Episode 1. The Letter of the Law
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Sometimes we can look at God’s Word – the Bible and think of it as a book of rules. But it turns out that this notion that God is all about the letter of the law is way off the mark. Sometimes …
Sometimes we can look at God’s Word – the Bible and think of it as a book of rules. But it turns out that this notion that God is all about the letter of the law is way off the mark.
Sometimes we can look at God’s word, the Bible and think of it as a book of rules. But it turns out that this notion of God is all about the letter of the law is way off the mark.
The law’s a funny thing … some people say the law’s an ass, it’s something that we both love and we hate. On the one hand, when we see a serious crime committed like a child killed by a drunk driver or a murder or a rape or terrorism, we want the perpetrator to experience the full force of the law.
On the other, sometimes the law does indeed seem to be an ass. When people apply the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law, we can end up with silly, sometimes damaging outcomes.
In a sense that’s how we think about God. If God was God, holy and righteous (whatever that meant,) then I knew that I fell short of that. And therefore, God must be a bunch of rules that I’d fallen foul of. But my hunch is that, I don’t know. If we understand God that way well maybe we’re missing the point.
I wonder if you recognise any of these:
I’m your Lord, your God and you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or bow down and worship an idol. You shall not use the Lord’s name in vain. You shall keep the Sabbath day of rest. You shall honour your father and your mother. You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bare false witness against your neighbour. You shall not covert your neighbour’s wife. (Exodus 20: 1-17)
Well of course, we recognise those as probably the Ten Commandments – Gods law in a nutshell – the things that Moses brought down from the mountain on the tablets of stone. But actually, you may or may not know that in the Book of the Law (as the Jews understand the Law), which is the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, known as the Torah, there a 613 commandments and prohibitions. So the Ten Commandments are just like the top ten. Then there’s another 603 commandments and prohibitions on top of that … do this, don’t do that, don’t do this, do that.
Some of them make a lot of sense – don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, and don’t lie. There’s a whole bunch of other ones that we look at now and they’d make our stomachs turn like animal sacrifices and all that sort of stuff, things that don’t make a whole lot of sense to us, (here and now, today). I mean, could you imagine going to Church and taking some animal and slitting its throat? Probably they’d come and lock us up for doing that these days.
So some of God’s Laws come naturally. They make sense and others don’t. Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t bare false witness – they make sense but the temptation’s always there. Just run your eyes down those ten and most people have broken at least one of those in just the last 24 hours let alone the other 603.
In one sense, the law does make sense. Imagine what our society’s would be like without the will of law. Look at what happened in Bosnia, look at what happened in Rwanda, look at what’s happening in Israel and Lebanon. Without law there’s anarchy and innocent people get hurt and there’s pain and there’s oppression.
So the law does make sense but you can take it to extreme. Totalitarian law is ugly and oppressive. People’s freedom is taken away. So the law is a great servant but a terrible master. But (and here’s the but), it’s easy to think of God’s Law as being like a totalitarian regime. If God’s God, He is the ultimate totalitarian because He’s all-powerful, so who wants to have a part of that? Who wants to have some rule-based God that’s got all the power? No, thank you very much.
Well, in fact, there was a bunch of people called the Pharisees. They were a bunch of religious leaders in the 1st century who lived at the same time Jesus did and the word Pharisee comes from the Hebrew word ‘to separate’. They were religious separatists and they took following God’s Law, those 613 commandments and prohibitions, to the most absurd and extreme lengths.
What do you think God would say about that? Is God a rule-based god? Is God a god that says, “Yes, there’s someone following my law, I’m excited about that.”
This is what Jesus said to these Pharisees. He said:
Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites because you tithe mint and dill and cumin but you neglect the weightier matters of the Law. Justice, mercy, faith, it’s these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others, you blind guides, you strain out a gnat and you swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23)
What’s this tithing of mint and dill and cumin all about? Well, these days we go to the supermarket and we buy a bunch of mint or we buy some dill or we buy a jar of cumin and we think so what? Back then, mint, dill and cumin were pretty high priced herbs and spices. There weren’t take-aways on the local corner. So herbs and spices were important and tithing was part of Gods Law.
Tithing was giving a tenth of your income to the priests to keep that whole priestly system in the temple and the synagogue and everything running and so everybody had to tithe. But Jesus is saying to these people:
You hypocrites, you do the tithing, you do the external things but in your heart what about justice? In your heart, what about mercy? In your heart, what about faith? It’s like straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel, you hypocrites. (Matthew 23:23)
It seems to me that Jesus was much more interested in goodness, in relationship, in justice and mercy and faith. He didn’t want to throw tithing out but to Him it wasn’t the main game. To Him there was something much more important – what’s going on in our hearts. Sure do the right thing and tithe and all that sort of stuff but there are some things that you should never, never neglect.
Why are we talking about this stuff today? Because this week, we’re starting a new series called Spirit and Word.
Some people pick up the Bible and discover the letter of the law. They think that’s what God is all about, and you can read the Bible that way. You can pick it up and read the 613 commandments and prohibitions and if we did that we’d be missing the point.
On the other hand some people never pick up the Bible. ‘Man, I’m walking in the Spirit, you know’. They believe they’re getting inspiration direct from God and they’re missing the point completely too.
Paul writes to his junior minister, Timothy and he says:
Every last bit of the Bible is inspired by God and it’s there for our instruction and for our correction and for us to grow and to learn and to understand. (2 Timothy 3:16)
That’s why the Bible is called God’s Word, it’s God speaking to us.
Maybe some people think, ‘Oh no, that wacky fundamentalist sort of Christian thing, the Bible! Give me a break’. Part of me agrees with that because if we try and understand the Bible as just a bunch of rules, what we discover is that some apply to us today, like murder and adultery and stuff. But others, like the Levitical sacrificial system, no pork, no crustaceans, a whole bunch of stuff that doesn’t.
And we try and apply those rules and say, “God is a bunch of rules and if I work hard and I follow those rules, I’ll make it into Heaven.” Try and do that and it just doesn’t make sense. It’s where you get that Bible bashing, fundamentalist, oppressive, totalitarian religious thing from.
But in that book, the heart of God is there. There’s the Spirit of the Law, the gentle, powerful, breath of fresh air. That’s what we’re going to look at for the rest of the week on the program – His grace, His mercy, His love, His forgiveness, God’s Spirit and God’s Word.