Today’s reading from Galatians got me started thinking about rules and regulations. Paul is talking about the Mosaic laws, the covenant between God and God’s people. My thoughts, however, went immediately to the law in another sense, to the framework of secular rules and regulations in which we currently live our lives.
In particular, how certain people respond to laws. For example, how someone may try to use their public position to enrich themselves and their family while not quite breaking the law. Or try to use their family name to gain leverage with a foreign corporation while not exactly doing anything illegal.
Now this is not a sermon about politics. The point is that we all have exposure to and opinions about laws, standards, regulations. I want to focus on why people choose to follow a particular law or not, and how people of God should approach the law in general.
Do we follow laws, norms or regulations so we don’t get in trouble, or do we follow them because we have internalized a spirit in which those rules have been made?
Paul points out that before the coming of the faith, we were constrained by the law, but now, we are no longer a slave to those constraints. Although, again, Paul is talking about a religious covenant, what can his words teach us about secular law in our society and how we should respond to it as people of God?
Paul describes the law in several ways:
- A cell, in which we are locked up in custody. Is that for our protection or the protection of others?
- A guardian. Is that interpreted as a benevolent protector or a prison warden?
- A jail to which we are bound in servitude?
- An orphanage from which we are waiting to be adopted?
There is an ambiguity, a tension running through this set of metaphors.
Then Paul tells us that as God’s children, our relationship with the law changes. Again, he gives us some metaphors…
- we are redeemed from the law: Does that mean we are rescued like a prisoner or that we are exchanged against it like one would exchange a coupon?
- we are adopted as a child of God, as if we were removed from the constraints of the orphanage in which we were living
- we are made heirs, as if we were now ready to be entrusted with something of great value.
Once more, there is an ambiguity, a tension throughout: Are we being saved from a shackled existence, or are we getting a promotion, being put in charge, like the kid taking over a parent’s business?
I would argue that all of these are true. The law constrains and protects us and those around us. And God’s spirit frees us from the guardianship of the law, but also, it puts us in a position of responsibility when it comes to the law.
What does that even mean?
I believe it comes down to not just obeying a law, but truly understanding what the law is and why it exists.
In the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and that anyone who breaks the law “will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” He also says whoever practices and teaches the law “will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 5:17, 5:19]
Yet in today’s lesson, Paul tells us we are no longer constrained by the law.
So how do we reconcile Christ’s words with Paul’s? They seem to be contradictory.
But they’re not. Their combined message is:
- Children of God are not forced to follow the law because
- they are filled with the Holy Spirit and so should naturally follow a just law
It doesn’t mean Children of God get to ignore or flaunt rules and regulations. Nor does it mean they should unquestioningly accept unjust laws.
Because the Holy Spirit also gives us discernment of unjust laws, as well as the courage and duty to stand up to them. Now, although unjust laws are extremely important to discuss, they are beyond the scope of this sermon. They deserve an entire sermon series of their own, in which we could speak of many Godly people who have risked their freedom and their lives opposing unjust statutes such as Jim Crow Laws, the executive order creating Japanese-American internment camps or South Africa’s Exclusion Act, to name only a few.
Today, however, we have enough to tackle concerning laws, rules and behavior which the Holy Spirit has shown, through prayer and contemplation, to be just and in line with God’s kingdom.
What makes a law just in the eyes of a child of God? I would propose to you that it is one which ultimately is compatible with the Constitution of the Kingdom of God, which has only two articles:
- Love God
- Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself
Paul speaks of those who are locked up under the law.
If something is locking people up, constraining people, many will instinctively look for ways to break out, to escape—even if it’s to their detriment. For an example, I give you…teenagers.
But even with adults, you often hear of people finding clever ways to technically “obey” the law – in its strictest definition — while still behaving and thinking unethically, or selfishly, or in a generally un-Godly way.
How many of us have heard something along the lines of “Everything I’ve done is technically legal” out of the lips of a politician or a businessman?
You will much more rarely hear someone say “I didn’t actually break the law, but I broke people’s trust; I didn’t technically break any rules, but I took liberties I probably shouldn’t have”.
Instead, too often, you hear a denial of any wrongdoing, full stop. As if clearing the lowest bar – merely not breaking the letter of the law – deserves some sort of medal.
There was a time when people would go out of their way to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Today, it often feels like some people try to go out of their way to see how close they can get to doing something illegal without crossing a line. And then they brag about it.
Of course they do. For them, the law is a straitjacket constraining their desires; and they’ve, Houdini-like, managed to squirm their way out of it.
But for God’s people, the law is not a straitjacket which drags them along so that they have no choice but to follow. For them, rather, following a just law is what proceeds from being a child of God.
Now if we return to the idea that what makes a law just is that it conforms to the two articles of God’s Constitution, that is to say:
- Love God
- Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself
…you will note that love is part of both articles. Love is what creates the distinction between Law as a mere constraint which locks up humanity and Law as a covenant with God. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said in his book The Great Partnership,
“Love is what redeems us from the prison cell of the self and all the sickness to which the narcissistic self is prone – from empty pride to deep depression to a sense of nihilism and the abyss.”
Love, by its nature, encourages us to go the extra mile when it comes to just rules and regulations. In the 5th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives us an example of the difference between technically following the exact terms of a just law versus wholeheartedly embracing its spirit:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’” [5:21]
“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”
Jesus just raised the bar big time from not murdering people to not being angry with them. Today’s divisive world seems to encourage us to get as close to the bare minimum as possible, whereas the kingdom of GOD calls us to push to the other extreme, to the point of loving our enemies! Note that the second great commandment is “love your neighbor”, not “don’t be angry with your neighbor” and certainly not the minimal – and much easier – ” just don’t kill your neighbor.”
God’s people hold themselves to a higher standard than a loophole-filled set of laws. God’s people strive to clear a higher bar than the bare minimum.
But why, you may ask, should we as God’s people hold ourselves to such a high standard? It has nothing to do with smugness, or a sense of righteous privilege…
It has nothing to do with self-congratulation and moral superiority.
It has to do with our position in God’s kingdom. It’s because, as today’s reading from Galatians says, you are not only God’s child; you are God’s heir. And God’s heir is a position of responsibility, not entitlement, because what you are inheriting is God’s grace: God’s mercy, God’s love.
When forming their opinions and behaviors on laws, restrictions and conventions, God’s heirs think about how they reflect or don’t reflect the Kingdom of God. They ponder how a rule’s implications affect their relationship with God and with their neighbors, NOT just how it affects them, personally.
Let us hold ourselves to a higher standard.
For God has made us heirs.