Knowing the Law


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 23 March 2003.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 20: 1 – 17, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25, and John 2: 13 – 22.

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In what seems many years ago now, I was a football official. It was something of a family business as my father and my two brothers were also officials. It was something I enjoyed doing and up until my career ending knee injury, one with great promise as an avocation.

Most people barely see the football officials during a game and when they do, it’s because a call made went against their team. So they don’t realize that many of these game officials started off as my brothers and I did working the weekend elementary school games. Just as players learn the game at the lower levels, so too do the football officials. The fun part of doing these elementary games is that the officials see plays that never occur during the college and pro games so familiar to weekend television viewers.

Unfortunately the downside of doing these games is that most coaches and the adults who supervise the games do not know the rules for their leagues, trusting in their own understanding of the game gathered from when they played or from what they see on Sunday television. It has been said that the most common call made by an official during a Saturday morning elementary game is “This isn’t Sunday, coach!”

One particular Saturday always sticks out in my mind when it comes to the lack of knowledge coaches can show. The particular play involved an illegal forward pass on fourth down. As soon as I began discussing the options with the defensive captain, his coach started yelling for him to decline the penalty, even though he didn’t know what the penalty was or the consequences which in this case was a 5 yard penalty plus loss of down.

I explained to the captain, who was probably no more than twelve, that he had two options. “Son, if you decline the penalty, it will be your ball right here. But if you accept the penalty, I will walk off five yards (pointing in the direction of his goal post) and it will be your ball there. What do you want to do?” And while I am telling him this, his coach is screaming virtually at the top of his lungs to decline the penalty. But the captain chose the right option and accepted the penalty. While I am walking the five yards, the coach is screaming that his captain is an idiot and doing so in a tone best left not described at this time. But, as soon as I indicated that the penalty is for an illegal forward pass and that it is now first and ten for the defense, the coach’s voice change in tone and words from anger and abuse to joy and congratulations as he told me what a great call I made.

Like so many of the coaches at the level, this one did not know the rules of the game nor the associated penalties. The rules of football were made to insure that the game is played safely and there were too many times in my career when I thought I was doing it solely to protect the kids from their coaches and their own lack of knowledge. I liked officiating but situations like the one I described made it more work than fun and took away the enjoyment that I got out of the game.

It is the same in our lives. We don’t always understand the laws that govern our lives nor are we aware of what some of the laws are about. We find ourselves in a society where the slightest transgression is likely to end up in court or where, instead of protecting us, the law is used against us.

We claim that our laws find their basis in the Ten Commandments; we even claim biblical justification for many of our country’s laws. Slavery for a long time was claimed to be a justifiable act of commerce, simply because slavery is acknowledged in the Bible. Our laws of segregation were based on an interpretation of the Bible that said that the races should not mix. Yet, when put against a moral background, slavery and all that followed simply is a bloodstain that cannot be wiped out. We find ways to justify killing, whether in peacetime or war, simply to get around the basic commandment that though shall not kill.

We have to realize that laws are a set of rules that govern the behavior of individuals in society. The word law reflects the Greek understanding of the Hebrew word “torah“. But torah is more properly translated as “instruction” and the content of the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of our Bible, differs significantly from the term “law” as we usually understand it.

The Ten Commandments have always been the basis for Western law but they were not intended to be. We should see them as an instruction guide for life, a way of living with God. The Ten Commandments were and are first and foremost a statement of the covenant God made with Moses on Mount Sinai. The first three commandments relate to our relationship with God, the last seven our relationship with others. But over the years, the relationships expressed in the Ten Commandments became the basis for law and the observance of the law became a characteristic of the covenant. This restatement of the covenant into law was further restated and elaborated, ultimately resulting in what became known as the Law of Moses.

It was the Law of Moses that stated that only unblemished animals could be sacrificed in the temple for religious purposes. It was also the Law of Moses that required every Jewish male over the age of nineteen to pay a temple tax. As a result, moneychangers and sellers of clean animals took up shop in the outer court of the temple. The moneychangers were needed because it was considered sacrilegious to use Roman coins to pay the tax or give as offering. This was because the emperor’s likeness was on the coin and because the emperor was considered a god, it would have been blasphemy to use those coins. So they needed to be changed into acceptable coins. Similar, pilgrims to the temple may have brought the wrong kind of animal or not have brought one at all, so it was necessary for them to get a clean one, either by purchase or trade. But the exchange rate for the coins and the cost of the clean animals was generally exorbitant and the cause for Jesus’ anger, as we read in the Gospel today.

Jesus’ anger came from the fact that the priests were using the law for their own gains and not to help people reestablish their relationship with God. Paul was faced with similar problems in the early church; to some, observance of the law was necessary before salvation could occur. The insistence by some early church leaders that Jewish rituals be obeyed prevented or hindered the spreading of the Gospel among the Gentiles.

By the time of Jesus, Judaism was a highly diversified phenomenon, with various groups interpreting the Old Testament in their own ways and for their own purposes. This pluralism went far beyond the content of the interpretation of particular passages.

But Jesus spoke to a popular and unsophisticated audience that cared nothing for elaboration or deep explanation of the laws. Jesus’ target was not the law itself but rather any style of interpretation that removed its immediacy as teaching to the people. The law is supposed to help people, not hinder them, but the law at the time of Jesus had become so complex and complicated that the common person could not understand it.

The foolishness that Paul speaks of in the letter to the Corinthians is the message of the Gospel, of being in a loving relationship with God and others. This Gospel message does not always conform to the world’s priorities, hence it is foolish to think in those terms. But remember that when someone said that one should exchange an eye for an eye, Jesus said that we should turn the other cheek. It was foolishness to some of the Corinthians because it did not fit the logic of life and could not be derived from the law. Paul’s reference to the wise, the scribes and the debaters was directed at those who would use logic to solve the problems of the world. But this logic was a logic that expected violence to be met with violence and one in which evil must be fought with evil. It was a logic that created a world of laws designed to meet every contingency, every possibility but ultimately created a world so complex and confusing as to lose its purpose.

It was our relationship with others that first defined the laws by which we would live but our society has quickly become one where the laws define our relationships. It enables us to view individuals as enemies because they don’t follow our laws or our interpretations of the law. It enables us to use violence as a means to the end because logic demands that the only solution to violence is more violence. But Jesus refused to see any person as an enemy; he refused to believe that peaceful ends could be gained by violent means, and he refused to use violence to overthrow evil.

Thus, we are in the midst of the season of Lent, deciding if we are going to be foolish and follow the path to the Cross or wise and follow the logic of the world. We must decide if we can continue to accept the tired logic of mankind that only brings misery, war and death and which ignores the cry of the needy and the oppressed. Or shall we follow the absurdity of a crucified Christ, who gave up every thing, so that we would be saved. We are called to remember that to follow the cross is to give up every thing yet win everything. This is clearly not a logical idea, but it is the idea of the cross.

Jesus prevents us from thinking that life is simply a matter of ideas to ponder, concepts to discuss, or just a series of rules that must be followed. Jesus saves us from wasting our times pursuing cheap thrills and trivializing diversions. Jesus enables us to take seriously who we are and where we are without being seduced by the intimidating lies and illusions that fill our daily lives. Jesus helps us keep our feet on the ground and allows us to be who we are rather than trying to be someone else or somewhere else.

He keeps us attentive to the children, in conversation with ordinary people, sharing meals with friends and strangers, listening to the wind, observing the wildflowers, touching the sick and wounded, praying simply and self-consciously. Jesus insists that we deal with God right here and right now, in the place we find ourselves and with the people we are with.

When Jesus was asked by a lawyer which commandment was the greatest, He replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all soul, and with all your mind.” And then He said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the Prophets.” We are reminded during this time of preparation that knowing the law is not the same as upholding the commandments. During this time of preparation we should seek to reestablish that relationship between God and us first established on Mount Sinai and then again expressed on the Mount overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

There are times when we must know the law, especially as it applies to our daily interactions with other people. But it is just as important and maybe even more so that we understand and better know our relationship with God, a relationship that was reestablished on Calvary’s hill so many years ago and perhaps forgotten in our application of the law. As we continue in this season of preparation, let us remember that Christ died for us. Our task in the coming days is not simply to know the law, but rather let others know through our thoughts, our deeds, and our words that there is more to life than the law, that life is itself is found through Christ.

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