20 Pentecost, Year A
20 Pentecost, Year A
Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
The law, decrees, precepts, commandments, ordinances... If you’re planning a trip out of the country be aware that it is illegal to land a flying saucer in the vineyards of France. And if you happen to take ill while visiting Iceland, never seek medical help from anyone who’s shingle reads: “Scottulaejnir.” You see, anyone can practice medicine in Iceland as long as they display this sign. Loosely translated it means, “Quack Doctor.”
Then too, you may have heard of this dialogue while Moses was at the top of Sinai:
God: And remember Moses, in the laws of keeping Kosher, never cook a calf in its mother’s milk. It is cruel.
Moses: Ohhhhh! So you are saying we should never eat milk and meat together.
God: No, what I’m saying is, never cook a calf in its mother’s milk.
Moses: Oh, Lord forgive my ignorance! What you are really saying is we should wait six hours after eating meat to eat milk so the two are not in our stomachs.
God: No, Moses, what I’m saying is don’t cook a calf in it’s mother’s milk!!!
Moses: Oh, Lord! Please don’t strike me down for my stupidity! What you mean is we should have a separate set of dishes for milk and a separate set for meat and if we make a mistake we have to bury that dish outside....
God: Ah, do whatever you want....1
As you can see from these jokes, human beings are capable of inventing the strangest of laws—everything from landing flying saucers to allowing “quack doctors” to practice medicine. If there is a situation of need, human ingenuity arises to the occasion and presto, a new law comes into existence. In humankind’s passion for order, there are likely laws for practically everything under the sun. Laws that, when compared, may very well contradict each other.
Then too, as we see from the Dialogue joke between God and Moses; there is the original intention of God who created the law and there is the interpretation and application of that same law by human beings—which can be quite different from the original intention. Some laws certainly do seem to lend themselves to more than one interpretation and application.
Now when people look at the law, they may get their back up right away and convince themselves that the law is meant to be broken. Some people, who have a very rebellious nature, take great pride in disobeying the law—thinking or believing that they are above the law; therefore they can get away with their disobedience without any serious consequences. Sometimes this escalates until they end up disobeying a very serious law, which may very well yield a tragic outcome. For example, if the law states that the speed limit around a hairpin mountain curve is 30 kilometres-per-hour, and the rebel takes the curve at 100 kilometres-per-hour, most likely a motor vehicle accident will occur, perhaps claiming the life of the rebel as well as others.
Then, there are other laws that may be legal by definition of the courts of law and the state, (designed to assuage the guilt of those who uphold and enforce such laws, often at the expense or discrimination of others) but such laws may not be ethical, moral or just. Surely they are meant to be changed, reformed or broken! Social justice advocates have changed some very draconian laws—for example, child labour, slave labour, universal suffrage, to name a couple.
Many Christians have, in the past, tended to look down on the Jewish people and their faith because of a stereotypical view of their law. They tended to label Jews and the Jewish faith negatively, as too legalistic, lacking love and grace. However, a close reading of verses seven through to eleven of our psalm today gives us another, more positive view of the law. The psalmist describes God’s law as anything but legalistic; it is not a killjoy, something to make us miserable. Listen again to what the psalmist says. God’s law is: perfect, reviving the soul; making wise the simple; right, rejoicing the heart; clear, enlightening the eyes; true and righteous altogether. In fact, the psalmist praises God’s law so much that it is of more value than the world’s greatest wealth—even gold, much fine gold; it is more pleasurable than eating even the richest of foods—it is sweeter than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
That description of God’s law does not sound like legalism or something to take away the joys of life to me! Quite the contrary, it is a description that bespeaks joy, hope, love and grace. It is a description that reflects and presupposes a loving relationship between the LORD and Israel. For the devout Jew, and for our psalmist, the law of God really is Torah. Torah can be interpreted to mean law, but it more importantly is interpreted by many devout Jews to mean teaching or instruction—hence removing the legalistic image we might tend to conjure up in our minds. So the old stereotype of the Jewish people living in misery because keeping Torah is sheer drudgery is simply not true. For Jews, keeping Torah is living within the realm of God’s grace.
As Christians, we can certainly learn from our Jewish neighbours that God’s law is a gift of God’s love and grace to us. The law is holy and good as even our New Testament states. Jesus in Matthew clearly states that he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Without the law, where would we be? Think for a moment of our Western world, if we hadn’t received the Ten Commandants from God vis-à-vis the Jewish people, would we enjoy the highest quality of life and the highest standard of living that we do? I think not!
The law serves us as a blueprint serves an architect and a master builder; it guides us in the ways of life and living. And when we are able—however imperfectly, because we’re all sinners—to live under the law’s guidance, our quality of life is usually much better than if we disobey God’s law. So the law is for us like a blueprint, telling us the way in which we ought to build our lives. In building our lives as much as we are capable of doing in accordance with the law; we are rewarded with God’s blessings.
However, that’s not the only function of the law. The law also serves as a mirror: In that it shows us our sins, makes us realise that we have not kept the law perfectly or completely, we’ve fallen short, we’ve sinned. Hence, the law functions like a prosecuting lawyer, pointing out our sin, accusing us of our guilt and sin—warning us of the punishment that we deserve because we haven’t completely, perfectly kept the law. In this sense, the law drives us Christians to Jesus Christ, because we trust in him and his promises, namely: that he is our loving Saviour, that he has come to fulfill the law; that he as our Messiah has perfectly kept the law on our behalf and saved us from the punishment of the law by forgiving us and offering us his gift of grace. In doing this, we are invited to respond out of his love for us by following his example, which means being free to live under the two Great Commandments, which summarize the law: to love God and to love our neighbour. In doing this, the law is good, holy and life-giving. So we too, with Israel and the psalmist can praise and thank God for giving us the law as a gift of his love and grace.