Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Law Hangs in the Balance of Love

Part 4 in the series What Makes a Christian? Each part stands on its own. See below for links to the other installments.
 
 

Sometimes our greatest breach with Scripture is not when we outright contradict it--it's what we choose to prioritize, diminish or outright ignore. There is a time for everything under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1). We need to put first things first and second things second.
 
Much of Christianity focuses on salvation plans and doctrinal ideas.

However, Jesus in full voice in Scripture is very clear what we should prioritize: It is the Greatest Commandment, i.e. love God and love one another.

Maybe I'm just a simple country boy at heart, but it just seems straightforward.

Remember that Jesus presented the Greatest Commandment as the full package: It's the key to the Kingdom and eternity; it's the key to our public witness of our faith; and it's the key to interpreting all of Law--See John 13:34-35, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-37 and Matthew 22:34-40, respectively.

That last clause above is crucial. In the debate about what to prioritize, Jesus gives us a clue in the Gospel of Matthew's treatment of the Greatest Commandment:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22:34-40.

The last line there hits me like a bullet: All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

This is a huge statement.

It is a statement that has not gotten anywhere near the attention it deserves. Most Christians are busy arguing about what the Law should be. Jesus is saying there is something bigger, more pivotal and more fundamental than that.

The vast traditions of Christian denominations have this absolutely backwards--we try to figure out how to pepper in love and compassion into a rigid structure of rules, doctrines and practices. Jesus is calling our imagination to do the very opposite--to be immersed in the practice of love in which we pepper in rules, doctrines and practices to give it form and ornamentation when appropriate.

It makes you wonder if we have been reading Scripture at all.

Jesus is speaking against a cold, impersonal use for the Law. If there is anything that Jesus railed against during his years walking this earth, it was making a black-and-white interpretation of the Law as the interface between humankind and the Divine. He was constantly railing against the Pharisees with their tedious "gotcha" games with the Law. Jesus clearly put Love and Mercy before any literal interpretation of the Law.

What does it mean that this commandment is the structure on which the Law hangs? I don't even know. I'm not sure that anyone knows. I think it is extremely difficult for our human minds to wrap around. But we also haven't been working very hard to unpack this meaning diligently over the past 2,000 years.

Jesus Himself is giving us an enormous clue as to how the whole kit-n-caboodle of Church and society ought to be put together--He's saying the whole thing hangs on the Commandment to love. I've been all around the Christian denominational world, and I've never heard a single sermon trying to unpack they meaning of this statement from Matthew.

When your church community makes rules, rubrics and procedures, does it ask:  How does this hang off the commandment to love God and one another?

The question may be implied, but why isn't it more explicit?

The Good News is that Jesus gave some examples to show how to be in relationship with the Law:

Jesus fed the hungry and healed on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-13). It may be hard for us to understand this today, but at the time, these were serious offenses. He was violating some of the most sacred practices of his faith tradition. He was not keeping the Sabbath day Holy by resting. Sure, people may have suffered being hungry and ill, but that was considered unfortunate but acceptable collateral damage for being true to God's Commandment.

In terms of the letter of the Law, there was no question that Jesus was at fault.  He did not observe the Sabbath, and the Law allowed for no exceptions--case closed. Jesus had a different view, however.  He saw that he was fulfilling the Law rather than contradicting it (Matthew 5:12). Perhaps feeding the hungry and healing the sick is what made the day Holy, after all.

I would suggest that what Jesus is requiring of us is to take the Law--which is an evolving piece as it is--and keep it in constant relationship with the demands of mercy and the lived experiences of people in their conscience and context.

I hear the Scribes and Pharisees yelling at Jesus, saying, "You broke the law!"

I hear Jesus saying in reply, "You had to be there, and then you would understand."

And that's just it--we have to be there. After all, the word "compassion" literally means, "to suffer with." Outside of a true compassion that can only come--by definition--out of solidarity with others, we cannot possibly interpret--nor implement--the Law appropriately.

While most Christians today do not have any aversion to working on the Sabbath, what are some other religious and lifestyle practices today that are completely prohibited?  What might Jesus say to those in light of this passage from Matthew 12?

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Some argue that Jesus came to abolish the rigid, black-and-white legal system of Jewish Law only to replace it with a rigid, black-and-white legal system of Christian Law.

This is to profoundly miss the point. I can imagine Jesus doing a major face palm here. Jesus wasn't just changing the content of the Laws themselves but rather our whole approach to Law altogether!

We try to build Love into the Law, but maybe that's not possible. Perhaps Love simply needs to accompany the Law. Or as Jesus puts it, Love needs to support the Law.

The reason is simple: Jesus said that Love is more than just a part of the Law. He said that Love is the structure on which all the Law hangs. In other words, all of Law is in relationship with the commandment to Love. Jesus had every opportunity to tell us to scrap the old Law in favor of a new one. He didn't--He told us that the Law will find its fulfillment in relationship with Love--and in that relationship, Law is secondary to Love. Love and Law are both related and  distinct.

Like double helixes of DNA - Love and Law must be in constant dialogue.
A good way to look at this might be like the double helix of a DNA structure: The letter of the Law is one strand. It must be in constant dialogue with the lived experiences of people and the demands of mercy. The two strands constantly intermingle with many points of direct contact in between.

The DNA model may be inadequate, however. It gives the impression that Love and the Law are equivalents. That is not what Jesus is saying in Matthew--Love is more foundational. The DNA model is a great way to show the interrelationship between the two, but perhaps another model is needed to properly showcase what Jesus is describing.

Maybe the best visual is to use the old standby symbol for Law:  The justice scales--with a tweak. As Francis E. Madojemu says, the key word in Matthew's passage is "hang." The Law hangs on the Commandment to Love:  "Remove it and everything falls down," says Madojemu. In this model, Love is the structure which entirely supports the rest of the Laws.

I hesitate to push any metaphor too far, but I think Jesus gives us a wide berth here. If the Law hangs on Love, then we can infer some things--that Law can only be something that will not disrupt what Love has put in place. If the Law is too heavy and drags down the structure of Love, then it is out of balance. I would refer people to 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 for examples of what qualities this love would have in order to support the weight of the Law. "Love" is, after all, not merely some abstract concept but some rigorous behaviors.

Jesus gave us a metaphor that we should work with, mediate on and pray about.

Take any Church Law and visualize it this way--imagine it hanging delicately in the balance. It's sole lifeline of support is it's connection to the Commandment to love God and one another. How does that change our view of each and every Church Law?

Jesus was ushering in the Law of Love--something that he proclaimed was at the heart of Jewish Law in the first place but had been scabbed over by centuries of human insecurities and institutions.  In short, the Law had become to many a false idol. Fundamentalism is always that--a breaking of the 1st Commandment by making the religious structure an absolute rather than our best attempt to point to God. Jesus was calling us out of making pronouncements without being personally involved and walking side-by-side with people in compassion. He was ushering in the primacy of conscience.

Matthew 22:36-40 is a glaring instance where we can get all the words of Scripture right and still get the message wrong. If we build a system of Laws and make room for Love only as an optional ornament, we have a fundamentally different system compared to a system of Love which is only afterwards adorned with Laws--a system where the Laws simply cannot support themselves at all in the absence of Love.

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This is part 4 in the series, "What Makes a Christian?" Each part stands on its own.
Part 1: The Elephant in the Living Room
Part 2: Like Looking at the Sun
Part 3: John 3:16 vs the Greatest Commandment
Part 4: The Law Hangs in the Balance of Love
Part 5: The First Commandment Shall Be Last

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