On Living Into the Law
July 10, 2022
Psalm 82: 1-4
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
There are two dogs that live in my house and they are as different as night and day. One is a large poodle mix that could not be more mellow. Her name is Vivianne and her top priority is to determine what it is she should be doing and then do it. I only have to look at her and point towards my car and she will go and sit by the door to the back seat, waiting for me to open it. The other dog that lives with us is small, about the size of a healthy, full-grown cat. He is black and white and his name is Pono, which means “to do the right thing” in Hawaiian. Pono is the older dog; he is four and I’ve almost given up hope that he will ever grow into his name. Pono often comes home in the police cruiser because, being such a small dog, he quickly escapes the confines of the house and takes off like a shot to explore all of northwest Dublin. I can call him all I want, and even tempt him with his favorite treat, a little pinch of butter; but if he has it in his mind to run, he will look right at me and then turn around and hightail it out of the yard, running with his little ears back and grinning like nothing could be finer. Living with that little rascal of a dog reminds me that the difference between knowing what needs to be done and actually doing it can be enormous.
In our story from the scriptures today, Jesus is pointing out the same discrepancy between knowing what to do and actually doing it. Jesus is questioned by a lawyer, a scribe, an expert in Jewish law. In all likelihood, this scribe was wearing the traditional tefillin, one on his left arm, facing his heart and one on his forehead. Within these small wooden boxes were written four pieces of scripture, two from Exodus and two from Deuteronomy. All four scriptures share common themes with the one from Deuteronomy 6, that reads: “Love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” To transcribe the scriptures, over 1500 Hebrew letters were used and each had to be formed perfectly, in miniature, on parchment and then carefully folded and sealed within the wooden tefillin. This was the heart of the law sealed within and worn as constant reminders. Jesus would have been raised with this practice; perhaps he even wore them in his youth.
At this point in Jesus’s ministry, where we find him today, he is being tested by the powers that be. The scribes and the priests were largely convinced that Jesus was a threat to the traditional order of things because Jesus’s emphasis was on living the law, not just knowing it, not just wearing it; Jesus was calling people to live into the law, and the law centered around love, primarily the love of God and also, from ancient Hebrew scriptures in the book of Leviticus, is the command to love your neighbor.
Jesus is not seeing that the Hebrew people, especially those in positions of power, are living out these commands. Jesus is witnessing the continued oppression of the poor. Jesus is witnessing a growing division between Jew and non-Jew and a growing fear of the “other.” Jesus is witnessing the growing wealth and status and privilege of the priests and the officials in government while the masses are overtaxed and underfed. So when asked by the scribe, one of the elite, about how to achieve eternal life, I imagine that Jesus might have gestured to the tefillin on the man’s arm and forehead before saying, “Do this and you will live.”
Then Jesus offers the familiar parable about the good Samaritan, just to drive his point home. The good Samaritan is living into the law as he stops to help the stranger. The Jewish priest knows the law, and the Levite from the tribe of Levi would have also been trained in the law; they both knew the law inside and out but they did not stop to help. What good is knowledge without applying it? We must act. Again, the words of Jesus echo. “Do this and you will live.”
I have been thinking a great deal this week about what makes for a good life…what makes for a great life, even. Freedom is near the top of the list, along with love, security, generosity and mutual concern. Freedom these days is commonly confused with license. We are free to speak and act, but if our words and deeds bring harm to others, we are not exercising freedom, we are taking license. Just this past week, another mass shooting brought the total to 314* already this year and it’s only mid-July. Is there a point where the right to live free from gun violence becomes tantamount to the right to bear arms?
This past week, Congressman Adam Kinzinger released a sampling of voicemail tapes containing vulgar and obscene threats to his life and the safety of his wife and child. Threats of violence are not protected under the first amendment, but that does not deter the callers who are obviously taking license and calling it freedom.
To create and maintain a free and safe society, we need more than rights and laws. To create and maintain a free and safe society, we need morals, ideals, and standards that we support by how we live and by how we encourage others to do the same. Frederich Buechner writes, “Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me. To see reality-not as we expect it to be but as it is-is to see that unless we live for each other and in and through each other, we do not really live very satisfactorily; that there can really be life only where there really is, in just this sense, love.”
What is it that gives our lives the greatest depth of meaning? I believe it is our sincere concern for one another. A lack of concern is equivalent to a lack of full living. Conversely, when we are able to experience concern, express our concern, and actually do something to improve the lives of others, we are living fully and nourishing the part of us that never dies, our spirits. Therein lies the secret to eternal life.
In closing, I urge us to not be content with knowing what needs to be done, but to take a step beyond our comfort zone and do what needs to be done. May we remember the words of the psalmist we heard today: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy.” May we use our freedom to foster freedom for others, going far beyond what the law requires of us. Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.” So be it. Amen.
Gracious God, source of balance, draw us in by your Spirit of peace, your Spirit of love and your unconditional acceptance. For when we feel accepted, loved, and at peace, our fullness can overflow into the lives of others and we can function as your body, hands that can spread your goodness through a hand-written note, or a gift of money or goods for a charity. In our fullness, our words are not self-serving and self-aggrandizing, in our fullness, our words become messages of encouragement and edification as you speak through us. In our fullness, our minds can think beyond ourselves and offer mental energy to the plethora of issues that plague our larger world family. Help us, Lord, to care for ourselves in healthy ways that fill us, whatever those ways may be. We thank you for the gift of our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. In ways we are suffering, guide us to access strength greater than our own. When we sense distance from you, remind us that you are only a prayer away, as Jesus reminds us with this, the Lord’s prayer…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Second Thessalonians, chapter 3: “May the Lord of Peace himself give you everlasting peace in every place.” Amen.