Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false…
Psalm 24:3-4b (NRSVCE)
The further I get in my life journey, the more I’ve come to understand that the black-and-white behavioral rules of the most strictly religious groups are really about social control in which an institution or group exercise authority over another. The goal and benefit is a sense of order, collective security, and control. Within this type of system, the individual’s role is simple and strict obedience to the group’s behavioral rules (those written, and those insidiously unwritten but understood) under the threat of public shaming and being socially ostracized from the group. This type of system exists as religious fundamentalist sects and denominations, fraternal organizations, gangs, cults, secret societies, and the systemic equivalent can even exist in businesses, corporations, sports teams, and community organizations.
Systems like this have existed throughout history and continue to this day. It is this type of system with which Jesus conflicted in the Temple when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables and railed against the Temple’s religious cabal. It was this conflict that led them to treat Jesus as a threat who was to be ostracized and executed. It is the same system out of which Paul transitioned to becoming a follower of Jesus. Paul also was considered a threat they needed to ostracize and execute.
Please don’t read what I’m not writing. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. It doesn’t really matter which system we’re talking about. They all operate the same way and follow the same basic systemic rules.
The problem with this type of system is that it chains the individual to the group rather than freeing the individual from self. Behavior modification is not about spiritual health but of social order. The individual tries to control behaviors rather than be spiritually transformed. Paul recognized that all the behavioral rules of the system only created more rulebreakers sneaking around in the dark breaking the rules and trying not to get caught.
Scholars believe that today’s psalm was a song David wrote to be sung as the people entered God’s Temple in Jerusalem. If you read it and imagine the Hebrews carrying the Ark of the Covenant (cue: Raiders of the Ark Theme) into the Temple as they sing this song you get the gist. It starts by asking the question: “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord?” (That refers to Zion, on which the Temple was built) and then “Who can stand in his holy place?” (That would refer to the “Holy Place” within the Temple as designed and prescribed through Moses).
The lyric of the song then describes who may do these things. The description is that of a good person, but here’s where translation from the original language (Hebrew) to English can make a huge difference. In verse 4 the English phrase “do not lift up their souls” has an original Hebrew physiological imagery that references the throat. Some scholars argue that the word picture here is more like “nursing an appetite” and the Hebrew word translated “false” is rooted in the idea of “empty” or “vain.” So it’s really about those who don’t nurse their appetites for things that are empty.
In the quiet this morning, that’s what really struck me. What I’ve learned along my journey is that all the religious and systemic rule keeping does not address the real issues of Spirit that lead to transformation. Keeping the rules so as to appease my church leaders, parents, college, pastors, teachers, and peer group in the attempt to avoid being shamed and ostracized did not transform my soul.
What really led to transformation for me was when I realized that all my human appetites were good and created within in me by God. Paul realized it too when he said “Nothing is unlawful for me. It’s just that some things aren’t beneficial.” My appetite for food, for drink, for pleasure, for rest, for sex, for relationship, for security, for peace, for affirmation…all of them are good and part of what God created in me. It’s when I “nurse my appetite,” any one of them, and indulge my good and healthy appetites in empty and unhealthy ways that I hurt myself. And, I bring the unhealthy results to every relationship and system in which I am a part.
It’s not about me behaving for acceptance in a system. It’s about me being the person, the true and healthy self, God created me to be. It’s about what Jesus said when He told His followers to nurse their appetites for the things of God, and not for the things of this earth (including the safety and acceptance of a human system). How can I “love my neighbor as myself” if my unhealthy indulgence of natural appetites is leading to my continual self-injury and disrupting my relationships, my work, my family, and my life?
What appetite am I going to nurse today? That’s the question as I head into the weekend.
Have a great weekend.