The Merit of Moderation

Ecclesiastes 7:16-17

Have you ever had to deal with that perfect food person? It’s the one who never violates a single dietary rule. This person worries if their calorie count for the day is too high and they worry if it is too low. They want to make sure that their macros are perfectly in balance and that they get enough of every trace element. That person wouldn’t think of eating gluten or refined sugar or non-organic produce. Simply being in the same room with high-fructose corn syrup causes this person to break out in a rash.

That’s who I think about when I read the passage for today. Yeah, this only applies to eating as I described it above, but it could apply to anything.

Don’t be excessively righteous, and don’t be overly wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Don’t be excessively wicked, and don’t be foolish. Why should you die before your time?

Ecclesiastes 7:16-17

Too Righteous?

I don’t really need to worry about being excessively righteous, but I suppose some people do. I don’t need to be invited to entertain a little bit wickedness, but again, I suppose that’s an issue for some.

So what in the world is this passage doing in here? We’ve established over the last few weeks that our author is not your typical Sunday-School teacher, but at this point he seems to have gone off the rails.

I struggle with these verses, but then I think of the food nazi described at the outset. There are others who live by a rigorous standard in other areas. The Pharisees who spread such cheer in the gospels are types out of this mold. They were so focused on obeying the laws and the interpretations of the laws and the interpretations of the interpretations that they couldn’t really understand the nuances. They didn’t recognize that healing somebody on the Sabbath was a way of honoring the Sabbath. Instead all they saw was the rule. That, I think, is excessive righteousness.

At the same time, we can learn to deal with our occasional mistakes. We’re going to be a little bit wicked. That’s just the nature of things, so we’re best off not paralyzing ourselves when our perfection is shattered.

Getting in Tune

If I’m going to take this passage and use it in a meaningful way, I believe that the first step is to determine which of these tendencies–excessive righteousness or excessive wickedness–is my greater temptation. I don’t think that Koheleth is inviting us to become lax, but he is telling us not to obsess on our behavior.

We are entirely capable of making an idol out of our “rightness” or of allowing our “wrongness” to cripple us. Instead, we should simply live as wisely and as righteously as we can manage.

Curse of the Gradebook (Hebrews 2:2)

For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment (Hebrews 2:2)

I have taught English composition for almost my entire adult life. Doing so, one encounters a vast range of people with a vast range of ability and desire to do the work. Some of them complain that they don’t get to write about whatever they want. (Because professional life allows us to do whatever work we want to do, of course.) Some think it unreasonable that they have to continually write papers for a writing course. My favorites, though, are the ones I call the grade accountants.

A grade accountant comes to my office, graded paper in hand, and prepares to do battle. Or, to maintain the metaphor, to do an audit. The exchange usually begins something like this: “What is wrong with my paper?” Having counted up the red marks on the page, they attempt to convince me, the guy who has taught the class since before their births, that this collection of misplaced modifiers, run-on sentences, and other mechanical glitches does not warrant a C+. To their minds, every paper begins as a 100 with each mistake deducting points.

My point, more often than not, is that we should not be looking at “what is wrong” with the paper but “what is right.” Fairly frequently, I’ll encounter a virtually error-free essay that bores me so silly that it deserves a fairly poor grade. There’s nothing wrong with it except that there’s not enough right with it. In other words, every paper begins as a 0 with each positive move adding points.

The Law of Moses, referred to in the verse today, was a deduction system. The average person was assumed to be clean and blameless at the top of the morning. Touching a dead animal, eating the wrong thing, coveting your neighbor’s toaster oven, or any of a million other missteps could leave the person in a virtue deficit.

Frankly, I don’t want to live that way. Today’s verse is a sentence fragment, completed by the verse for next time. Today’s verse speaks of the lesser law and lesser message, the one spoken by angels. That message bound those who lived under it. The problem with it came in the grading system. A 99 out of 100 was failing grade. My grade accountants wouldn’t like that system.

I have no interest in grading in that manner, and I praise God that I don’t have to live under such a law. More on that next time.