A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Jettisoning law for love

My family has been thoroughly enjoying a kids' book series called, Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games books. One of the pieces I particularly appreciated as an adult reader was the subtext in this series which offered a pointed critique of the United States, religion and war. The story is set in the Underland, a universe miles below the surface of the earth, accessed through neglected New York subway stairs. The Underland civilization relies on an ancient code which offers clues about the destiny of the different Underland races and how the humans might go about achieving their desired aims. Every event that unfolds is interpreted in light of this ancient, prophetic overlay which often involves much reinterpretation in order to make the prophecies fit and thus retain their authoritative status. This Code is particularly sacred to the Underland humans, both because the Code was written by a human, but also because the prophecies predict that if the humans do exactly what is written, they will ultimately come to dominate and rule the Underland. As the series unfolds, the reader begins to get a little uneasy with the prophecy and in the end, you learn a few key characters don't actually believe in the prophecy either, but they do recognize and appreciate the Code's power to manipulate and control.

Honestly, I think this is always the danger with religion, that it will confine itself to a limited overlay as its base of functioning. For example, some religious streams use evangelization as their primary overlay. This is the lens through which reality is filtered. So Jesus' great commission at the end of Matthew's gospel, to "go and make disciples of all nations" becomes the guiding scripture text. Proselytizing is the highest priority and the number of people you have in the pews becomes the indicator of success. And then there are apocalyptic religious movements that pull all the "final day" scriptures out of their intended contexts and then lay them over present day affairs in order to come up with end of the world predictions.

Biblical cultures demonstrate the use of all kinds of overlays too. The gospels were written many decades after Jesus' death. And each of the four schools of thought represented by the four gospels had their own unique agenda in mind. But they did find common ground on at least one issue. All the gospels work hard to illustrate Jesus was the Messiah and to do this they use the overlay of prophecy much like I describe from the Gregor the Overlander books. They put this overlay of Old Testament prophecy on top of the life of Jesus and then they work hard to make that overlay fit perfectly. In many cases this calls for some creative invention.

Jesus also targets a religious overlay throughout his ministry. His indignation, frustration, anger is directed at the overlay of law and how that law is manipulated and abused. In so many ways law and the keeping of the law defined Judaism. Law gave Judaism much of its definition and set the people apart from everyone else. Law also generated the very convincing illusion that God could be contained. You could put this overlay of law down on top of life and anything the law didn't cover was assumed to be out of and thus opposed to God's realm. But law....human law, is so limited. It pulls your focus to the external keeping of the law without really addressing so much the internal motivations. On more than one occassion, this makes Jesus blow his top and his anger is almost always directed at those appointed to uphold and cherish the law above all others - the Pharisee, the Sadducees and the scribes. Here you have a religious institution thoroughly engulfed in law and yet the spirit of the law, that which is supposed to give the law life and light, has been entirely neglected.

Here's one of Jesus' tirades from Matthew 23:23-28 (NRSV). "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisees! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness."

The Ten Commandments are revered in our Christian society. People might be interested to know there are actually three versions of these core laws. The most well-known is from Exodus 20 and is divided in such a way as to yield 10 commandments. But Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 6 also contain these core commandments, though in these versions it's much more difficult to outline 10. Leviticus has more than 10, Deuteronomy has less. Because we are most familiar with the Exodus version, I'll go from there. I've actually written a number of sermons in the past extolling the wisdom put forth by this ancient code of law. But today, I want to instead point out how limited they are as a definitive guide.

First, the image of God they put forward is troubling, referring to God as a jealous and vengeful deity. This gives rise to a troubling theology that no longer fits out modern worldview. At that time, people believed God punished those who disobeyed the law of God. This punishment could take many forms - a catastrophic flood, a defeat in war, premature death through illness, etc. In the same manner, it was believed that if you led a truly virtuous life, you would receive all manner of blessings as a reward...in this life. The book of Job offers perhaps the best depiction as well as critique of this worldview. Nonetheless, this theology is on display throughout the Old Testament and even on into the New Testament. Here in the 10 Commandments we find this allusion in verse 12 - "Honor you father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you." So what's the motivation for doing the right thing here? It's external. You do the right thing in order to receive your reward, not because it is the right thing to do. In addition, I find the idea of women as property disturbing. But at that time women were indeed property - either their father's or their husband's. So the final commandment is a prohibition against men to covet the property of their neighbor. Examples given include the neighbor's house, the neighbor's wife, his slaves, his livestock and finally, anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Second, equally disturbing is what the commandments don't say. The Exodus version includes nothing about justice. Justice is more present in the Leviticus account, but in this Exodus passage there's absolutely nothing. Equally striking is the omission of love. In verse six there is a reference made to external rewards given to those who love God, but that's it.

The third unsettling piece is how application of the commandments was understood at that time. Waldemar Janzen, author of the Believer's Church Bible Commentary on the book of Exodus writes, "The 10 Commandment's intent is to focus particularly on rules which will help govern family of clan systems, and not to be concerned with the laws reaching beyond more immediate family or tight community relationships." In other words, the prohibition on murder was only honored within the Israelite clan system. This did not stop them from murdering those outside their circle who might have stood in their way. Not only that, but they would have assumed God was on their side and actually encouraged murder or warfare if it served the Israelites' purposes. Maybe they wouldn't covet their neighbor's wife, but they could have adulterous relationships with or in the case of war, even rape alien or heathen women (Deut. 21:10-14 as one example among several).

Now most of the 10 Commandments are commonsensical. Of course you shouldn't steal or commit adultery. It is spiritually/physically/emotionally healthy to have a Sabbath day. But no matter how good a law might be, laws are still very, very limited in their ability to govern attitudes, motivations. They fall short when it comes to the governance of our hearts.

Fast forward back to the New Testament and we have Jesus coming down hard on the legal overlay this whole religious institution relied on for its shape and definition. He jerks the rug right out from under the establishment and tells them to start over. It's no wonder he got himself killed!

The problem with overlays is that in the end they tend to serve their maker's best interests - law, prophecy, evangelization, and the list goes on - in the end they are all equally self-serving and therefore equally flawed. As far as I know, there's only one overlay that doesn't fit this description and that's exactly what Jesus, drawing on the best of the Old Testament, offered folk back then. In so many ways, it also happens to be what the church continues to drag its feet on today. Jesus takes all the law, and there was and is a lot of it, and he boils it all down to two commandments. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this passage. In my Bible these are referred to as the Great Commandment and the First Commandment. From Mark 12:28-31 - "One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, 'Which commandment is the first of all?' Jesus answered, 'The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these.'"

Taking things yet a step further, in many places throughout the remainder of the New Testament, the two great commandments are further distilled to their very essence. For example, I John 4:16, "God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them." This is the only overlay the church has any business using.

That's not to say that love can't be manipulated - that we can do pretty awful things in the name of love. That's true, but that's also not love. More than any other trait, fear seems to like masquerading as love. But as a good friend reminded me the other week, fear and love go together like oil and water. Just a few verses down from I John 4:16 we find this, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." This is what we're going for - perfect love. How would the application of perfect love transform our conversation on homosexuality in the church? How would perfect love motivate the church towards greater action on poverty and injustice around our world? How would perfect love move us towards political healing in this nation?

Certainly love means honoring your father and mother. It also means parents should honor their relationships with their children. Siblings should honor their relationships with one another and so on. Loving God may mean taking a day in the week to more intentionally be aware of God's presense, but it might also mean being more tuned into the Holy and Divine every day of the week. Of course loving excludes murder. But in the words of Jesus, loving also requires us to "love our enemies."

The perfect overlay - perfect love. Simple maybe, though certainly not easy. And yet this is the Great Commission. So the question remains, how could/would perfect love transform the church today?

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