The Impossible Possiblity

NOTE:  This is longer than my normal posts.

I’ve had an ongoing dialog in my mind and, at times, a not so subconscious dialog with others, about the possibility of the impossible. The possibility of the impossible means something that is deemed impossible but made possible by some other means.

Although I’ll only quote two particular passages, if you are familiar with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the Book of Galatians you’ll quickly understand the fuse that ignites my thought process.

Most studies of Galatians I’ve sat in, or perhaps—I can’t recall—taught, have dealt with the idea that the Law (Torah) was given as an impossible standard so that people would recognize their sinfulness and turn to God/Christ in faith. In doing so we apparently make possible the impossible. In other words, without the means of grace, faith, the power of the Holy Spirit, etc., one could never achieve what God set out in the Torah, what Paul sets out in Galatians, or what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount.

When you read the Sermon on the Mount, it takes little imagination to see that one will fall woefully short of the “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” imperative. If that weren’t enough pressure, there’s the hearing and doing challenge that ties the sermon’s bow tightly enough that many, including myself, find it hard to unwrap. True kingdom living is at best pushing the edge of the envelope for many. In other words, it’s an unattainable goal in this life.

In a recent piece I was reading there was this note by the book’s author,

The impossible possibility; Jesus offers an ethic impossible in our world. “The kingdom of God, the rule of perfect love, is an ideal that is always coming but never arriving, at least not by human social work. It is eschatological to the core—a future condition that pulls us toward itself and that qualifies all our partial accomplishments in social ethics…. We sinners need an impossible ideal to tell us we still have far to go” (358). The Journey of Modern Theology, Roger Olson

 Did you catch that last sentence? “We sinners need an impossible ideal to tell us we still have far to go.”  Do you struggle with knowing that you fall short of God’s expectations?  I’m reminded of my shortfall every day. Even when I hear the call to trust in the one who has satisfied God’s demand for ideal obedience I still can’t let go of the fact that this side of the pearly gates, there’s little, if not nothing, I can do to be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect.

Recently, I spoke with our Discipleship group leader about this whole idea regarding the impossibility of keeping the Law. That is, being righteous under the Law. As much as we might like to think it’s not possible, I would contend that the impossible possibility has at least found three folks who were “successful” in doing the impossible.

Here are some of the thoughts I offered, in an email, to my Discipleship group leader:

 I’d like to revisit the question I posed at the end of class a couple of weeks ago regarding “keeping the law” and the idea that 1) it’s impossible to do and 2) no one has ever done it. You may recall I referred to Luke’s description of Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke 1:6 and Paul’s reference to himself in Phil. 3:6

In the ESV, the text in Luke reads:

6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.

In Phil. 3:5d-6 (ESV) we read:

…as to the law, a Pharisee;  6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law,* blameless. 

The word “blameless” (both in English and Greek) is key to both the Luke and Philippians passages. Consequently it seems there might be some concern about how both Luke and Paul present the idea of the Law and being righteous and blameless with regard to the Law.

The plain meaning of Luke’s text seems to make it clear that at least two persons were “righteous” and “blameless” with regard to the Law, that is, the “commandments and regulations of the Lord” (NRSV).

Paul also describes himself as “blameless” with regard to the Law although we know that in his larger teaching he seems to make it clear that righteousness is NOT possible through the Law so blamelessness is apparently irrelevant. That does not preclude the clear statement of blamelessness on his part or that of Luke with regard to Zechariah and Elizabeth.

We know that Luke was no stranger to Paul’s teaching, so it raises an issue with regard to his wanting to set out an “orderly account” for Theophilus “so that (Theophilus) may know the truth concerning things about which (he/Theophilus) has been instructed” (Lk 1:4).  In light of that premise, starting with the idea of righteous with regard to the Law on the part of two individuals seems challenging.

I understand that both Greek and Hebrew words often carry different meanings depending on their context. That lays open the possibility of nuancing the words in Luke’s text in such a fashion as to dissolve any “conflict”.  That might be doable here but I would suggest it may not be a proper handling of the text. After all, if we do it with the key words in the passages noted, we must be consistent and do it with those words elsewhere if the context appears to be similar(Phil. 2:15, 3:6, and 1Thess 3:13). [In other words, if we say the words “righteousness” and “blameless” mean less than righteousness and blameless in these texts, then it opens the way for the words to mean less in other similar texts.]

I also understand that we often need to let “scripture interpret scripture”.  Something apparently Luke was not aware of. 🙂  If he was, he made little effort to clarify his point. (The Gospel writers often clarify their points for the original readers/hearers if clarification is needed. See Duvall & Hays, Grasping God’s Word)

Well, there you have it.  I’ve tried desperately not to be confrontational about this, nor drag it out.  I am simply laying out what appears to be a conundrum with regard to the Law.

I’ve not heard anything back, so I’m not certain what his response might be.

Unlike me, you may not see a conundrum at all. You may see no conflict between stating the impossible when in fact, at least in apparent fact, Luke was aware of at least two people who found the challenge possible and were “righteous”.  (We’ll not even discuss Mary, the mother of Jesus and how she “qualified” as the mother of the Son of God if she was not righteous.)

When it comes to the study of scripture, keeping our eyes and ears open is essential. Letting the text speak with full force is equally essential. Even though it may not say what we think it should say or believe it should say, the text stands on its own as God’s word. We must approach it with that understanding.  If God wanted Luke to say something less pregnant about Zechariah and Elizabeth then he certainly could have done so. But he did not. So we’re left to deal with it as it is.

When Jesus said he came to preach not to the “righteous” but to “sinners” was he yielding to the fact that there were people who were righteous. Or would we be inclined to say simply that there were people who deemed themselves righteous when in reality they were not.

So I ask, is the impossible a possibility?  Are we left to grasp for that which is not attainable in this life? Is sanctification merely a process in this life and only fulfilled in the next?  Are we left with mouth wide open knowing that we’ve kept the Law only to be challenged with that final command, sell all you have and give it to the poor!

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