would bring about a Utopian society. At the outset of the trilogy, the world is orderly and somewhat peaceful. Their rate of murder, divorce, and crime are quite low. Divorce was only granted in cases of adultery and abuse and both those rates were very low. With such low rates of those things that trouble us as people seeking a peaceful life, I first wondered if there search for Utopia will come closer to the Kingdom of Heaven that we have gotten. But, I figured if they easily created the Kingdom of Heaven it wouldn’t make for 3 books to tell their story.
I want to share with you the premise of the story and where they went wrong. I won’t give you too many details, because a movie on the first book is coming out next month. You might want to go see it and I’d hate to ruin it for you.
The people of the world were divided into 5 factions plus a group of factionless. The endeavor of each faction was based on what that group thought caused the ills of society. The Erudite faction believed ignorance was at the root of all problems so pursued knowledge. The Divergent thought cowardice was the problem so they promoted bravery. The Candor believed deceit was the problem and sought the truth in all situations. The Amity thought war and the pursuit of power was the problem and sought peace and harmony. The Abnegation thought selfishness was the problem and pursued selfless giving.
The factionless were those few who didn’t fit into any of the factions. The factionless were the impoverished homeless that were pitied for their lack of community. It was the group where the “failed” teenagers went.
Of course, in a trilogy about a society seeking Utopia, the society was bound to have problems. The heroine of the book named that the problem with the pursuit of each faction’s resolution to societal problems had led to a loss of compassion for their fellow human beings. Even the Abnegation faction that valued selfless giving acted out of duty, not compassion.
I think compassion is what Jesus is trying to teach us will be the key marker of the Kingdom of Heaven. In each of the points of the Law that Jesus sets forth in today’s Scripture reading, He challenges the Law beyond the black and white to the intention of the Law. For, He came to fulfill the Law not abolish it. The factions had tried to live by a law and lost compassion for one another. For Jesus, the fulfillment of the Law is about compassion, not legalistic interpretation of the Law.
I think if given a few minutes we could easily find ourselves a place in one of the factions. I think ignorance is the foundation for many of our problems, but I also see the pursuit of power and selfishness as problems. I think knowledge opens our minds to truths that will inspire us to generously give to others. I would probably ultimately choose to be in the Abnegation and work to give myself to others. Though, that probably isn’t a surprise given my profession.
I see the problem with the factions being so focused on the letter of their law that they would lose sight of their contribution to humanity as service. The Law, as in the Hebrew Scriptures which Jesus interpreted here, is what inspire us to not do some things and reminds us not to do others things. But, the Law is not black and white. If it were so easy to draw clearly defined lines in the Law, the Jewish people would not have needed the Sanhedrin to hear and decide lawsuits. Israel would not have needed judges or wise kings to rule the people. And, honestly, if it were so easy to keep the Law, we wouldn’t have needed a Savior.
One of the focuses of Jesus’ teachings is the interpretation of the Law. Whether teaching a group of people gathered around Him or being challenged by the Pharisees, His teachings challenged legalistic living out of the Law, because compassion is not something that can be legislated. Compassion fulfills the Law. The Law was not given to us as an end to judge one another by.
The Law was given by a Compassionate God to help us relate to one another. The command to not murder another human being seems pretty clear cut. But, Jesus says the fulfillment of the Law is to not hate or be angry with someone else and that reconciliation with your neighbor is more important to God than making the obligatory sacrifices. It is not enough to choose not to kill someone because it is against the Law. Jesus calls us to be in relationship with our fellow humans resolving our differences.
The Commandments also says to not commit adultery. But, Jesus challenges His listeners to take seriously their marriage vows to become one united by God. In those days, a woman was the property of a man. Perhaps Jesus’ teaching here is for the man to respect his wife as an equal and treat her with love rather than as property. One is less likely to cheat on someone they love than to step out on a piece of property. And, a couple that loves one another, works at being reconciled to one another, and treats one another as equal parts of a whole is less likely to want a divorce than a man who sees his wife as a piece of property or a burden.
Jesus’ final teaching in this text is that our vows shall be solemn and we should live with integrity. There will be no need to swear by the grave of your dear grandmother if you are honest and do as you say you are going to do. If you say yes or no to something, stand by your word.
In each of these interpretations of the Law, Jesus takes the black and white of the Law and infuses it with compassion challenging His students to live differently. He is all about being in relationship with one another not bound by the Law but as set by the example of the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The spirit of the Law is relationship fulfilled by compassion.
One of the buzz words for ministry is relational. There are several books about relational ministry and I’ve read many articles about relational ministry. The concept of being more relational in ministry has been around since sometime in the 60s or 70s. If the spirit of the Law is relationships and the Trinity is the ultimate example of relationships and God through Jesus is in a reconciled relationship with humanity, then all of what we do should have the intention of being in relationship with others.
A lot of church growth and evangelism strategies have focused on bringing in the masses. Evangelism strategies have the risk of valuing numbers over people. Relational ministry “draws people into the church with the hope of drawing them into a community of faith in order to know them and love them as persons.” Relational ministry focuses on changing lives not filling pews. An increased number of people can be the end of evangelism and relationships can be a means to that end, but relationships can be the end itself (http://www.davidlose.net/2014/02/the-relational-pastor-a-review/).
Relational ministry is born of the relationship modeled by the Trinity of separate equals indwelling one another in perfect love encouraging one another to fulfill their purpose. This type of relationship can give our ministries new definition and focus. An author, Andrew Root, wrote The Relational Pastor. I haven’t read it, but I read a review of it. The reviewer’s presentation of Root’s description of relational ministry is not just a descriptor for the pastor – it is applicable to the relational church. Here is how the review described the activities of relational ministry: “Prayer is not the act of an individual launching requests to God but rather becomes seeing the needs of the persons around you and joining them in a relationship of openness, need, and trust. Preaching is not one individual announcing vital information to another, but rather the act by which we embrace and share the stories of the community as they are caught up in the story of God’s indwelling love. And congregational administration and leadership is not making sure everything necessary to run this organization we call “church” gets done but rather is about facilitating the open space that is required for our people to meet each other in prayer, empathy, and compassion.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2014/02/the-relational-pastor-a-review/)
I want to challenge us to be more relational in our ministries. That’s not to say that we aren’t relational already, but I think we can be more relational. We can serve, because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We can give, because we’re supposed to. We can invite people to church, because we’re supposed to. We can act with the self-interest of growing the church. We can do church out of obligation. Or, we can focus all our ministries around building relationships. Relational ministry is about being driven by compassion versus being ruled by self-preservation.
I think the downfall of the factioned society was that their pursuit of the faction didn’t leave room for relationships. They became so focused on preserving their faction that they didn’t see the good they contributed to society which led to competition among the factions versus relationships between the factions. Failing churches continue to plan their ministries based on self-preservation, but the most successful 21st century churches focus on relationships. As we go downstairs and indulge in the feast prepared by many of our good cooks and have a conversation about the church we want to become, I want to have in the forefront of our mind relationships.