August 30, 2009
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Year B, Proper 17
The letter of the law and the spirit of the law. In part, this is a way we can look at the point of the sparring between Jesus and the Pharisees in today’s story from Mark. Law reflects the context of time and place. It reflects the values and priorities, both good and bad, of a given society. We know that our own Constitution is an imperfect document that contains stances we find morally repugnant today, such as the wording, and the realities it spoke to, that one slave equals three fifths of one white or free person. And law codes change. Deuteronomy was a rewriting and a reinterpretation of the Law of Moses, of Leviticus, to reflect the experience of history and the reality that the Israelites were no longer semi-nomadic, but settled in towns and cities. The law followed in Jesus’ day was still, as is the way of things, evolving. And this was not seen as contrary to following God.
Of course, trouble happens when the law is seen as the end and as the ultimate reference point—immutable, absolute, and unchangeable. In religion things get distorted when the law is seen as divine dictation that is somehow free of human interference and shaping. A legalistic rigor sets in that makes The Law, with all the ways customs, traditions and social patterns have gotten tangled up in it, into an idol. The law then can easily become a weapon of oppression and a tyrant, manipulated by others in ways that cling to the letter and subvert the spirit. Think of how often people can get off the hook for a crime they did commit due to a technicality, sometimes the most trivial of things that has no impact on the evidence or content of the case. It’s a game, see, and we can use the law against itself to beat the system. It is this that Jesus is railing against I think—the loss of the spirit of the law, the way in which the intent of the law has gotten lost or buried under practices and prejudices that pervert its aim.
Which made me wonder what a modern day version of this exchange might look like. And almost immediately I had an image of Jesus sparring with Justice Scalia on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. The case in point would be that of Troy Anthony Davis. Mr. Davis has been on Georgia’s death row for many years. He was convicted of murdering an off-duty police officer. Officer McPhail’s death occurred during a fight that broke out a gas station. Though there was no physical evidence linking Troy to the crime other than his presence there, along with that of many other people, he was convicted and sentenced to death. Now, seven of the nine witnesses that said he was the shooter have recanted completely and revealed that they were coerced and pressured by the police to point the finger—all done quite legally. Troy’s family has fought unceasingly to get his conviction overturned. With no credible evidence and others now naming a different man as the shooter, we see how the law railroaded a man all while following the legal process, a process that we know is riddled with problems, biases and prejudices. The Supreme Court has ruled that he can challenge his conviction. A rare move indeed. Two justices, however, voted against that ruling. Scalia wrote in his dissent: “This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas corpus court that he is “actually” innocent.” In other words, even if convicted of a crime you did not do it is perfectly legal for you to be executed anyway. The letter of the law here is not only trumping the law, but also making the notion of justice a farce. I imagine Jesus firing back with a reminder that it was precisely to escape nations where the law was honored or not as took the fancy of those in charge that informed the founding fathers. He would likely ask if the final source of morality is the Consitution or is it God and seeking to do good? And it gets us to his probing assertion that it is what comes out of us that defiles not what goes in. Is not an interpretation such as Scalia’s a defilement of what we believe the spirit of the law is in this nation?
Which gets us to the place I want us to go for the next few weeks or so. The idea I want to play with is that of looking inside our hearts. And I think I will spend quite a bit of time taking us through the book of James, which speaks so wisely about the life, the character, and workings of the heart and its connection to the life we live in the world.
The law is a starting point, a frame, and a structure. But it is only as good as the hearts of those who hear and apply it. For many, the law gives the foundation for life. It defines the bounds of our behavior and the consequences, and that is the end of the matter. Yet we are called as children of God to go further. The law is an important piece, but is not only an exterior constraint. The law must penetrate the heart. We are to hear it and then take it in, absorb it into our being. As Jesus says, the foundation of the law is to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Study of the law, doing of the law in line with its intent takes us to this deeper place. It is now not about legalism, but about spiritual understanding. As we look into our hearts we find the things that defile us, that impede our ability to love—theft, murder, adultery, avarice, envy, pride and so forth. When these things are alive in our hearts, the law may call us to account when they emerge publicly, but the law is not able to take root and grow in us as a spiritual sense.
Jesus for us is the embodiment of the law fully alive in a human being. He was not a legalist, going around citing codes and rules. He lived the deepest essence of the law: love. The love of God was so alive in him, so thoroughly forming his heart, that he could see the light of God in everyone. For instance, when we see with this love we can no more think of stealing from another then flying to the moon. Conversely, we can also no longer accept or be at ease in a society that allows people to go hungry or without life’s essentials which is also a form of theft—theft of life and health and respect. When we see with this light inside we know we are utterly loved by God in our essence, in our particular self. We have nothing to envy in any one else and we discover that our hearts burn to honor the dignity and serve the presence of Christ in all other persons. But most of us are a long way off from loving like Jesus, of having the law become transformed and honed into its center—divine love—within us.
James, with his great wisdom, speaks eloquently about the spiritual work we are about. We have seen perfect love and therefore perfect law made alive in Jesus. He is the perfect gift, from above, coming down from the Father of light. He gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we could become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. James reminds us that in Jesus we have received, through our belief in him and as members of his Body, the word of truth, of light. We have been shown the life we are to cultivate within ourselves. Our first work is to look into our hearts and see what is blocking the light. This is not something we do once, but constantly. As we grow in Jesus’ truth we see more and more into ourselves. As we see more and more and as life happens there is always more space for Jesus’ truth to take root in us.
This is the doing of the word after the hearing. We hear that things inside us give life to evil, to things that defile us and soil the world. But doers of the word take up the call and invite that light into their hearts. Doers are not afraid to examine their hearts and see what is in there that is poisonous, sordid and rank. In this gazing we don’t forget what we look like, but take that knowledge to Christ for his light, his word. We allow our hearts to touch it and see that it is a spiritual reality, not just a way we think. As we become doers of the word we are purified by that light of Christ. As that light penetrates and illuminates our darkness and our lost-ness we see ourselves anew. This is not, let me be clear, an invitation to self-indulgent naval gazing, but a spiritual practice of self-examination that consciously invites the love and light of Christ in. In time we see the path through is also spiritual—forgiveness, mercy, hope, atonement, repentance, compassion and so on. In short, it is being and doing in imitation of the perfect Doer of the Word: Jesus the Christ.
It is the grafting of Christ to our own hearts. In time, we become to resemble the one grafted there. For most of us we don’t usually mean it in complimentary terms when we say I’ve become just like my mother. Nor do we usually take it as a compliment when someone says you’ve become just like your dad as you’ve gotten older. But imagine someone coming up to us and saying: you’ve become more like the Christ! When I see you doing things I think of Jesus, perfect law and therefore perfect love in action. It is real; it is solid. It isn’t a trapping or a practice or regulation; it’s shining straight from your heart.