February 12, 2017, Legalism Is a Loveless Marriage – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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I met a man this past week who has been married much longer than the average couple. He didn’t tell me exactly how many years, but as far as I can figure they must have gotten married something like 70 years ago, and now, here they are, both in their 90’s, still married. Bob’s wife has a room in a nursing home, but Bob makes sure his children bring him to spend a good part of the day with her almost every day. The hard part is that Bob’s wife doesn’t know who he is anymore – though he thinks sometimes she does remember him, maybe, he told me.
What is it that could motivate anyone to continue to be faithful to their husband or wife when the other person can no longer give anything back, or nothing more than an occasional glimmer of recognition that might just be imagination after all? And Bob’s not unique. I know more than a few others, men and women, who keep their marriage vows “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.” And from the outside a lot of people might wonder why, or how, or think it is needlessly sacrificial, even self-destructive, to give when there is little likelihood that the giving is even noticed. Adhering to those ancient vows, spoken in the ignorance of youth, and in the prime of life, just seems to them like a particularly cruel and useless kind of slavery.
But as far as I can tell – and I can make no claim to understand the inner workings of another person’s heart – as far as I can tell, for Bob and for others I know in a similar situation, it isn’t a question of slavery to vows and expectation at all. It is a free outworking of love, love that gives without demanding payback or recognition, love that is as nearly fully grown as human love can possibly be. And that is not to say it’s easy or always pleasant. That’s not to say there is no pain involved – I would imagine the pain of Bob’s loss would be real and terrible, suffered over and over again in the hours he spends with his wife. There aren’t any guarantees with love. But real love is always freedom, not slavery. Real love is grace and kindness freely given and pain freely accepted.
In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul wrote about marriage. Paul himself didn’t have any first-hand experience with marriage, being a self-proclaimed bachelor, but he did have a deep understanding of the love of God, and that is the perspective he had on the whole subject of marriage. “Marriage is a great mystery,” Paul wrote, after giving some very good advice, “but what I’m really talking about is Christ and the Church.”
In the Bible, God describes his relationship with his people in terms of human relationships that we can really understand. He reveals himself to us as Father, the one who brings us into the world, who cares for us and provides for us, who loves us as his children. And Jesus is revealed as his Son, sent by the Father as an act of love. But the other human relationship God uses to reveal the bond of love between himself and his people is the marriage relationship. The celebration at the end of all things – or at the beginning, depending on how you look at it – is called the Marriage Feast, when the Church, who is the Bride of Christ, is brought to her Bridegroom, purified of all her shame and unworthiness, spotless and joyful and worthy forevermore.
God uses those images because we can understand them on our own level. Sometimes we can understand them from our own experience of knowing the deep love of a Father or the faithful love of our spouse. And a lot of times we understand those images from the outside, because of the longing deep within us for love that imperfect human beings have failed to give us, because of losses that we feel so powerfully, and good desires so real and intense, that we know there must be a reality out there that will satisfy our desperate need.
So where am I going with all this, you might be wondering right now. I am talking at great length about the centrality of love for our whole relationship with God our Father, God our Brother, God our Husband, because unless we know that our relationship with God rests on a foundation of love, we cannot possibly have a correct understanding of obedience or law. When a lawyer came to Jesus once, and asked him what is the greatest commandment, Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole Law and the Prophets,” he said, “hangs on love like a door hangs solidly on its two hinges.”
And Jesus wasn’t just coming up with something brand new, either. He was actually quoting Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. Love was at the center of the Law from the very beginning. And what Jesus set out to teach his disciples on that day on the mountaintop – his sermon that we’ve been reading the past couple of weeks, and that we’ll read a little more of next week – one of the big themes of that long sermon was that legalism – following the rules, measuring and meting out obedience like a formula, using it as a yardstick to condemn others and confirm our own goodness – in other words, Law without love – that is as dead and as destructive as a loveless marriage.
If we hear the words of Jesus that we read today without understanding that love is at the heart of the Law, then all we hear is that the burden we have borne of trying to do what is right and working hard to be good people is now more unbearably heavy than ever. “You know that it’s wrong to murder,” we hear Jesus saying to us, “but I’m here to tell you that when you hate your brother in your heart, when you call your sister a fool, you’ve already committed murder.” Absolute obedience to the Law, it turns out, calls for an inward and outward purity that no human being could ever accomplish. So where does that leave us?
Where it leaves us is in an ongoing relationship of unconditional love. We all fail, by harboring resentment against the person who hurt us or by doing harm to someone who never did wrong to us; we fail by indulging in pornography, or by actual infidelity to our spouse; we fail when our marriages break down, sometimes irreparably; we fail by making promises and failing to keep them. But sin is not a matter of getting black marks in some kind of eternal grade book. We all sin, we all fail, in the context of a living and active relationship of love, between ourselves and God, between ourselves and our fellow human beings. And in those relationships we certainly fail over and over again, “in thought, word, and deed” as we confess together every single week – and yet we are never rejected; we never come to the end of grace, like when you try the wrong internet password one too many times and get locked out of your account.
It is exactly in this relationship of love that the Beatitude qualities of discipleship serve us so well. Jesus never said “blessed are those who haven’t broken any of the rules; blessed are those with a spotless reputation; blessed are those who count themselves better than the rest.” But “blessed are those who are humble, and merciful. Blessed are those who know how to bring healing when there is a failure of love. Blessed are those whose hearts long for perfect love even in the midst of imperfection.”
There is something wonderful and inspiring about a marriage relationship that spans six or seven decades, and that holds fast even in the face of the disease that has brought a terrible and almost final separation between them. But we all know that the goodness in that faithful relationship does not consist in the absence of failures – because between any two human beings, no matter how good they are, there are surely many, many failures, big and small, over the years. The goodness consists in the strength of a love that could not be broken, either by human failure or the cruelty of illness. And that happens only by the grace of God. Paul would tell us, “It is a great mystery. But look at it, pay attention to it – because that is just a dim reflection of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to us, his Church.”
Jesus told the disciples that it was not his purpose to throw out the Law and establish an everybody-do-what-feels-right-to-you kingdom. “I’m here to fulfill every last bit of the Law,” he said, “to cross every T and dot every single I.” But the only way the Law could ever be fulfilled was not the rigid application of legalism, but the living and abundant life of love. “Love does no wrong to its neighbor,” Paul wrote. “Therefore love is the fulfillment of the whole Law.” Love is the only way for the Law to become perfectly what it was meant to be, just as love is the only way for marriage to be fully the glorious thing it can be – not a grim determination out of a sense of duty, but the steady relationship of faithful love, freely given – love of God, and love of the people around us. And we know from experience that that is far from easy, but we should also know that it is the only way that is full of life. “Choose life this day,” Moses wrote, “love the Lord your God, obey his voice and hold fast to him, for he is your life and length of days.”