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Is it Law or is it Love?

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I don’t think law and love need to be in opposition to each other. The trouble comes when one ignores the other.

Today’s texts – Psalm 63: 1-8 and Luke 13:1-9

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

A little over a decade ago, I was part of a group on a mission to trip to Nogales, Mexico, just across the U.S. border from Arizona. We were there on a construction project, but one of my jobs turned out to be the driver and errand runner for the group. So I got to know a bit about driving in Mexico where the rules of the road are not quite as well defined as they are in, say, Wisconsin.

It was not so bad when I was just driving folks from our dorm over to the construction site. It was a fairly well-defined route with not a lot of traffic. But when I had to head downtown to the hardware store or the grocery store, I quickly learned that driving in Nogales was pretty much a free-for-all.

You kept an eye on the other cars and then zigged and zagged down the streets in whatever way might get you from here to there.

Traffic laws did not seem to be a big deal here. Nor did there seem to be much traffic love, although I managed to get where I was going unscathed.

I was thinking about those days in Nogales this week as I considered the question one of our members posed about the tension between law and love in the Bible.

Here’s the question:

“What are the differences between LAW and LOVE?  The Bible can be quoted in favor of both, prescribing opposite ways of behaving.  Seems to me that Law is based on control, fear, need for structure.  Love is based on mercy, caring, accepting.  This makes for different kinds of Christianity.

“Where do Jesus’ actual teachings (that we can be sure of) fit in?  Was he somewhat conflicted, or does the difference come from his authoritarian-minded followers through all the ages since?”

I suspect if I asked for a show of hands among folks here whether you think Jesus was more about law or about love that love would win overwhelmingly. There’s a good reason for that.

Jesus did, after all, say that he had come to fulfill the law and the prophets. He criticized the religious leaders for their obsessive attention to the small points of the law while missing the bigger picture. He challenged the rich young man who claimed to have obeyed all the commandments to go one step farther, sell what he had, give the proceeds to the poor and follow Jesus on his way.

These are not the comments of someone focused on the law over love.

But the keep in mind that when Jesus was giving that Sermon on the Mount as described in the Gospel according to Matthew, he talked about fulfilling the law and the prophets before he said, “I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets.”

Keep in mind that in the Gospel according to Mark, when some of the religious leaders tried to trick Jesus into saying that Jews should not pay taxes to Rome, he told them to give to Caesar what was Caesar’s – to pay their taxes – and to give to God what is God’s – their devotion and loyalty.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus seems to be talking about living well in the face of unexpected death, with more emphasis on judgment than on mercy.

Keep in mind that at the very end of the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus told his followers “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.”

The whole idea of the law here operates on several levels, of course. There were the laws of the Hebrew Bible, which governed both religious practice and community life. There were the laws of the Roman Empire.

In our time, we still look to the Ten Commandments as a moral code, to rules within the church world about how we gather as a Christian community, to laws from the government about how our city and state and country function.

Here’s a hint of where I am going to wind up on this today. I don’t think law and love need to be in opposition to each other. The trouble comes when one ignores the other.

When I was in Nogales, I would have appreciated a little better sense of law. Now, that was my problem, really. The residents of Nogales seemed pretty comfortable with the lack of traffic laws – or at least the enforcement of them – and probably would find driving in Madison pretty unnerving, what with people stopping and starting and using those flashing turn lights on their cars and navigating round-abouts.

But let’s take something a little more consequential.

AdamsI’ve been re-acquainting myself a bit with American presidents this year. In the course of that, I listened to a podcast this week about John Adams, the second U.S. president. But before he became president in 1797, before he helped draft the Declaration in 1776, he was a lawyer in the Boston area and he wound up defending eight British soldiers accused of killing five residents of Boston in 1770 in what was know as the Boston Massacre.

No colonial lawyer wanted to take on this unpopular case. The British, after all, were loathed and the soldiers had fired into a mob of local residents that was closing in on them. But Adams agreed to defend the soldiers, figuring it would be the early end of his career.

As historian David McCullough told Lillian Cunningham for the Presidential Podcast, Adams took on this unpopular task because he believed so firmly in the rule of law.

Six of the eight soldiers were acquitted and the other two had the charges reduced to manslaughter because Adams’ argued convincingly that their lives had been endangered by the crowd surging toward them.

It’s not like ideas of love were in play during that confrontation. But Adams’ commitment to law shone brightly after that.

JacksonContrast that with another president – Andrew Jackson.

For Jackson, elected president in 1828, the rule of law meant doing whatever he wanted. He did not consider laws as meant for him. They were for other people, mainly for his enemies.

Steve Inskeep, the host of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, wrote a biography of Jackson that was published last year. More recently, he wrote about Jackson for The New York Times.

Jackson had led American forces to victory in the War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans, which made him a national celebrity. So, wrote Inskeep, “Riding his fame to the White House, Jackson captured the imagination of ordinary citizens who’d never voted in such numbers before. He crushed rivals who considered him crude, barbaric and even a danger to the republic. Jackson had a captivating style, and not just because of his wild hair. He did what he wanted, and demanded respect.”

Neither law nor love could constrain Andrew Jackson.

Fast forward to the 20th Century and look at the way the Civil Rights movement used the power of love to change the laws. This was not love without confrontation. But Martin Luther King Jr. never lost sight of the central concept of non-violent change – you always recognize the humanity of your foe, you try to free them from their hatred even as you seek your dignity.

These are all issues of law and love from the public arena, of course, even if there was some overlap with religious beliefs as well. But let’s focus more narrowly on religion.

There is some interesting research about the how religions can affect society for good or for ill when they give their gods attributes of judgment over mercy.

Benjamin Purzycki is a research fellow at the Center for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture at the University of British Columbia in Canada. He recently wrote a piece for the Religion News Service about some of his research on how perceptions of God affect behavior. He also cited the body of literature in this field.

He wrote that “recent experimental research suggests that punitive, omniscient and morally concerned gods may curb selfishness because these gods trigger both the feeling of being watched and the fear of punishment for breaking the rules.”

In his own research, giving people coins to place in a variety of cups – some which would benefit themselves or their local community, others which would benefit a wider array of people – he found that “those who said their gods didn’t punish or know much about human behavior were more likely to put coins into their own cups and the cups for their local community.”

This seems to run at odds with the emphasis we put on God as a God of mercy, love as the fabric that holds us together. It says that those who think of God as more judgmental may actually do better at following social norms – or the law.

No one said this question would be an easy one.

One of our members offered an eloquent response to the original question, writing: “The law generally guides us to remember that we are part of a community and a society, and our actions affect others.   Sometimes (especially lately), however, laws are not made out of compassion and to protect, but instead are indeed based in fear and desire to control.”

That really gets back to the original question of the purpose of law.

Is it to let some people have power and control over others? Or is it to help all of us live together in respectful and caring ways?

Is it so some of us can be like that rich young man who approached Jesus and proudly lists how we have followed all the laws? Or is the law tempered by the kind of mercy that allowed Jesus to help a woman caught in adultery avoid death by stoning and live with another chance?

The member who responded to the original question wrote perhaps the measuring stick of whether a law is appropriate for a moral society is whether it is made out of compassion and to protect or based in fear and desire to control.

I think that is true not just for society in general, but for church communities as well. Laws, rules, can offer us protection, can help life go smoothly. They can also lock us into patterns that are destructive. The laws that protected slavery were laws based on the desire to control others. The laws that have allowed a proliferation of deadly weapons are based in fear.

Laws continually need re-evaluation and yes, debate, to make sure they are not simply means of maintaining power and control of one group over another.

The hymn we sung earlier this morning was based on Psalm 19, a song that recognized the value of law in a society made up of imperfect people. It linked those laws to God’s vision for his people:

law of lord (1)The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

So let’s give the idea of law its due in our lives. And then let’s remember, as my respondent wrote, “There are times when regardless of whether the law had moral intentions, in certain situations following love and compassion should override following the law.”

In my reading of the message of Jesus, it seems to me that’s pretty much what he was saying. The law matters, but love is the ultimate measure. That was the spirit in Psalm 63 that we heard today. And in that spirit, let’s sing #23, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.”