Hampton Court Palace on the outskirts of London is a marvel. On one end it is a testament to Cardinal Wolsey and the Tudor kings, all turrets and chimneys of random and mismatched sizes. On its other end, it reflects the stateliness of the Georgian monarchs, with its symmetrical windows and clean, right-angled lines. Inside, the palace is a kind of maze, but outside it has an actual maze, the most famous hedge maze anywhere in the world.
Hampton Court’s hedge maze is the first one I ever experienced. When I visited it while a college student studying in London, I rushed into the maze and zigzagged down its paths. At each twist and turn, I paused briefly before more or less randomly choosing a direction to take. Before long, each section of maze looked like all the others. I walked in circles. I retraced my steps. I became thoroughly lost.
I recall musing at one point, “I must be being punished.” And that’s often how we feel in life, I think, when we travel headlong down confusing twists and turns until we hit dead ends and find ourselves lost. Surely, we’re being punished.
Our Old Testament lesson today seems to confirm that conclusion. It is part of Moses’ farewell address to the Hebrews he has led through forty years in the wilderness. Moses will die soon, and he knows it. He and the Israelites are at the cusp of the Promised Land—like standing at the entrance to an inviting garden maze—but Moses knows he will never enter it. Moses wants to leave good counsel with his people, and so he acknowledges that they are at a fork in the path:
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments…then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
In its plainest reading, Moses seems to say that if we love and follow God, God will reward us, while if we turn down the path away from God, God will smite us. That way be dragons, as the old maps used to say. That way be curse.
But must blessing and curse equate with reward and punishment? I’m not so sure. I had my annual wellness check up a couple of weeks ago, and my doctor told me if I’ll cut down on red meat and run three times per week, I should be blessed with good health. But I don’t think he meant good health would be given to me as a trophy or a ribbon. Rather, good health is, most of the time, simply the consequence of exercise and diet. There’s no moral virtue attached to it; it is simply the result of my choices and my actions.
In contrast, if I eat double cheeseburgers at the Hubcap for lunch every day, and if I move only from my desk chair to the couch, I’ll be cursed with high cholesterol and stiff joints. But again, the curse is a consequence that follows from my choices, not a punitive punishment. As a recent, heart-breaking, real-life example consider the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman was brilliant on film, truly the actor of his generation. But he put a needle into his arm and injected more drug than the human body can withstand. He chose heroin as his god; that was the path he followed. And death was the result, not as punishment, but as the inevitable consequence of the path he chose to walk.
This, I think, is a better way to consider Moses’ counsel to the Hebrews and to us. Despite what that old time religion used to teach, I don’t believe in a punitive God, and most often, when we read with care and discernment, the Bible doesn’t speak of God in that way either.
Consider the Gospel passages that result in some people being cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. These passages are troubling to Christian people, and we prefer not to read them, because they seem to suggest that God ultimately slams the door on some of his children, leaving them to wander lost in the hellish darkness of life’s maze. But again and again in such parables—when we read them with care—we see that those who end up in the outer darkness are those who refuse to enter into relationships of compassion, empathy, and reconciliation with those around them. We don’t need a degree in theology to recognize how this works in our lives. People who exhaust themselves nursing grudges, who focus inwardly on their own egos, who ignore or else use their fellow human being as means to their own ends—such people do, over time, find themselves cut off and alone. They find themselves embittered, wailing in the darkness against shadows. And again, this is not punishment, certainly not by God. This is, instead, the spiritual result of choosing a certain path in life.
Choose a different fork in the road—direct your spirit toward love, give your energy to acts of compassion, lose your ego-centeredness and rediscover yourself in your empathy toward others—and you will find, perhaps to your surprise, that you exist in the very light of God. Not as a reward, but because that is simply the consequence of living along the Way of God.
How do we do it, though? How do we comport our lives for spiritual health akin to the way we engage in good diet and exercise for physical health? The Gospel today is helpful in this regard, and it actually involves hedges, too.
Today’s Gospel gives us that series of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew that, at first glance, seem to doom us to failure. It’s as if every path in the maze results in a dead end. As one example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Really? Once again, it seems that God is being punitive. If someone looks at someone else and a lustful thought crosses his mind, he’s already sinned? That seems like the cosmic deck is stacked against us.
That is, until we remember what we said above. The Way of God—God’s commandments—never intend to set us up for failure. They intend, rather, to lead to spiritual health, to vitality and joy.
That leads us to the hedge in today’s Gospel passage. Consider what hedges are primarily for. They aren’t decorative. Rather, they serve as natural fences. With thick and twisting vines, hedges keep prowling varmints out of one’s garden. They protect one’s children. They serve as a boundary between unhappy neighbors. If someone is tempted to do another harm, the barrier of the hedge can often cause him to pause and save him from his own contemplated bad action.
One ancient teaching strategy of rabbis was to “build a hedge” around God’s law. If the law says, “Do not each cookies,” then the hedge might be “Do not place the cookie jar within reach,” because if you keep the cookie jar off the table, you’ll be far less likely to indulge your sweet tooth. Well, Jesus was a rabbi, and he taught like a rabbi. (He’s easily misunderstood if we forget this.) And so today, Jesus grants us hedges around the law.
For several years, I frequented Halloween cornfield mazes with my kids. Unlike Hampton Court, corn mazes tend to have a trivia question at each fork in the maze. The questions are easy, but they cause you to pause just long enough that you don’t run headlong down the wrong path. Answer the question correctly, and you know which way to go.
Jesus’ hedges around the law are like those trivia questions in the corn maze. They gives us pause before we head down a wrong and darkened path. If we never indulge our uncontrolled anger (that’s the hedge), we will never break God’s actual law and strike our brothers and sisters. If we never dwell in lust on someone to whom we are not married or partnered (that’s the hedge), we will never break God’s law and betray our beloved.
Do you see how that works? Jesus the rabbi is not making life dreary and dim. He’s not doling out curse and punishment. He is providing the hedgerow that preserves our souls in health.
Long after I’d meandered through the Hampton Court hedge maze, I read that many mazes are built so that if you simply take every right turn, you will easily reach the other side. That’s a helpful image. At each fork in the road, God presents to us through God’s commandments, sacraments, and, indeed, the wisdom of our faithful friends, the best of all possible paths. And then we choose. If we happen to take a wrong turn, we still know that at the very next fork in the road, God will again put before us the best conceivable option for the health of our souls. And again we choose. It is true that every wrong path has consequences, and the further into the darkness we travel, the more dire those consequences will be. But the deeper truth is that no matter how far into the maze we travel, the turn onto God’s Way is always just ahead of us. We can always take it. And when we do, the path will widen to one of light and grace.