Breaking the Law

July 4, 2006

Gutenberg BibleThe Daily Office for today contained quite a few gems that got me to thinking (what a surprise).

As my faithful readers know, I subscribe to a theology of inclusion.  I do not believe that exclusionary “rules and regulations” can be used when describing the teachings of Jesus.  Quite often, this is probelmatic for many who are accustomed to Christianity as it has evolved over the years rather than the Christianity of the Scriptures.

For example, today’s Epistle lesson is Romans 7:1-12, an excerpt of which follows:

Do you not know, brothers and sisters- for I am speaking to those who know the law- that the law is binding on a person only during that person’s lifetime? Thus a married woman is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man, she is not an adulteress.

In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

As Paul does many places in the Epistle, he describes the inadequacy of the law in fully describing our relationship with Jesus.  The study notes for my Bible describe it this way:

The law of Moses is the first husband, the risen Christ the second husband.  Paul’s readers are the wife now discharged from the obligations of the old written code.  Newly married to Christ, they belong to another and enjoy the new life of the Spirit. 

We have a clear description of the old covenant and the new covenant- I often refer to the new covenant and people don’t fully understand that I’m making a scriptural reference to Jeremiah 31:31-34:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

This is one of my most favorite Old Testament passages.  It fundamentally shifts the view of the Old Testament God from the “Old Covenant” God of judgement, fear, and wrath, to the new covenant God who is relational- who wants to know every single person individually, who loves us all for who we are, from the least to the greatest, and who sees all people as equal in God’s eyes.

Did God change?  No.  This comes as the people of Israel were in the midst of great despair, and God was revealing more of God’s ever reliable and stable self to them, lifting them up in the hope that they would be restored out of exile into Babylon and returning to their homes.  So God revealed something new about Godself right here in the midst of the Old Testament.

God says in this new covenant that the law will be “within us” and “written on our hearts.”  I firmly believe that.  See my post on our inherent goodness- we are, at our core, good beings– while not perfect– that prefer acting according to our good intentions over our evil intentions.  Most of the time do not choose to run red lights so that we can maintain an orderly society, we do not choose to murder anyone, we feel more comfortable when we are at peace then when we are fighting, and so on.  We are, in the deepest core of our bodies, good.  God has written this into our hearts.

Jesus came to live out that New Covenant.  Jesus was relational, not rule-oriented.  Jesus taught parables showing that God loves us, that the master does what is best for the servant, that forgiveness and grace is a part of God’s core essence.  Part of today’s Gospel reading today is Matthew 21:28b-31:

A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

Here Jesus tells us once again that the least of these– the unexpected, the marginalized, the outcast– will be drawn to the center.  We, as Christians, have a duty to pull those at the edges of society to the center.  The prostitutes and the tax collectors in Jesus’ day were at the edges.  Jesus moved them to the center of his life.  Today, the religious authorities see themselves again at the center.  They leave gays and lesbians, homeless folks, racial minorities, those suffering from economic injustice, women, and many more at the edges – willing to make judgements.  Willing to leave them at the edges.  That is not the lesson of the Bible- of the Gospel.  We must bring them to the center of Christian life.  That is the Gospel imperative.

It is human nature to not want to do that.  It is human nature to want instead to set up or focus on “laws”- rules and regulations for what it takes to get to the center, so that those already perceiving themselves to be in the center can remain comfortably there and ensure that their position is maintained.

I heard a story today about a man trying to get rid of a refrigerator.  He put it out on the street with a sign reading “free refrigerator.”  Days passed.  Nobody wanted it.  He changed his tactic.  He put up a sign that said “refrigerator $50.”  A few hours went by and the refrigerator was gone.

How human that story is.  We cannot believe that anything is free, with no strings.  Grace is free.  God’s love is free.  It comes with no strings.  We try to build up laws, strings around it.  But it isn’t so.  It is free.  Unimaginably free.  That is the wonder of the new covenant.

How amazing it is that we live in a country where our founding fathers understood this relationship.  This July 4, this Independence Day, I am especially thankful that they understood the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That they understand that all people are created equal.  That they understood that freedom of religion is critical because no person’s journey can ever be the same as another’s- we all have different views of God.  As is so evident in the parable of the blind man and the elephant- we all are blind to the mammoth God before us.  We all feel a different piece.  The founding fathers understood that to codify any one of our singular views of this great God would be a mistake because none of us are priviliged enough to understand fully that which is greater than any of our understanding can provide.  So much of what our founding forefather’s put into this country’s Consitutional makeup is so tied to the essence of the New Covenant.  What a wonderful country we live in.

But I digress… (I had to throw something in about Independence Day, after all.) Jesus, as the center of the new covenant, calls the free Grace of God into focus time and time again.  Jesus asks us to view every commandment through the lens of love (Matt 22:37-40).  We cannot do that when we sit in judgement.  We all know that we are asked not to judge (Matt 7:1).  Despite this commandment from Jesus himself, most Christian religious institutions over the past 2000 years have focused quite a bit on judging their parishioners.  What consitutes good behavior?  What constitutes bad behavior?  So the rules- the laws- the exclusionary traditions of our institutions have been formed.

It is quite one thing to offer helpful advice for parishioners on their journey to find God.  It is quite another to offer condemnation, which is a power that belongs solely to God.  I think it is a sin of religious authorities and institutions that has confused the two.

This doesn’t offer an “anything goes” blank check to the faithful.  It empowers the faithful to look through the lens of love to find what God is calling them to do.

It also doesn’t eliminate the call of the church to move forward in action on peace and justice issues.  Because we must always work to move those at the outer limits of humanity to the middle, the church is always called to work to that end.

It is comforting to have absolute, black and white rules for which we know how to behave.  Jesus, however, calls us to move out of our comfort zone.  Jesus wants us to push ourselves.  Jesus wants us to grow in faith.  Jesus wants us to live in love fuller than we can imagine, which means getting messy.  It isn’t clean.  It isn’t black and white.  Neither is God.  And neither is being human.  We are made in God’s image.  We must try as best we can to love our God and our human family as God loves us.


8 Responses to “Breaking the Law”

  1. D Hamilton Says:

    “This doesn’t offer an “anything goes” blank check to the faithful. It empowers the faithful to look through the lens of love to find what God is calling them to do.”

    For man, yes it does. For man can rationalize all sorts of behavior as righteous. And we fly the banner of Matthew 7 as shield against criticism. This is where the instruction book and second opinions are most valuable.

  2. Jeff Says:

    Interesting. So how then would you interpret Matthew 7?

  3. D Hamilton Says:

    You have warts and I have warts and I need to be concerned with mine and you with yours. But, our warts do need attention.

    To build your life on the solid foundation of scripture and prayer, and be aware that the on-ramp to downfall is an easy exit while the pathway to salvation is not undemanding.

  4. Jeff Says:

    Hmm. I thought that was pretty much what I said. So you are agreeing? I thought for a minute you were disagreeing and I was prepping myself for an interesting discussion.

  5. D Hamilton Says:

    No, I believe there are black and white – and its our inability to recognize our own warts (or to rationalize them) that separates us from Jesus our Lord.

    And it is the role of our clerical leadership to point out the pitfalls and on-ramps that our secular world so greatly celebrates. It is our role to be in but not of this world.

  6. Jeff Says:

    OK, so I’m back to the same question then. Through what lens do we view Matthew 7?

    I agree that we all have personal accountability. We have clergy that disagree on this issue (gay inclusion). Given that the clergy disagree, what is the role of clergy in judgement? What scripture exempts clergy from Matthew 7:1?

    My own position is this: that the role of clergy is to uplift. To guide gently as a coach, not condemn harshly as a critic. Positive reinforcement works, negative reinforcement doesn’t. Of course clergy can point out the bumps and humps along the way. But to judge is quite a different matter. To crucify, throw stones, to insult, incite hatred, another. Exclusion leads to these things. Check out Fred Phelps web site, I would submit that judgement- clerical, Biblical judgement- has lead to these acts, which I hope you will find extremely inappropriate at best, and immoral and sinful at worst.

  7. D Hamilton Says:

    “Positive reinforcement works, negative reinforcement doesn’t.”

    I think it worked for the money changers ….. just a little judgment going on there. Also works with NCOs, but that’s another world.

    See we all judge. You do not let Phelps pass by without judgment, perhaps without retribution, but certainly with judgment.

    Matthew 7 – does not say check your discernment at the door – and too many rationalizing individuals look to wield Matthew 7:1 as a shield against opponents that do not approve of their conduct while ignoring it as they form their world outlook.

    To me – Matthew 7 is about introspection & spiritual guidance prior to taking action in the world.

  8. Jeff Says:

    On Phelps and the money changers-

    I believe that I addressed this in my post:

    It also doesn’t eliminate the call of the church to move forward in action on peace and justice issues. Because we must always work to move those at the outer limits of humanity to the middle, the church is always called to work to that end.

    Yes, I judge Phelps. Not because of what he does to himself– although I have an opinion on that. I judge because of the effects his actions have on others- the already marginalized, the grieving, the helpless. He takes advantage of the disadvantage in order to further his cause. That is Peace and Justice work. That is different than “judge not lest ye be judged.” Similarly, the church cannot sit by while innocent people are murdered, etc., etc., etc.

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