It’s the Spirit, not the Letter

You’ve seen her – the lady with the blindfold, a balance, and a sword. She is Lady Justice. She is supposed to represent our judicial system. Since the 15th century the blindfold has represented the idea that justice should be meted out objectively, without fear or favor, regardless of identity, money, power, or weakness.

At least that’s what the lady with the blindfold is supposed to represent. For some of us that blindfold may represent the imperfection of some of those who make our laws. After all, there are some strange laws on the books in some of our states.

Here in Florida a law prohibits unmarried women from parachuting on Sunday.  I’m not certain why it applies only to unmarried women, but there go your plans for the afternoon, single ladies.

In Nebraska a parent can be arrested if his child cannot hold back a burp during a church service. So keep your ears open, parents.

In Zion, Illinois, it is illegal to give lighted cigars to dogs, cats, and other pets. I suppose it’s okay to let your kids’ light up.  But at least Bowser and Whiskers are safe in Zion.

In Bexley, Ohio, Ordinance #223 prohibits the installation and usage of slot machines in outhouses. You have to wonder how that law came about.

In Nicholas County, West Virginia, it is illegal for a member of the clergy to tell jokes or humorous stories from the pulpit.  Guess it’s just straight fire and brimstone up there.

Well, that’s enough silly laws. Let’s move on to today’s Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah, which is one of the most beautiful passages in the Hebrew Bible.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that  they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

What an extraordinary statement. You know how important the Law was to the Jews. The people of Israel for hundreds of years had been the people of the Law. From the time Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai to our current day – these commandments have played a fundamental role in Jewish life.

And yet here is this prophet of God saying that the days are coming when God will put His “law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” No longer will the people have an external list of commandments, but they will have an internal guide to how to live. How will God do that? We in the Christian community believe that this prophecy was fulfilled in the little town of Bethlehem 2000 years ago when a babe was born and the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

No longer were the people of God constricted to a written code. In Jesus of Nazareth they could see in the flesh what God desires out of us. It is to live as Jesus lived. The Word which had been handed down on Mount Sinai was fulfilled by the Word who came to earth and dwelt among us whose name is Jesus. And, when we understand that truth, it changes everything about what we believe about the Law. When we understand this truth – that God has made a new covenant with humankind through the life and death of Jesus Christ – we become empowered to move beyond being simply law-abiding folks to persons who are making a real difference in the world.

Now please do not misunderstand me. It is important that we be law abiding. We should abide by the laws of God as well as the laws of the state. Disobey the laws of the state or the community in which we live and we may land in jail. Disobey the laws of God and we will find ourselves estranged from God.

It might surprise you to know that Ernest Hemingway was the son of devout Christian parents. Hemingway’s writing, however, exhibited none of the beliefs his parents tried to instill in him.

A letter from his mother written in 1920 illustrates how completely he had divorced himself from their beliefs: “Unless you, my son, Ernest, come to yourself, cease your lazy loafing and pleasure seeking . . . stop trading on your handsome face . . . and neglecting your duties to God and your Savior Jesus Christ . . . there is nothing for you but bankruptcy; you have overdrawn.”

Hemingway told a writer in 1956 that “what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” By his own standard, then, he was a man of unimpeachable morals – nothing made him feel bad. “People with different ideas about morality would call him a sinner,” the article continued, “and the wages of sin, they say, is death. Hemingway has cheated death time and time again to become a scarred and bearded American legend, a great white hunter, a husband of four wives, and a winner of Nobel and Pulitzer prizes . . . Sin has paid off for Hemingway,” the article continued.

Some years later, however, in the same magazine there appeared a review of the book Papa Hemingway by A.E. Hotchner. It gave a different account of Hemingway’s life. What we find there is a chronicle of repeated suicide attempts, paranoia, alcoholism, multiple affairs and marriages, and finally, on his return to his Ketchum, Idaho, hideaway, his final – and successful – suicide attempt. Ernest Hemingway thumbed his nose at the laws of God and he paid the price for doing so.

As the great missionary/theologian of yesteryear, E. Stanley Jones used to say, “We don’t break God’s laws. We break ourselves on God’s laws.” It is important that we obey the law, whether it is the laws made by human beings or the law of God. But it is important for us to see that obeying the law is not enough.

Merely obeying the law is not what Christian faith is about. Many Christians, even today, settle for being law abiding. They are nice, moral people, but they don’t have a clue what God really expects out of them. This was the situation of many of the Pharisees that Jesus encountered. They kept the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law.

Pastor John Ortberg tells about a group known as the “blind and bleeding rabbis.” They were called that because, in order that they could never be accused of violating the commandment against adultery, not only would they never speak to a woman, but they would close their eyes when one came into their peripheral vision. The result of this was they were forever falling off curbs and bumping into buildings.

Well, congratulations to them for avoiding adultery, but closing your eyes whenever a woman is present is not the same as showing women respect or, in the case of a woman who is in need, showing her compassion.

You can be law-abiding and be miles from the heart of Christ. Christians are called to go beyond simply obeying the law. That’s especially important for us to see during this season of Lent. The people who crucified Jesus were the most law abiding in their society. But obeying the law is never enough. For the most important law of all is written on our hearts. It is the law of love. “A new command I give you,” said Jesus, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”