You’ve got to know the rules before you break them…

Whenever we try to talk about the law, we are trapped.

There is too much to say, and we are bound to say it wrong.

The law is necessary (says Paul) and it is fulfilled in the person, work and witness of Jesus; what does this mean?

Jesus was held up (by the religious and civic authority) as a blasphemer and law breaker.  He routinely ignored the restrictions imposed on Sabbath work.  His way of honouring God and having reverence for God’s name was judged to be too intimate; he occasionally seemed to speak on God’s behalf, but not like a prophet – more like one of the family.  How can someone like that stand as fulfilment of the law?

It comes down to this – the letter of the law is too easily broken; Jesus epitomizes the spirit (small s) of the law.

Jesus embodies what the law cannot say – he “does justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly” as the prophet Micah suggested was proper.  Where the law works against mercy, justice and humility, Jesus ignores it.  Though the grain they shelled and ate (Mt 12) was not likely to be the difference between life and death for them, Jesus protests against the petty nature of those who would hold he and his disciples to the letter of the law.  The literalists, even then, were making their noise, and Jesus cuts them off short.  The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath, he concludes – and we make much of this – but (in Mark’s gospel Jesus is more precise) The Sabbath is made for [man] and not [man] for the Sabbath – a plea against legalism if ever there was.

Why does this matter now; so many years after the fact?  I matters because as the church struggles to find its way in a world that doesn’t know the Law.  In classrooms without commandments, there are those who argue for a return to basics.  The rules have been given to us, they say – and they need to be followed.  But we have laws against theft and murder – they don’t seem to help much; honest people are unaffected, and criminals seem undeterred.

There is something much more basic that “do this, don’t do that” thinking at the heart of our problems.

When the Law of Moses outlines our behaviour toward one another (honour your parents don’t steal, cheat, kill or covet) – these are pleas for reverence and respect.  Beyond the behaviours listed, care and concern for our fellow citizens in all things is…expected.

And the direction of our behaviour toward God is no different.  God and God alone; a name to be revered, not an idol to be trusted as a lucky charm; this is the focus of the opening section of the commandments.    Jesus sums up all ten with perfect simplicity; Love God, love your neighbour as yourself.

It is odd that the key commandment in our argument for a return to sanity is the directive to keep the Sabbath – the law that Jesus ignored most freely, according to his critics – the one that he interpreted most liberally.

I realize that in Nova Scotia, this is still a sore subject.  Sunday shopping rules were changed at about the same time I arrived in the province (a coincidence, I assure you) so the memory of a quieter Sabbath is still fresh.  But did the absence of activity on Sunday really serve a higher purpose?

Exodus draws our attention to the day of rest – six days being sufficient to have created “all that is” – so God consecrated the seventh day; for rest and worship and renewal of purpose.  Have we ever really honoured the spirit of that law?  Jesus suggests that we have not.

“…have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless.”  (Matthew 12: 5-7)

Jesus offers us the opportunity to get behind the spirit of the law – to move beyond nit-picking and rule keeping – to break the law down to its essence that we might be free.  There will still be problems; we will still have occasion to sin – we cannot be perfect in our love for God or one another – but when we are measured by our desire to love (which Jesus identifies as the spirit of the law), we are much more likely to hit the mark than when are energy is spent to accomplish obedience to the letter of the law.

A day of rest, then; a time for reverence.  It may be as simple as that.   The constant renewal of relationships, with God who loves us, among the people of God whom we are encouraged to love; perhaps that is the key.  Let us take a step along the trail blazed by Jesus, refusing to let the rules get the better of us – living as examples of the spirit of the law.


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