Fulfilling the Law

A sermon by Revd Jonathan Evens

Readings for this service: Exodus 20.1-17, 1 Corinthians 1.18-25, John 2.13-22

How do we know the right way to behave in any given situation? Rules or commandments, including the Ten Commandments, often seem to be the answer and every society or organisation, including our schools, needs a set of rules as a baseline for acceptable behaviours. Considering the place that rules or commandments have within our lives and faith and the models of learning associated with them is, hopefully, a useful exercise on Schools Sunday.

The Ten Commandments were the first commandments given to Moses for the people of Israel, but there were more which followed; 613 commandments altogether, which divide up into 248 positive commandments (the ‘Thou shalt’s’) and 365 negative commandments (the ‘Thou shalt not’s’).

However many rules or commandments there are, however, they can’t cover every possible situation we encounter in life. Do the Ten Commandments or the Law of Moses, for example, have anything to say about our use of social media, as social media didn’t exist when they were given? What should we do when we encounter a situation that isn’t covered by a rule or commandment? If we are completely rule-bound, then we are likely to freeze in that moment and won’t able to act because we don’t have the instructions we need. Equally, we could say that we can do whatever we like because there are no instructions covering that situation. And what do we do when life becomes more complicated than the simple rule we have been given. How should we honour both our father and mother, for example, when they are arguing among themselves and giving us contradictory advice or instructions?

The answer that the Pharisees gave in the time when Jesus was alive was to issue extra clarifications. The Pharisees took the 613 commandments in the Law of Moses and multiplied these commandments by creating detailed instructions about the ways in which each of these commandments were to be kept. Extra clarification sounds helpful, particularly if we like clear instructions, but Jesus criticised this approach as one which created the burden of not only trying to keep hundreds of commandments but also thousands of additional regulations. It is, in essence, the argument that people often make today about Health and Safety legislation!

Instead of trying and failing to cover each and every possible scenario that might possibly arise and instead of simply following rules to the letter in every situation, Jesus encouraged his disciples to learn how to apply the commandments to a range of different situations and he used stories – the parables he told – as scenarios or case studies about which they were to think.

A helpful illustration for the way in which he wanted his disciples to learn to use the commandments is that of learning to drive a car. As part of learning to drive, we should quickly come to do most things ‘automatically’; changing gear, using the brakes, etc., and also develop the “virtues” of a good driver; looking out for other road users, not allowing ourselves to be distracted, etc. This equates to taking on board and applying the positive commandments (the ‘thou shalts’ which are primarily to do with respect for others). These are virtues for us to learn and practice in order that they then become second nature.

Then, continuing our driving analogy further, the Highways Agency also construct crash barriers which, if we don’t drive appropriately, ensure that damage is limited; and rumble strips, which make a loud noise on the tyre if we drift to the edge of the roadway. The negative commandment (the ‘Thou shalt nots’) are like those crash barriers and rumble strips. Ideally we won’t need them because we will have learned to develop the virtues commanded by the Law and will drive down the moral highway appropriately. But the rules are there so that when we start to drift, we are at once alerted and can take appropriate action.

The Law, then, is there to keep us safe. The ‘Thou shalt not’s’ of the Ten Commandments are all to do with limiting the harm we do to others; do not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or covet. These are minimum standards of behaviour which enable society to function because respect and toleration exist. If we all abide by the Law, then we do not harm each other. That is good, but, by itself, it is not enough because the Law also wants us to learn to love one another. That’s where our learning the virtues – the positive commandments – comes in; but that can’t be simply about learning by rote or following the letter of the Law. To genuinely love we need to obey the spirit of the Law, not simply the letter of the Law.

Jesus taught that the heart of the Law is found in words from the Book of Deuteronomy: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ The intent of the law is that we live well together. The best way in which to live well together is that we love; therefore love fulfils the intent of the law. But the law cannot legislate for love therefore we must go beyond the strict letter of the law in order that we truly love. On the basis of Jesus’ liberating teaching, St Augustine was able to write: ‘Love, and do what you will’ because when the ‘root of love be within’ there is nothing that can spring from that root, but that which is good.

To understand the way this model of learning and law works, another road based illustration is helpful; that of parents teaching their children the rules of the road. Take a moment to think back to when you were a very young child. To begin with the rules of the road are very restrictive; we would never cross a road without a responsible adult and would always cross at a crossing while holding someone’s hand. As we grew, however, we were taught new rules for crossing the road; for me, that was the Green Cross Code with Tufty – which taught us to stop, look and listen. Now, the aim was that I would begin to judge for myself when it was safe to cross the road. Eventually, the rules with which we began – don’t cross on your own, don’t cross unless you are at a crossing – are left behind because we have learnt how to cross the road safely using our own initiative; initiative meaning that we do ‘the right things without being told’.

We learnt to use initiative because we not only learnt the rules but also learnt to apply them in our lives and situations. From that point onwards, we are no longer restricted just to crossing the road at specific crossing places but can cross wherever we judge it to be safe to do so. So, we have gone beyond the rules by learning and applying the rules. In other words, we have found the true purpose of those rules which our parents enforced when we were young. In the same way, we need the Law to prevent harm but prevention of harm, by itself, does not guarantee good relations. For that, we need to genuinely love others and love takes us beyond the laws which prevent harm.

When we understand the purpose of the Law in this way, we are then able to improvise responses to situations not specifically covered by the Law on the basis of the virtues we have practised and the parameters which the Law sets.

Before I was ordained I worked for the Employment Service where I once interviewed an unemployed man who told me in the course of our interview that his marriage was breaking down. My role at the time was basically to refer him to either a training course or a job hunting programme. However, I did have a third option which involved alternative referrals, usually used when some form of voluntary work might help the person prepare for work. In this case, I decided that the man would be unable to focus on job hunting while his marriage was in crisis and, with his agreement, booked an appointment for him with Relate, marking that down as an outcome under our third category.

To some of my colleagues, my decision would have been entirely inappropriate as we were only there to place people into training or JobClubs. My view was that we were there to assist people into work and that where people’s personal circumstances mitigated against that happening, those issues needed to be addressed first. In this instance I was improvising a response to a situation that wasn’t specifically covered in the guidelines I had been given and tried to do so in a way that was faithful to the reason for being there i.e. to help people into work.

Jesus is the supreme example of someone faithfully improvising on the basis of the true purpose of the Law. When the practices of his day would have prevented him from healing on the Sabbath, he went ahead and healed anyway. When the practices of his day discriminated in favour of husbands over wives, he taught a tightening of the Law in order to give added protection to women. When he was asked, ‘Who is my neighbour’, he told a story about love for those who are our enemies.

He was clear that he had not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; instead he had come to fulfil them (Matthew 5. 17) by enabling us to live according to the spirit of the Law, rather than the letter of the Law. He embodied everything the Law of Moses was designed to do, by embodying love in all its forms and depth; even to the extent of sacrificing his own life that we might live and love. As Jesus embodied the law of love himself, it is as we come close to him, loving him and learning from him, that we too can embody the law of love. Jesus is a person and a relationship and any law that doesn’t have that will end up becoming arbitrary but, with Jesus, the Law becomes loving and lively. Amen.