The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, like many prophets before him, was the mouthpiece of God's anger and disappointment. The people of his time, like today, believed that their lives were good and generally pleasing to God. But Jeremiah's prophecies reflected a different story. The people neglected God's justice, dabbled with other religions, and turned away from His commandments. Jeremiah knew that the people's religion was hollow and counterfeit. He echoed God's disgust with their religious posturing and revealed the chasm between what God expected and what the people delivered.
The House of the Rechabites
In a strange and puzzling command (one of many such commands throughout the book of Jeremiah) God instructed Jeremiah to approach a bizarre tribe known as the Rechabites and invite them to a feast in one of the chambers of the Temple to offer them wine. God wanted to make a point about obedience. The Rechabites were a nomadic people. They lived according to a strict code for over 250 years set by their great ancestor and namesake Jehonadab son of Rechab: "You and your descendants must never drink wine. And do not build houses or plant crops or vineyards, but always live in tents. If you follow these commands, you will live long, good lives in the land" (Jeremiah 35:6-7 NLT).
When Jeremiah graciously offered the people of the house of Rechab food and wine in the sanctuary of the Temple, the Rechabites refused to drink it because their ancestor Jehonadab told them not to. Their obedience to their ancestral father was unflinching. Jeremiah had set up the Rechabites in glaring contrast to the people of Jerusalem. God made His point. Obedience was possible.
The Futility of Disobedience
Our world hasn't changed much. We rant and rave about the depraved condition of modern man, but the condition of ancient man was neither better nor different. Our disobedience to God has led us down the slippery slope of destruction. We think that God's way is too boring or too hard so we try new gods and new mantras in the temples of sex and greed in all its forms. It looks so good until the pain, the disappointment, and the futility of it all sinks in. Then we start our search all over again to make everything right. In the end nothing ever truly satisfies.
Faith Cannot Do the Works of Unbelief
Obedience, writes St. Diadochos of Photiki, is a "door that leads to the love of God." It isn't enough to say that we believe in God. Justin Martyr observed that, "the matters of our religion lie in works, not in words." What is the point of saying we believe in God if our actions don't obey Christ's teachings? When we are not obedient to the commandments of God, we become a cancer that spreads throughout the whole Church. We are all ambassadors of Christ, and at every moment we are either leading people to Christ or away from Him. We become followers of God when we do the things that are pleasing to God. The obedience of our faith in Jesus Christ glorifies God.
What does the obedience look like? The Apostle Paul tells us:
I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice-the kind He will find truly acceptable. This is truly the way to worship Him. Don't copy the behaviors and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God's will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect" (Romans 12:1-2 NLT).
The Threat of Legalism
As imitators of Christ, we must walk in the Spirit of God. God is not concerned with our religiosity. God wants us to have the inward power to glorify Him--to groan to be with God, to understand that we cannot live apart from Him. The ancient Christian philosopher Origen wrote: "it is those who not only believe, but also enter upon the life that Jesus taught. This life elevates everyone who lives according to the commandments of Jesus. It elevates them to friendship with God and communion with Him." Moralism is not what will get us into the kingdom, but rather our Christ-like behavior that is motivated by the desire to glorify God that leads us to communion with Him. This is why Christianity transcends mere morality. Yes, morality is a crucial part of the Christian life but it derived from our communion with Him. There, Christ saves, and it is his saving power that reveals and inspires moral behavior.
Perhaps this is why the elder son in the Parable of The Prodigal Son was so resentful. He never disobeyed his father, he did all of the right things, and he appeared to be the dutiful son. But was it an obedience without love? Below the surface boiled bitterness, jealousy, self-pity and self-righteousness. Obedience without faith, love, and joy is like a tomb, because God is not there.
The Free Gift of Obedience
Yet the attempt to obey reveals something about us. Try as we may, we will not--we cannot--live the way we ought to. We sin and must repent. But this is one reason for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our righteousness before God is itself a gift from God. We did not earn it and we can never deserve it. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul wrote: "If the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many, even greater is God's wonderful grace and gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one, Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:17). Christ's obedience set everything right and through Him we experience God's life for us when we too seek to obey God.
John Kapsalis has an M.T.S from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.