Future Imperfect–Ecclesiastes 7:19-20

I think I can finally talk about it. The pain is not so fresh and so acute that I can now confront it and share my feelings with you. You see, as I mentioned elsewhere, my church’s pastor recently quit. We could say something less abrupt: He resigned. He followed God’s call to another work. But in the end, he quit.

That isn’t the painful thing, the thing I’ve been avoiding. Instead, I can now confess that my recently departed pastor was not perfect. There, I said it. He had flaws. Yes, he had many terrific qualities, but he had some negative ones as well. My guess is that if I’d worked directly for him on the staff, I’d know even more of those flaws. That’s where my mind goes this morning as I continue through Ecclesiastes.

Wisdom makes the wise person stronger
than ten rulers of a city.
There is certainly no one righteous on the earth
who does good and never sins.

Ecclesiastes 7:19-20

As I read these two proverbs in chapter 7, I’m inclined at first to think that they were simply leftovers from the list that populated 7:1-13. I’m also inclined to take them as separate and largely unrelated nuggets of wisdom. But as I reflect on my former pastor, I recognize that they belong right where they are and they speak to each other.

Over the last several entries, we’ve looked at how a person can walk a path of moderation between wickedness and self-righteousness. Here, Koheleth seems to be giving us some practical advice for living in a world that is between those two extremes. Let’s imagine my new pastor, whoever he might be.

Let’s say the church searches high and low, eventually calling Casper Clodfelter to serve in our pulpit. When he first arrives at the church, everybody will be swooning over Casper. We’ll want to invite him to go swimming to watch him walk on water. It’ll be ridiculous.

But then we’ll recognize that Casper has some horrible trait that we didn’t screen out in the search process: he doesn’t recycle, he’s a pre-trib, amillennialist, he pronounces “Haggai” strangely, or he occasionally yells at his kids. In short, we’ll discover that Pastor Clodfelter is, like us, a human being, fitting neatly into that description in Ecclesiastes 7:20.

Then will the wailing and despair begin. We’ve hired a mere human. There is, of course, hope. Wisdom–and for the Christian that includes the leading by the Holy Spirit–cannot make this person perfect, at least not in the time span we have available, but it can make him better. It can make him, if he started out as a wise man and thus a decent piece of material, a stronger one, “stronger than ten rulers of a city.”

One of the annoying things about my former pastor and my future, currently unknown, pastor is that he’s a great deal like me. He’s not perfect. He can’t be perfect this side of death. And that’s me as well. Try as I might, I cannot avoid sin completely. Despite my best efforts, I cannot pursue my best efforts–weird, eh?

But the hope here lies in the possibility afforded by wisdom, the beginning of which is the fear of God. Neither my pastor nor I can hope to be perfect, but if I stay plugged in to the Spirit, if I take the pursuit of wisdom seriously, then I can hope to be a bit closer to that standard tomorrow than I am today. And happily, that’s what God calls us to do.

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.

100% Perfect (Hebrews 5:9-10)

and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him  and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:9-10)

Looking in the mirror today, I couldn’t help but notice my lack of perfection. My hair is receding in uneven and undesirable directions. My belly is advancing over my belt. My eyes struggle to focus. I’m a bit of a wreck. My quest for perfection will have to wait until–oh, who am I kidding? It’s a lost cause.

As I read today’s verse, a continuation of the sentence in yesterday’s, I’m struck by something. Jesus, if I read this correctly, did not start out perfect. That’s not to say that he started out sinful and the worked his way to sinless. I don’t see that sort of thing ever happening. Instead, I think it means that he simply wasn’t perfect at the outset. Like a tiny green tomato on a vine, Jesus began as potentially perfect. He suffered in the wilderness, resisting temptation. He suffered undoubtedly before that. His temptation may have continued after the wilderness, although apparently Satan left him alone for a time.

When did Jesus become perfect? I’m not sure. If that verse, the one saying, “And with that piece of suffering Jesus officially became perfect,” apparently didn’t make any of the gospels. What we do know is that suffering led to obedience, which led to perfection, which made him the proper vessel for my salvation.

No amount of suffering or obedience can make me the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, but, happily, that job has already been filled. In fact, no amount of suffering or obedience will ever perfect me, but that’s okay.

Even as my body betrays the passage of years and my poor eating habits, my spirit, through suffering and obedience can become, if not perfect, less imperfect. Once again, if such a thing was desirable for Jesus, then it’s good for me as well. Perhaps tomorrow, as I look into the mirror, I can see myself as not better looking but a bit closer to perfect than what I saw today.

Suffering Makes Perfect (Hebrews 2:10)

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. (Hebrews 2:10)

I suffered this weekend. Actually, the suffering started on Tuesday and ended on Saturday. On Tuesday, I noticed that problem with my truck’s wheel–you know, the lug nuts about to come off releasing the front-left wheel into the wild. Replacing the lug studs–the bolts that you screw lug nuts onto–proved more difficult than I would have expected.

First, I had to get the axle nut off. Before this week, I had no idea what an axle nut was, but I learned. Then I realized that I didn’t have a socket, wrench, or other grabbing device large enough to fit on the axle nut. I managed to procure the proper socket. Then I pushed and pulled on the ratchet with all of my might. I tried standing on the bar. No good. Eventually, as the sun beat down on my, I thought to use my jack to turn the ratchet. Amazingly, that worked.I suffered monetarily when I bought eight new studs and nuts.

Still, my ordeal had not ended. I had to remove the old, stripped out studs. I had to get the new ones in place. None of this happened easily. All the while, the sun was hot on my back and head. Eventually, I mounted the wheel and turned those new nuts as hard as I could. I drove the truck and tightened them some more. My plan is to keep tightening them after each drive until they don’t budge. So you can see that I suffered.

But my suffering was of my own making. My suffering was well deserved. What Jesus suffered in 33 years of life and 18 hours of outright abuse, was not deserved in the least. As I sweat and fret through this life of mine, I need to remember that pioneer of my salvation. He was perfect already, before his birth, yet he was made perfect as my salvation–and yours–through his suffering. That ought to get me through my next flat tire.

 

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.

Building and Burning (Hebrews 1:9)

You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
by anointing you with the oil of joy. (Hebrews 1:9)

In William Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning,” a boy struggles between family loyalty and doing the right thing. His sharecropper father, a charming fellow, takes out his frustrations with his landlords by burning down their barns. The son, Sarty, learned his image of manhood from this father and stands prepared to lie for the man in the court case that opens the story, yet he somehow knows that this is not the proper way to reconcile differences.

How does a boy, growing up under the tutelage of a wicked man, learn to embrace righteousness and hate wickedness? According to Romans, those who live without the law still have the law written on their hearts. They know. Young Sarty knows, despite the natural bonds of familial loyalty that tell him otherwise.

Within each human being, two forces wrestle for control. The forces of righteousness seek to build up the barn, while the forces of wickedness or sin seek to steal, kill, and destroy, to burn down the barn. Few, if any, people live utterly wicked lives, lives with no redeeming features. Certainly none of us lives utter virtuous lives, lives where the love of righteousness has managed to triumph utterly over its adversary. Such a person would be justified by the law, and we’ve seen clearly in Paul’s writing that no one finds justification through the law.

In this introductory passage to Hebrews, the author seeks to set Jesus apart from all other beings in the universe. Jesus is not chief among the angels, nor is he just another man. He is simultaneously God and man, and as such, he managed to perfectly love righteousness and hate wickedness. You and I will never manage to equal his zeal in those pursuits, but our proper response is to try.