The Spirit or the Letter

Here are my thoughts for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost.


What is meant by a law? What is the difference between the 1st Law of Motion and a law that says that you have to wear your seatbelt when riding in a motor vehicle?

The first difference is that the 1st Law of Motion, formulated by Isaac Newton, is a scientific law and obtained through countless observations and tests. Simply stated, it says that any object in motion will remain in motion and any object at rest will remain at rest. It is the basis for the definition of inertia.

The law that states that you must wear your seatbelt when riding in a moving vehicle is a man-made law and it is designed to protect. For example, if you are riding in a moving vehicle of any kind and it comes to a sudden stop, say through a collision with another object. If you are not restrained with a seatbelt, you will continue moving forward (or in whatever direction you were moving at the time of the collision). Depending on other factors, the only thing that will stop your movement is the dashboard of the car or the back seat. And depending on those same factors, there is the very distinct likelihood that you will be injured or worse. Laws requiring seatbelts were not necessary when the speed of the car was limited or if the design of the car was such that impact of a collision was absorbed by the body of the vehicle.

But as the speeds of moving vehicles increased and the design of the car was changed to favor lighter masses, so too did the likelihood of injury increased; and, thus the need for laws to protect individuals.

Granted there are individuals who will tell you that seatbelts are too confining and will prevent you from escaping from a car that is turning over. But there are always going to be situations that are not considered in the initial writing of the law. And there are no laws that can protect a person from their own carelessness or ignorance of the situation.

The Sadducees come to Jesus in the today’s Gospel reading (1) with an interesting hypothetical situation. A woman marries a man with seven brothers. The man dies before they have any children. According to society’s laws at that time, the oldest surviving brother is required to marry the woman. This is what is called in the Bible a Levirate law and it was designed to perpetuate the name of the man who died childless.

But the Sadducees push the limit of this law by asking what would happen if, after marrying the widow, each brother dies until all seven brothers have married the one woman and each in turn has died and there are no children. Then the woman dies and all eight are reunited in heaven. Who is the widow married too in this case?

This example was not a test of the Law but rather a test of Jesus. The Sadducees based their beliefs on the first five books of the Old Testament, the books of Moses. They denied that there could be a resurrection and this example was designed to suggest that resurrection was impossible. In His reply, Jesus pointed out that marriage was not part of the age to come and that resurrection was. The situation that the Sadducees described was not a possibility.

Jesus also pointed out that only those who were counted worthy would receive the benefits of the age to come. Jesus’ ability to cite the law and how it truly applied made an impact on the Sadducees, whose faith was based on the books of Moses.

What we have to understand about this passage is that we can apply laws only in the situation for which they were intended. And too often we write laws that are meant to restrict what we can do, not simply protect us.

There are many dietary laws in the Old Testament that seem ridiculous to each one of us living in the 21st century. We might find it questionable to have limitations placed on our ability to eat, say, shellfish. But remove the ability to refrigerate food and some foods, such as shellfish, can quickly become inedible.

There were also restrictions on what one could and could not do on the Sabbath. In the Ten Commandments we are told to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. This latter commandment eventually translated into thou shalt not work on the Sabbath. When Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath, the Sadducees and Pharisees pointed out that this was a violation of this law. But Jesus pointed out that the Sadducees and Pharisees had determined a number of exemptions to that prohibition, though none of them involved humans. It is the Spirit of the Law that commands one to set aside some time during the week for thought and mediation, not the letter of the Law.

Today’s Old Testament reading (2) comes from the Book of Haggai and centers in part on the attitude of the people towards God. Haggai poses a series of questions for the people of Israel to consider. One of those questions is about what is considered clean and unclean. It is another issue that Jesus deals with in Mark (3) and which Peter faces in Acts (4).

But, just as there is a difference between a scientific law and a man-made law, so are there differences between the discussions of cleanliness and uncleanliness. The laws of cleanliness first formulated in Leviticus had several purposes.

The primary purpose was to protect the people from disease. But they were also designed to teach certain spiritual lessons and create in the people an instinctive sense of right and wrong. Over the course of the years, the reasons for the formulation of laws in terms of health and protection give way to simply ritual practices with little or no understanding of why things are done.

No longer do people understand that it was the Lord and not a particular person who determined what was good or evil. In his dialogue with the priests, the prophet Haggai asks if cleanness or holiness can be transmitted through touch. The priests reply that it cannot be done. Haggai then asks if uncleanness can be transmitted through touch and the priests answer that it can. Haggai applies this principle to the nation of Israel. The nation was supposed to be rebuilding the temple after their return from exile but their attitude was indifferent to the task. Thus, their work was unacceptable to the Lord.

We live in a time when the same can be said about our society. We claim to be a Christian society and a Christian nation, yet our actions are often times unacceptable to the Lord. It may be that God will seek retribution against those who forsake His ways but I don’t think that He will be selective in whom He selects.

The problem is, as has been noted on a number of previous occasions, that the image people have of the church today is not the same image that they have of Christ. It is the image of the church as hypocritical, mean-spirited, and legalistic that is driving people away from the church.

Perhaps you have heard of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. If so, then you know that the minister of this church is Fred Phelps and the members of this church are his children and grand-children. They are collectively known for their vitriolic hatred of homosexuals and their protests at the funerals of military personnel killed in the Iraq war. They claim that God is punishing this country for its acceptance of homosexuals. Their thought is that as long as we continue to accept homosexuality, then soldiers and marines will keep dying in Iraq.

In a country where there is supposed to be freedom of speech, the protests of the Phelps family and their supporters qualifies as free speech. There are, of course, many who feel that they have pushed this definition to its limit. A number of states have passed laws which limit where the Phelps family can stand in relationship to the funeral and a number of motorcycle groups gather at the funerals to protect the families from the Phelps family.

Recently, through another freedom of this country, the family of a Marine killed in Iraq sued the church and the family. The court found the Phelps family and the church guilty of invasion of privacy and awarded the family of the Marine soldier a civil judgment of $11 million dollars. I applaud the family of the Marine for taking the Phelps family to court and I am glad they won their victory in court. They have done what so few churches and few true Christians have done; they have spoken out against the Phelps and they have spoken out for justice.

I do not approve of what the Phelps family does for I think their extreme interpretation of the Old Testament is wrong. Now, my stand on the issue of homosexuality is already on record and we will not spend time on that issue. What I find more disturbing than the lack of voice among churches today is the reaction to the vandalism of the Westboro Church. (5) As much as I disapprove of what the Phelps family does in the name of the Gospel, I cannot accept as acceptable the vandalism of the church, even if it is not really a church. I also find it abhorrent that there are people who seemed to have cheered this vandalism or claimed that it is an acceptable form of justice.

Too often we hear “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” and proclaim that we are justified in acting in a similar manner as what was applied to us. We still feel that it is our “right” to do wrong against the one who has wronged us (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth); we ignore Jesus’ commandment to turn the other cheek. We would rather act instinctively, even when we know that two wrongs don’t make a right and fire added to fire stills burns the house down. (6)

It is entirely reasonable to think that whenever hatred and violence are done against you or thrown in your face that you have the right to respond in kind. But does that make it right? Does a law, which was designed to limit retribution, give you the right to apply additional violence? It should be noted that some of the Phelps family see the acts of vandalism done against them as justification for them to continue their acts of hatred and violence. So violence begets violence.

In October, 2006, three young Amish girls were killed by a gunman. The people of this country were shocked that such violence would be carried out against such a quiet and non-violent group of people. But I think that the people were as equally shocked by the reaction of the Amish community. They did not ask that a similar fate be applied to the children of the gunman; rather, they reached out and gave comfort and support to the gunman’s family. They may have been angry, they were certainly hurt but they did not blame God nor did they seek to strike out against another person.

When Jesus said that He was the fulfillment of the Law, he was saying that there was a new community and there were new rules by which we should live. Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians this week (7), is pointing out that they, the community of believers had chosen to live by the new rules and not the old ones.

We are not willing to immediately accept the new version of wisdom that is offered through Christ. We are angry at those who inflict violence and injustice on us; we seek revenge and we cannot fathom how a community can forgive the family of the person who killed their children. We demand justice and revenge and we cannot fathom how a community can reach a hand of caring and forgiveness to a family that they are supposed to hate.

So what do we do? In his book, “Letters of a C. O. from Prison,” Timothy Zimmer wrote,

We say, many of us, that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good; this the spirit which binds us, not in commitment, but in the possibility of commitment. For it is what comes after the good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines the grain of activism. Do we practice what we preach? Or, do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And advocating freedom, refuse to face the real threat to our security which freedom brings? And advocating love, hate the haters more than they hate us? . . . If we preach love and freedom and peace, we must first love, be free, be peaceful — or better yet not preach at all but let love and peace and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (8)

The word “disciple” does not necessarily mean “a student of a teacher” but more “a follower of somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament is to follow Jesus, to go on a journey with Jesus. The hardest thing we are ever asked to do is change how we see and view the world around us. Before Christ, it was quite easy to see the world in terms of violence and answering violence with violence. But, now, in Christ, there is a new order. We are asked to carry His words into the world and we are asked to live by those words. We are challenged to live by the Spirit of the Law, not the letter of the Law.

If we meet the challenge placed before us, then we can truly begin to see the Kingdom of God here on earth. In the Spirit of the Law, we find hope; without the Spirit, we find despair and desolation. The choice is ours; shall we live by the Spirit of the Law and in Christ or shall we live by the letter of the law?


(1) Luke 20: 27 – 38

(2) Haggai 1: 15b – 2: 9

(3) Mark 7

(4) Acts 10


(6) Adapted from “Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 25

(7) 2 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 5, 13 – 17

(8) “Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 36 – 37

1 thought on “The Spirit or the Letter

  1. Pingback: Possible responses « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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