The Spirit of the Law 6/13/10

1 Kings 21:1-10 (11-14), 15-21a and Luke 7:36-8:3

I.              The Purpose of the Law

“But it’s not fair!” 
This is a child’s very first way of stating what all of us feel entitled to at our core: equality.  We all want to be loved and valued just as much as anyone. 

“What about me?  It isn’t fair!  I haven’t had enough and I want my share!  Can’t you see that you just take more than you give!”     – A Moving Pictures song

  There is an innate sense in which we want the world to operate by the universally known and understood Rules of Fairness, that says there is enough for everyone, you had the front seat last time so it’s my turn now, and bad things should not happen to good people.  The problem is the universe does not seem to have gotten the memo that these rules exist.  So we have laws that govern us.

“Law, in its generic sense, is a body of rules of action or conduct prescribed by controlling authority, and having binding legal force. (Black’s Law)

Many people think the purpose of law is to promote justice.  
According to Frederick Bastiat in his book The Law:

Law is force …When law and force keep a person within the bounds of justice, they impose nothing but a mere negation. They oblige [a person] only to abstain from harming other … They are defensive; they defend equally the rights of all …  the purpose of law is to prevent injustice. Law is a negative concept and not a positive concept. Law is there to prevent harm, not to encourage or mandate good … Justice is achieved only when injustice is absent.”[1]

Why are we discussing Law and Justice in church? 
What does this have to do with our passages today?  Let’s find out:

II.                 1 Kings 21:1-21a

A.                 Ahab and Jezebel’s use of the law

Ahab is at his winter palace and sees a nice spot of land (a neighboring vineyard) that he would like to use for a garden.  He attempts to purchase said piece of land from the owner, Naboth, who replies that the land is not for sale and he would not consider parting with his ancestral farm.

Ahab goes home and pouts – so much that life within the palace is disrupted, and scheming, conniving Jezebel assures her husband that she will fix it.  And she does … without regard to the faith the Israelites had in God, she used the laws of their faith and society in order to achieve her ends.  In doing so, she broke many commandments and ignored the importance and the value of being a child of God. 
She bore false witness against someone – she lied!  She was manipulative and deceitful.  She did not respect or love God or neighbor. 

Ahab was no less guilty.  He knew what his wife might be capable of and that acquiring that land could not be done honestly and faithfully.  Yet, he stood aside and let her do it – not questioning her methods of who might get hurt.

Then she goes into action, using the Law itself – God’s Law – to commit murder; the bonus for Ahab is that everything appears aboveboard, and he doesn’t have to do a thing himself. Once Naboth is safely dead, Jezebel sends Ahab off to enjoy his new acquisition, and there is not even one word of questioning or concern from the king about how she has accomplished what she had challenged him to do.[2]

Not only were laws disobeyed in this story, they were exploited and used for the benefit of the one in power.  Not only did law not promote equality … it actively worked for a terrible means to an end.  Law was perceived as a tool for getting what Ahab and Jezebel wanted.  Surely, such a thing would never happen in today’s society.  This doesn’t seem fair at all!

III.               Luke 7:36-8:3

In Luke, we find another situation that is not fair.  Upon Simon’s judgment of the woman and speculation of Jesus’ ability to keep and understand the law, Jesus tells him a parable that says of two debtors whose debts have been removed; the one owing more will love the forgiver more.  In my youthful opinion, this is one of the ultimate unfair things in the word – shouldn’t the person who has sinned more, have more consequences, more to make up for, more to do for God than someone who has worked very hard to be faithful and true to God all their life? 

But this is not the case – no sin is greater than another after forgiveness.  Through our baptisms, all of our sins are forgiven – big and small.  Unconditionally.  Without a payment plan or required interest.  It’s not fair that Christ’s forgiveness is unilateral, but Christ is the great equalizer. 

And Christ makes it very clear, that our understandings of fair, and God’s intentions for the world are not (indeed perhaps they cannot be) the same.

There is much to be said on forgiveness and justice in God’s eyes, but I will say only one more thing on this topic … I think the pope recently made a very helpful statement for human relations, “Forgiveness cannot be a substitute for justice.” 

We must be careful to never assume that forgiveness equals justice (Jesus’ restoration of the woman)
… and we must be equally certain never to extend justice without also being generous in our capacity to forgive.  (Simon the Pharisee)

A.                 Carrying Shame with You

We do not know very much about the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet.  We know her sins were publically known, but we do not know the nature of those sins.  In fact, I suspect that Luke leaves that intentionally vague since it does not really matter once she finds forgiveness in Jesus.  We also know that “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”  Her love is an expression of gratitude and praise.

But I sometimes wonder if that is really what brought her to Jesus originally.  I imagine that she, herself, didn’t know why she came.  Her sins were public.  She has been excluded and outcast from society and any community events for a long time.  Surely, she knows that coming to Jesus publically will bring talk of her sins and her unworthiness. 

Still, she comes.  Even though she carries the shame of her sins publically, and probably has come to personally believe that shame is rightfully hers and is her cross to bear through life, even though everyone else has written her off, thinks her to be of little value, feel embarrassed at her very presence, even through all of that, she brings an extravagant gift of ointment in an alabaster jar to Jesus.  Afraid to hope, but sensing this man’s power and compassion, she comes to Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee.  She comes to Jesus out of her brokenness.

Once there, I think she was surprised by her own actions: surprised at her strong emotional response to this gentle person, surprised at the flood gates of hope that had opened up inside of her just at the sight of this individual who might restore her to life.

How many of us are like this woman?  Are you perhaps like this woman, unable to forgive yourself for a mistake or mistakes that you have made in your life?  Are you carrying a burden of shame inside of you that you are afraid to let go?

Once more, Jesus sees this woman as she really is – a child of God in need of grace and mercy.
He proclaims her forgiveness, restores her to good standing in the community.
Jesus says this woman (regardless of what others think) is valuable to God.  So valuable that she is worth saving.

You, too, my friends, are of immense value to God.  You are worth saving, worth forgiving, worth calling beloved.
Believe this – you belong to God, and God does not wish for you to carry around the burden of not allowing yourself to feel forgiveness.

IV.               The Spirit of the Law

This, I think, is the spirit of God’s law: every person has great value to God.  Every person is important and beloved.  This is where our two greatest commandments come from: love God; love neighbor.

Children are right: there is a universally understood Rules of Fairness built into the universe.  Our issue comes from trying to elevate humanity’s laws to the same status as God’s laws.  But there is fairness and equality in the world and it is established and kept by the maker of this world.  When I picture it in my head, I see the game of Rock-Paper-Scissors with God’s very large hands forming the Rock that always trumps everything else.  It is God’s word that is important to remember and keep every day of your life.

Even in that difficult story from 1 Kings, we see the overarching theme of Good triumphing (eventually) over Evil:

Look, Israel is called “God’s vineyard.”  This story is not only about evil’s power or Naboth’s property. God’s people are God’s vineyard, and even when such vineyard has been stomped, burned, robbed, and the night of despair seems long and unending, grace conquers evil power, and joy comes in the morning. That is what this story is about … Remember that God’s justice will flourish. Remember the goodness of God in our own story. Good overcomes evil, mercy overcomes pain, and at the end, as with Jesus, life overcomes death. Remember that Grace, Jesus Christ, is the vine, and we are the branches. Wine of gladness will come. So we rest in that hope and sing.[3]


[1] http://www.famguardian.org/Subjects/LawAndGovt/Articles/PurposeOfLaw.htm

[2] Kate Huey, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/june-13-2010-eleventh-1.html

[3] Glaucio Vasconcelos Wilkey in Feasting on the Word: 1 Kings 21:1-10 (11-14), 15-21a

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