How many prayers do I have to say?
Must I pray standing, or kneeling? Head covered? Head bare?
How much money must I give to the poor?
How many grannies must I help across the road?
How much good must I do to be perfect enough, to earn access to heaven when I die?
The answer is: more than you can. a lot more than you can.
But thank God, that is only part of the answer.
The Bible poses a kind of rhetorical question, asking, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” and gives an answer which, on the face of it, provides no comfort at all. Who is the one who can ascend to that holy place? “He who has clean hands and a pure heart”. Who can answer to that description? Which of us has a completely pure heart? Or which of us can claim to have completely clean hands?
A pure heart would be one that never ever holds any evil thoughts or feelings – no bitterness or grudges, no envy, no hate, no lusting after stuff that isn’t ours, no wanting to hurt someone, not even just a little bit, not even someone who has hurt us…
Clean hands imply you’ve never done anything wrong.
I know I don’t fit that description.
Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? Can I qualify if I make a huge effort, follow the rules of some religion and work really really hard at following all of them?
There’s lots of different religions in the world, with different sets of rules. There is, however, one set of rules that God himself gave to my people – I’m Jewish, you see, and in the Bible there is a whole body of instructions God gave to my people at Mount Sinai. Would I qualify for heaven if I kept those?
The answer is: well, in theory I would – if I could… But nobody can. No human being can live up to those standards. And that’s the whole point.
When God gave us that body of rules, it came with instructions for what we should do when we sin, when we fail to live up to those rules. Why? Because God knew very well that we couldn’t do it.
So why tell us to do what we can’t?
Because he wanted us to realise that we can’t. Because he wanted us to understand that we can’t get to heaven through our own effort, and we need God’s help. We need his promised Messiah, the one and only way to salvation.
My people’s response to God’s body of instruction has tended to go in one of two directions: either a strong determination to follow them to the letter, even to the extent of adding lots of extras just to make sure that we don’t accidentally miss a bit; or a laid-back letting go, not bothering much, picking just those customs that appeal – maybe the ones you remember fondly from childhood, or the ones you personally find meaningful. Our reply to God’s list of rules (known as the Torah) is either “yes, we will” or “nah, can’t be bothered”, whereas the answer God is looking for is:
I wish I could. I’m really sorry I can’t. Please help me.
To which God’s reply is: here is my Son, the Messiah I promised, who died as the ultimate sacrifice so that anyone who believes in him can have eternal life in heaven even though you can’t live up to my standards.
You can’t qualify for ascending the hill of the Lord, no matter how hard you try. But Jesus is the one who can, and you can get a piggyback ride on his shoulders.