ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JUNE 3, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
LAW AND LOVE
1 Samuel 3:1-11a; Psalm 139:1-6 & 13-18; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6
Most of us are aware it’s illegal in Toronto to drag a dead horse down Yonge St. But did you know that in Lexington, Ky., there’s an ordinance forbidding anyone to carry an ice-cream cone in his pocket? In Hartford, Conn., you aren’t allowed to cross a street while walking on your hands. In Baltimore, its illegal to take a lion to the movies. In Kansas the law states you cannot eat snakes on Sunday. In Green, N.Y., you cannot eat peanuts and walk backwards on the sidewalks while a concert is on. In Connecticut pickles which, when dropped 12 inches, collapse in their own juice are illegal. In Nicholas County, W. Va., (oh-oh) no member of the clergy can tell jokes or humorous stories from the pulpit during a church service. But what if those humorous stories are simply statements of fact? Is it against the law in Nicholas County, to read the law, even if it makes people laugh? Moreover, do laws become unhelpful or obsolete over time? Should all laws be maintained for all time? (I’d say not taking lions to movies is a good one to keep). Is there a time when a law can or should be ignored?
Civil laws are one thing. Although many civil laws in the West reflect the Judeo-Christian tradition, they’re man-made. What may be right in one time or place may not be relevant in another. A law prohibiting the stealing of alligators is much more germane to Florida than Alaska. But what about the Laws we find in Scripture? The Torah records 613 laws: Ceremonial Laws governing worship and sacrifices such as the first 4 of the 10 commandments. Civil Laws designed to bring order to the Nation. And Moral Laws (the last 6 of the 10 commandments) which created an ethical framework for personal integrity and interpersonal relations. If we were to ask: can these Laws become unhelpful or obsolete or be ignored? – no doubt we’d respond with a reverberating “no”. We’d say the Law of God is eternal. Literally, set in stone. So how do we explain that, on many occasions, Jesus himself broke the Law? In the 2nd chapter of Mark alone, he eats with unholy people; ignores specified fast days and in today’s lectionary reading, Jesus defends his disciples for breaking the Sabbath by doing the work of picking grain in a wheat field. He even supports their actions with Scripture, saying that David brought a battalion of hungry soldiers into the temple where they ate the Bread of Presence. The Pharisees, who were criticizing Jesus, knew that each week two fresh loaves of bread were placed in the sanctuary of the temple, on a table in the “presence of God”. Only the priests were permitted by Law to eat the stale bread. So not only did Jesus aid and abet the disciples in breaking God’s Law, he cites the case of David vs. Saul as precedent for them doing so – the disciples were not the first to break this Law. Jesus summed up his thoughts, “The Sabbath was made to serve us; we weren’t made to serve the Sabbath. The Son of Man is no lackey to the Sabbath. He’s in charge!” (Mark 2: 27) He may have easily said: The Law was made to serve us, not us to serve the Law.
Whether or not the Torah was relevant to Christians was a huge controversy in the early Church. Before a Gentile became a Christian, did he or she need to become a Jew? Did they need to be circumcised? Eat Kosher? Not wear wool and linen together? Wait until night to kill a burglar? Put tassels on the corners of their robes? Parapets on their rooftops? The Council in Jerusalem decided the Gentile Christians, should “avoid activities connected with idols; avoid blood and meat from strangled animals and guard the morality of sex and marriage” (Acts 21: 25). Why those things? These were part of the pagan religious practices of the Gentiles. They violated the first of the 10 Commandments, “No other gods, only me” (Deuteronomy 5: 6). They crossed the line into idolatry. Therefore, Gentile Christians were prohibited from eating food given in worship to another god; drinking blood harvested from a strangled dead animal – a pagan practice which violated Kosher Law; participating in orgies or visiting temple prostitutes because these were fertility rites which called on the power of an idol and sexual acts which were believed to spiritually join the pilgrim to the “god” through the prostitutes who were their vessels. In Romans, Paul is clear that the value of the Law is to show us our imperfection and our need for grace.
The Reformers also tried to define the relationship between the Law and grace. Calvin argued the Law still has value. He agreed with Paul that since the Law shows us our weakness and sin, it becomes useful in leading us to seek the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The Law reveals to us what is pleasing to God. The Law with it’s punishments gives us boundaries keeping us from being as bad as we might be. Luther and others approved of setting aside the ceremonial and civil aspects of the Law, while maintaining the moral code. They argued that the moral code, which guides personal ethics, was not bound to a particular time, place or people; it has meaning for all people at all times. Killing will always be wrong.
As we’ve seen, Jesus advocated the spirit of the Law over the letter of the Law. He said, “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete.” (Matthew 5: 17) and he went on to speak of the enduring nature of the Scriptures. What did he mean? Jesus wasn’t going to eradicate the Hebrew Scriptures, but he expanded them with his own teachings; He shifted rigid legalism to living principles. Jesus completed the Law the way he fulfilled all righteousness – he was the revelation and model of absolute holiness. As well, there are many predictions about a coming Messiah in the Scriptures – Jesus who was the Messiah, fulfilled those predictions. The Law demanded repeated sacrifices – Jesus became the final atoning sacrifice for all our sin. In light of that Scripture is important as it points to Jesus, not as a rigid rule book.
Debates about the relevance of the Law for Christians continue today. What do we do when Law and love collide? It’s much easier to condemn a pedophile under the Law than to love them. Can we find compassion for a woman who chooses abortion? What if the pregnancy is the result of rape? Is a person who’s swindled another out of their life savings to be loved or arrested? Can we do both? Should the person who steals to provide medicine for a dying child be punished? Does “honour your mother and father” still apply if the parent is emotionally or physically abusive? Do we detest homosexuals or love them as people for whom Christ died? And when we’re guilty of judgement, hatred or condemnation would we rather be dealt with under the Law or with love? It can be very difficult for us to see people as children of God rather than villains. Psalm 139 reminds us that each person is a marvel made by God. They are also sinners – as we are, but they are more than their sin. God knows us through and through – the good, the bad and the ugly. Every person is a person; dignified by our Creator and worthy of love. When we show hatred to another, we condemn ourselves under the Law and we had better hope that God’s grace and mercy will abound towards us as much as it does towards those we denounce or revile.
Jesus summed up the Law’s requirements quite simply, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important… But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” (Matthew 22: 37 – 40) Paul likewise taught that the person who loves will automatically fulfill the law: “Don’t run up debts, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other. When you love others as you do yourself, you complete what the law has been after all along. You can’t go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the Law code, the sum total is love” (Romans 13: 8 & 10). The trouble is, as we read in 2 Corinthians 4, human beings have feet of clay. Not only do we not keep the Law, we’re pretty flawed when it comes to loving either God or people. It’s easier to hide behind the rules. The spirit of the law is unrestricted while the letter of the law is concrete. The spirit of the law requires discernment, the letter of the law requires duty and obedience – we can go through the motions without necessarily engaging our hearts. We prefer the black and white structure the Law provides. The deception though is, as Jesus pointed out repeatedly: we can keep the letter of the Law and still miss the mark; we can do it right and get it wrong; we can be upright yet sin. We can keep the Law, but without love, we displease God.
The history of the Church has been shaped more by our conflicts than our love, in direct opposition to Jesus who gave us a new commandment, “This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other” (John 13: 35). Not only are we to love others but we are to love each other and live in unity. That becomes more challenging when Law and love collide. As Jesus showed us, not only do we need to make the best discernments we possibly can, but we need to love the people whom our decisions will directly impact and we need to love one another. St. Jerome was known for the virulence with which he assailed his opponents, never being able to see any good in them, he spoke to them with the utmost contempt. St. Augustine, who was, after his conversion, as highly acclaimed for his character as he was for his theology, spoke very respectfully to those with whom he disagreed. We need to take care that we don’t get so caught up in one issue, that we miss the bigger issue of how we interact with one another. How we love, the unity in which we live and how we witness to Christ are if primary importance. In comparison everything else is like picking grain in a wheat field.