Perhaps you are a fan of the winter Olympics. I find myself tuning in, late at night before heading up to sleep. If you caught any of the figure skating competition, you’ll notice two sets of scores. Technical Merit. Did they do the required triple lutz and triple axel movements? Did they perform the correct number of spins moves and footwork requirements? Did they land the toe loops on the correct inside or outside edge of their skates? The first set of scores make sure they did what was required of them.
The second set of scores –Artistic Merit [officially called Component Scores] – go so much further beyond the technical requirements, don’t they? Was the program captivating? Was there a flow to the loops and spins and jumps that made the routine delightful to watch? Was it obvious that they put their entire heart and soul into their routine? Did they go beyond the required elements to craft a thing of beauty and love? That is the second set of scores: Artistic merit – that will make or break an Olympic champion.
It’s hard for me not to hear today’s gospel in light of those two categories for judging figure skaters – Technical and Artistic Merit. In life, most of us do well in the technical merit stage: You shall not kill. Got it. No blood on these hands. You shall not commit adultery. No one has shared my bed but my spouse. You shall not take a false oath. Heck, I have never even been in a courtroom, except for jury duty. Our scores on technical merit usually do just fine.
But, Jesus reminds us, that is not the ONLY level on which we are to be held accountable for our actions. Unless your righteousness SURPASSES the scribes and Pharisees, he says, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. There is another level of walking through this life beyond the mere obeying of duty. And whether you call that artistic merit or the call to holiness, today’s scriptures remind us that salvation is not known by technical merit alone.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets,” Jesus tells us. Murder, Adultery, divorce, false witness – all those activities wreak havoc on the life of communities and the individuals effected by them. But Jesus calls us to more: “I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.” It is not just murder that is prohibited, but the anger that leads to it; not just adultery, but the lust that leads to it. Couples can strictly keep the fidelity of their marriage vows yet not keep the promise to deeply, passionately love the other person in a bond that grows and deepens each day.
So, what if all the Olympic cameras were on you or me these days? What if my every decision, every conversation, every choice, was being judged on the more difficult “Artistic merit.” Would people see in us something that is beautiful, compelling, grace-filled and inspiring? Is there a beauty to our life, a flow through it that is gracious and merciful?
• I doubt that the cameras would catch us killing anyone. But would they catch us in a conversation, saying something about someone that kills their reputation? Would the cameras find our words building up and encouraging; or would they capture hurtful words that crush someone’s spirit.
• In my marriage, would the camera angles show the work that it takes to keep a pool of affection for my spouse… the negotiating how we argue; the forgiveness; the time to laugh?
• And when we fail or fall, would they see us get up. Would they see that we remembered our dignity even when we trip up – or get tripped up – and our willingness to begin again?
• Would they know in you a love that is Olympian – faster to love, higher to serve, stronger to give all you are? Would they see a heart that has trained and prepared for a life of holiness and love?
Whether or not you like Olympic figure skating, it does provide a reminder to us. To God, there is so much more than WHAT we do, the letter of the law, the technical merit. It also matters greatly to God HOW we do it. May our lives be lives of beauty and love and integrity.