October 7, 2012 – Love, not Law

For the recorded version, click here: Love not Law

I’m going to begin today with a story that I made up. It didn’t really happen, but the characters in the story are real people, and it’s something that might really happen. The story is about two of my grandchildren, Alan and Katie. Alan is a first-grader, he’s six years old, and a very mature and responsible big brother. Katie is two and a half. She is absolutely beautiful; she looks like a sweet little princess, but she can be a little spitfire sometimes. The story begins on a normal day, when Alan and Katie have gone out to play in the yard together. They live on the main street in Madrid, and the cars tend to go by pretty fast, so the big rule for playing outside is never, ever go in the road.

Well, on the day that didn’t really happen, but that I am imagining for the purposes of this sermon, Alan was busy building a fort out of sticks for Katie to play in, and Peanut, their big orange cat, decided to take a walk across the road – cats never follow the rules. Katie, who knew very well that she wasn’t supposed to go anywhere near the road, saw that Alan was busy and not paying attention to her, and decided to follow Peanut. When Alan turned around he saw Katie halfway across the road, and without any thought of rules or getting into trouble, he ran into the road, grabbed Katie by the arm, and pulled her back to safety. And it also happened that just as Alan was running into the road after Katie, Alan’s mother came out onto the porch to check on the kids, and so she saw the whole thing.

The point of the story is that Alan did the right thing. He didn’t get scolded for breaking that important rule about not going into the road, because it was his job as big brother to love and protect his little sister, and the rule, which was a good and sensible one, had to be broken to do what he needed to do. The purpose of the rule was not a hard-and-fast law for all times and all people – Alan and Katie’s Mom and Dad cross the road all the time –  the purpose of the law was to set boundaries for little people who were too young or too foolish to understand about cars and safety.

And that is very much what Jesus said about the laws that Moses made for the Israelites with regard to divorce. “It was because of your hardness of heart that he made that law about divorce,” he told the Pharisees, who came to test him. “But that wasn’t God’s purpose from the beginning.” The law that Jesus was talking about was a certificate of divorce. Moses commanded that when a man wanted to divorce his wife, unless she had been unfaithful to him, he had to write a certificate of divorce so that the wife would have proof that she was not an adulteress. A rejected wife had a hard enough time making her way in that society without the stigma of everyone suspecting her of immorality. The certificate was a protection for a woman, so that if her husband got tired of her cooking or preferred a younger wife, he couldn’t just cast her off without some legal statement that would guard her from the contempt of the community. The law was a boundary, a kindness, to limit the evil that could be done by one sinful person to another. But it was never God’s plan for how the relationship between man and woman was supposed to go.

The fact is that law in general is never about wholeness and perfection. Law, even at its best, is only about limiting evil in a broken, foolish, sinful world. The Pharisees came to ask Jesus about marriage in terms of what is lawful, but Jesus wanted to talk about God’s purpose for whole people. Yes, Moses allowed for a certificate of divorce, Jesus told them, but in the beginning God created marriage to be an unbreakable union between two people. The law was only a way of putting a temporary patch on things. The ironic thing is that often when Christians read this passage, they want to use it to make a new law, instead of seeing the grace of God’s purpose behind it all.

There are Christians who read this passage and say that divorce used to be allowed under the Mosaic law, but now, for Christians, it’s no longer allowed, end of story. It’s an 11th commandment, or a 12th,  it’s a new law. On a slightly more liberal side, people say that divorce is alright, but remarriage is definitely out. Like the Pharisees, many Christians still like the security of laws and regulations instead of the risk of living by grace. But hear what Jesus had to say. “It was because of your hardness of heart that Moses wrote you that commandment.” Laws, Jesus was saying, are for setting boundaries and limiting harm. But laws are not the path to good.

In fact, the Bible is pretty clear in showing us that no one ever became “good” by following all the rules. Look at the Scribes and Pharisees, who studied whole books about how to follow the laws, and whose lives were as close to being perfectly obedient as any Jew living at the time of Jesus. And yet it wasn’t the Pharisees who recognized the Son of God when he came; it was the prostitutes and the tax collectors, those whose lives were as UNlawful as we can imagine. Even more striking, think of King David, an adulterer and a murderer – but he was the one God spoke of as the man after his own heart. Law had its place, but its place was not to make us good. Law can never make us pleasing to God.

The law, Paul wrote in Galatians, was a guardian for us because we were not good, because we were and are sinners, until the time came for grace to be revealed. “The law was our guardian until Christ came,” Paul said, “in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” It is very,  very hard for us to remember that we are saved purely by the grace of God. We always want to throw in a little law to make us feel more in control. We’re saved by the gracious gift of God – and the 10 commandments. We’re saved by the gracious gift of God – and being good people. But the truth that we need to keep reminding ourselves is that there is no “and”. We are saved by the gracious gift of God.

And so how does the grace of God work when we speak of marriage, since we are still broken, hard-hearted people. Jesus has come, and we live by faith but our relationships still break down. We still hurt one another. We can know that God created marriage to be a beautiful and indissoluble union, but how do we live that out in a broken world without making more laws? I knew a couple whose marriage was breaking down, who were in a church that absolutely forbade divorce. The church was right to view marriage in the highest terms, because Jesus tells us that in marriage “they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God x has joined together, let no man separate.” That is truly the good and perfect purpose God has for marriage. But for the woman in this particular marriage, eventually her husband was no longer interested in trying to make the marriage work, and finally it became clear that the marriage itself had died. And because divorce was seen as a matter of law, there was no room for grace to work in this woman’s life – in their eyes she was committed forever to a relationship that no longer existed. It was as if she were condemned to be chained forever to a corpse. The ungrace of the church became a burden that was too hard for the woman to live with, and she left. As far as I know, she stopped going to church altogether, though I hope and pray that God brought her to another church where she could find healing.

In the gospel reading today, when the disciples questioned him further about marriage and divorce, Jesus spoke in the strongest terms against the willful abandonment of the marriage commitment. If you leave your husband or your wife for another person, even if you get a certificate of divorce, you are no better than an adulterer, he told his disciples. The certificate, the law, was not put there by Moses so that you could trade your spouse in for a new model and do it according to the regulations, all legal and righteous. Divorce is not “OK”. But his intention was not to set up a new law, or to tighten up the old law. His intention was to call us to bring our marriages to God in humility, with our foolishness and our sinfulness and our broken relationships, and to ask for his grace. Sometimes that means repentance and hard work to repair a wounded marriage. Sometimes that means acknowledging the death of a relationship and receiving grace to go on in our lives as forgiven children of God. Law could set boundaries and provide protection, but it could never bring healing and new life. Only grace can do that.

In my imaginary story, Alan knew without having to be told that the perfect law of loving and caring for his little sister trumped any rules and regulations about crossing roads. It’s something we all need to be learning as a church, and as individual children of God. There is no commandment outside of the command to love God and to love one another. Any rules or regulations that we set up, for ourselves or for others, that get in the way of loving one another have no place in the kingdom of God. There are helpful guidelines about honesty and morality and other good virtues, but unless they serve the purpose of love they are useless. In fact, they can become worse than useless; without love, laws just become weapons with which we harm one another and injure ourselves. In Galatians, Paul asked, “What is the law for then?” And he answered himself, “It was added because of transgressions.”  – just like Jesus said to the Pharisees, “It was because of your hardness of heart.” And then Paul continued, “The law was added until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.” And that offspring is Jesus, the Son of God, who brought us grace so that we might be released from the burden of the law and live in the freedom of grace, by faith, as healed and forgiven children of the Father.

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