Year C, Proper 16, 14th Sunday after Pentecost
August 25, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for 18 long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
Jesus is again taking the Pharisees to task, in this case, He is taking them to task about the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law.
What is that law that Jesus is talking about? ___ The law of Moses, here in particular, the details pertaining to the 3rd or 4th commandment (depending on the version), which pertains to keeping or remembering the sabbath. Where is that law found? ___ In the Torah, or Pentateuch… Which is? __ The first five books of the Hebrew Bible, which are? __ Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
Consider religious law for a moment. In one way, it is a set of rules, of do’s and don’ts that keep order in a religious society. Laws are a way to codify the will of God to make it at least easier for everyone to go along with the program. They keep us on the right path. If it is against God’s will, everyone will know how to behave because it is also against the law.
There is another way to think about law. Some law, religious law included, is also a descriptor. For Jews, the Torah was and is a revelation of God’s will, a blueprint of the world God created. It is not just rules, but is also a description of the way it is supposed to be, or maybe more accurately, the way things really are. Think the second Law of Thermodynamics or Newton’s Laws of Motion. It is not that you are not allowed to violate those laws, you just can’t.
Jesus in his life, death and resurrection is demonstrating, is enacting, is being the world as God made it. Jesus Christ is God’s will on Earth. Jesus, the Word and His works is how the world really is when we have eyes to see it. This is the Law. Is that what you think about when you hear religious law? No, not for most of us, most of us think of religious laws as sentences beginning with, “thou shalt not…” and that is a problem. That is exactly what Jesus was railing against in our Gospel this morning.
The Pharisees and scribes were in effect scholar/lawyers who interpreted and enforced the complex embodiment of the Law of Moses which took the form of pretty radical control of everyday life. And arguments like this, can a sick woman be healed on the Sabbath or not were common. In the Babylonian Talmud, the commentary on the Torah in use at that time, there are no fewer than 8 citations specifically forbidding anything resembling healing on the Sabbath. And while Deuteronomy allowed the return of lost animals on Shabat, the Babylonian Talmud forbade leading animals to water and even untying knots. And people got themselves in all sorts of trouble over this stuff. Now is that the spirit of the law “remember the Sabbath” or the letter of that law?
So there is the Law, the description of how God wants things, or how they actually are. Then there are the laws, the rules to live by that help you to follow or maybe perceive God’s will. What Jesus is teaching us today is that those things do not always line up, sometimes they are tragically misaligned. He was saying that the Sabbath was not violated, not disrespected by healing that bent over woman. And the problem with the latter definition of law, the rules, is that there can be very real consequences to human interpretations of divine will. The spirit of the law is God’s; the letter of the law is a very human, created thing. In this disconnect, our Savior teaches, lies the rub.
So, that is all great in theory: letter v. spirit, but let’s get down to brass tacks. Let’s do two quick case studies, and let’s do them on probably the two biggest things that religion is given authority over: killing and sex.
So killing. As Christians, where do we find our primary instruction on the topic of killing? The Decalogue. The fifth, sixth (or even seventh) commandment, depending on the version, reads “Thou shalt not kill.” To not kill… does that mean ever? For any reason? It seems clear… don’t kill. The whole Anabaptist tradition is predicated in part on this interpretation. Are there ever exceptions? It seems clear. Are only humans protected by this clause? I don’t know.
But wait, the NRSV translates this as “You shall not murder.” Now right there that is a huge difference. What is the difference between kill and murder? Intent, right? But how do you begin to decide when something is intentional AND wrong? Killing in a military setting is very intentional, but when does it stray into wrong? In the first few centuries of Christianity, Christians did not serve in the Roman Legions because they we not allowed to kill (or at least killing for the Empire counted as murder). Anyone know when the prohibition on Christian military service ended? ___ funny, it was St. Augustine writing in the City of God in the 4th century, right after Constantine converted and made it an official Imperial religion. Empires run on blood: you can’t run an Empire if your chief religion is pacifist.
This is extremely complicated stuff, theologically and philosophically. The Roman Church brings this all to bear under the doctrine of Just War, meaning that some wars, meaning some killing/murder is justifiable. Following Augustine’s lead, St. Thomas Aquinas, took up the just war banner, offering certain conditions for a war to be just. Over the centuries this evolved and was finally codified in the Roman Catechism published in 1992, which states that there are certain conditions in which force, killing is justified. It is still killing, just not murder. How does the letter of the law instruct you? How does the spirit reflect the letter? To Kill or Not to Kill… That is a complicated question.
We don’t have a vocabulary issue with the Sixth or Seventh Commandment: You shall not commit adultery. It is consistent cross translations. Adultery is a technical term. It means, consensual sexual relations between a person who is married and some else who is not their spouse. That is a pretty narrow definition and it would have been the definition in use in the 7th or 6th century BCE when it was written. The Deuteronomic code confirms and expands sexual regulations. To have pre-marital sex was not forbidden, but the man was required to marry the woman if challenged. Other prohibitions include sexual relationship with close family members, with members of the same gender, animals and a general prohibition on prostitution. Remember, I am not advocating any of this, I am just relating the sources. As we’ll get back to, the spirit of the law can diverge from the letter, rather definitively at times, and this gap can grow markedly over thousands of years.
What does Jesus have to say about this subject? Nothing, really. He says that a man can only divorce a woman for adultery (hers), and he says that sin, sexual, lustful sin in particular can be committed through imagination and intention as well as action, but otherwise our Savior is pretty silent in these manners.
Paul, he had a fair amount to say on the subject, writing things like. “Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will Judge.” That’s King James, the NRSV reads “… for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.” Similar. Fornicators means those having sexual relations out of wedlock. But all in all, and this is undeniable, the letter of the law (and a couple thousand years of tradition) say that the only permitted context for sexual intercourse is a heterosexual marriage.
Those are the letters of the laws: what is the spirit of “Thou shalt not commit adultery?” The sanctity of marriage? Is that the plural marriage of the Exile (men having multiple wives)? The sacramental state of marriage? What about Protestants who don’t have that as a sacrament? Or non-Christians? Or the civil government sanction of marriage? Or is that still all legalistic?
Shortly after 9-11, a Muslim man in Boston was accused of having two wives. (It was true.) When the police came, he told them, “Oh officers, this is so embarrassing, this one is not my wife, she is my mistress.” The police apologized profusely for their meddling. The moral of the story is that if he had admitted to taking religious and financial responsibility for the second wife, as required by Muslim teaching/law, he would have left with the police in handcuffs. What is spirit of the law? What is the letter?
And the anti-homosexual stuff? In the Old Testament it is mostly related to differentiating Israel from her neighbors, like not eating pork; it made them a distinctive people. Paul condemned homosexual activity primarily to differentiate by disparaging the Diana cults with their temple prostitutes, both male and female. And Jesus, silent on the issue. He says nothing bad about gay folks and nothing good about rich folks. Again, spirit? Letter?
An unwed, pregnant woman in Biblical times was doomed to a life of banishment, abject poverty, and likely surviving only as a prostitute. So all of the sexual prohibitions, while obviously a tool to codify the oppression of women, they also maybe provided a framework to discourage behavior that likely would lead to horrendous suffering for at least one of the parties. So the spirit of the law could be, could be, be responsible. Only have sex when you can take responsibility for potential consequences. That means responsibility for the creation of a life, for the care of another’s body, the trust of another’s heart. The spirit of the law may say have sex only in a respectful way, respectful of everyone involved. Remember, never, not once in all the Scripture or the commentary does anyone set any rules about sexuality in relation to love…
This is important stuff, the most important stuff we can do as religious people, discerning the will of God, and I don’t have clear answers; very few of us do. The letters of laws, even God’s laws, are subject to the ravages of time and arduous travels through space. The spirit, though, the spirit of the Law of God is immutable. The task before us is to tell the two apart. AMEN