I remember reading this news story awhile back: In Tacoma, Washington, it is against the law to sell or distribute equipment used to take illegal drugs. Things like hypodermic needles cannot be given or sold to another person if it’s known that they’re going to use them to take drugs. Well, in Tacoma, Washington, a man named Dave Purchase regularly set up a tray on a downtown street corner and gave hypodermic needles to people he knew were going to use them to take drugs; he “distributed equipment used to take illegal drugs.” One day, a police car drove by as he was doing this. It slowed down as the officer driving saw the crowd around Mr. Purchase, and saw what he was doing. The policeman pulled out his microphone and began to speak over his loudspeaker. What he said was . . . “Get your needles and move along please; please do not loiter.” And then he drove on, following the orders of the police department not to enforce the law about distributing equipment used to take illegal drugs. See, in Tacoma, Washington, police officials had decided that it’s more important to diminish the threat of AIDS by allowing Mr. Purchase to exchange clean needles for dirty ones, saving lives, than it is to enforce the law.
The police of Tacoma are not the only ones who have ever decided it was time to ignore a law. Two weeks ago, we celebrated again the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who led people in the breaking of many laws, until it was finally acknowledged that they were bad laws, and should be repealed—laws that kept African Americans from voting; laws that kept them out of any position of power; laws that allowed them to be killed with no penalty imposed upon the killers.
Are we witnessing the breakdown of law and order in cases like these, the next steps on the road to anarchy and immorality? Hardly – the laws are being broken and changed with due process and the consent of those charged with enforcing them. Are we discovering, then, that all laws are bad things, and that people instead should be allowed to do whatever they want? I don’t think so – I had to go across the country and back many years to find my two examples. Are we acknowledging that our laws are not perfect, that people make errors in judgment, and that situations change, and that sometimes we need to be flexible enough to change or even ignore the laws we’ve made? Yes. As hard as it usually is for people to admit they’re wrong, we’re finding the way to admit that the laws we’ve made don’t always work.
“The laws we’ve made” – 19th to 21st century Americans make mistakes. But that’s not the law we read about in Psalm 19, and it’s not the law that’s mentioned in Nehemiah 8 and Luke 4. That law is the law of the Old Testament, the law that is our Scripture, the law we call inspired by God. How do we respond . . . to Old Testament law?
The Israelites responded with praise, with respect, and with a fierce sense of loyalty. Listen to Psalm 19 again: the law of the Lord is perfect, refreshment to the soul; the commandment of the Lord is pure, light for the eyes; the judgments of the Lord are true, upright, every one. Look at Psalm one hundred nineteen sometime – every verse is a statement praising the law. And give yourself plenty of time – it’s the longest psalm and longest chapter in the Bible. It doesn’t say: “the law of the Lord is pretty good; we’ll change the ones which don’t work”; or “the law of the Lord is OK, as long as you don’t pay attention to some of them.” Their devotion was complete, their praise unconditional. They were so dedicated, they were protective of the law. When a certain young man who grew up in their town said one day, “I am the fulfillment of the law,” the Israelites of Nazareth were outraged. The verses following our gospel text tell us how they tried to throw this arrogant, disrespectful man off a cliff for daring to compare himself to the Law. We can look back now and condemn them for the way they treated Jesus; we can call them blind or stubborn or proud, but we can’t deny their devotion to the Law of Israel.
The only things I could think of even similar to this type of devotion were feelings we’ve seen or felt ourselves when some basic, traditional American values were attacked. Periodically, for example, we see disagreements having to do with how the American flag should be treated and displayed, and many people get quite worked up over actions they consider disrespectful to that symbol. Today, one of the actions a group in another country takes when it wants to show disdain or anger for the United States is to burn an American flag – they know that that’s important to a great many citizens of the U.S., that it will get them upset, that it’s a way to get to them.
A second example came from a fairly innocent remark a young John Lennon made on one of the first Beatles’ tours through the United States. The answer he tossed off to a reporter’s question included the observation that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ – not better, not more important, just more famous – but that remark prompted record burnings, death threats, and campaigns against the Beatles. This was the type of reaction we have from the people of Nazareth in Luke 4; this is how strongly they were devoted to the Law.
But despite it’s being part of Scripture, and despite this history of dedication to the Law, of God’s people considering it vitally important, many Christians today believe . . . that the Law is no longer significant. Many have looked at the Old Testament and said “That’s not important anymore – it’s the New Testament that’s the real Bible; or “Now that Jesus has come, all that older stuff is irrelevant.” They say, “We have Jesus, and faith in Jesus has replaced the Law,” and they often claim to be following Paul’s writings in doing so.
There are two things wrong with this kind of response, I believe. First, it reduces all of Christianity to a matter of one’s own personal salvation. “I believe in Jesus Christ, so I’m saved, so that’s the end of the story – so I don’t need to pay attention to any old Law.” “I’m saved, and that’s all that counts.” If that’s true . . . why are we here this morning? We’ve each got our salvation, we’re in the door with God – why did we come back? Why aren’t we home getting ready for the Super Bowl? I’m sure the pre-pre-pre-game shows have started already. One reason we’re here is because we know there’s more to Christianity than one’s own shot at eternal life – we come to lean more about how best to respond to God, how best to live as God wants us to.
The second problem with the idea that the New Testament somehow replaces the Old is that both Jesus and Paul speak against that idea. Listen to Jesus in Matthew 5: “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them . . . the person who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of Heaven.” In Matthew 22, he describes his dual love commandment as nothing more than a summary of the Law: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . You must love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets too.” No, Jesus did not believe the Law’s days were numbered, that its effectiveness was ended, that it was irrelevant. And neither did Paul, despite his emphasis on the importance of faith. This is from Romans 7: “What should we say then? That the Law itself is sin? Out of the question! Had it not been for the Law, I should not have known what sin was . . . the Law is holy, and what it commands is holy and upright and good.” While Paul often stressed that salvation was not dependent on following the Law, in response to those who were trying to earn their salvation and declare Jesus of Nazareth irrelevant, he continued to follow it and to believe in its value as a guide.
That image, of guide, is one I find most helpful in thinking about responding to the law today. And maybe it’s best to think of it as a friendly guide, a companion walking with a person through life, making suggestions from its own expertise about what might be best for them. I find that a more helpful image than, say, the law as a drill sergeant: “YOU SHALL NOT eat pork chops.” “Yes sir, thank you, sir, I shall remember that and treasure it and never do it, SIR.” What does that kind of approach teach us? How does it help us to know how to shape our lives? I also find the idea of guide a more helpful image than the law as suggestion box – “You know, I was thinking, maybe we should try . . . uh, you know, not killing.” No, the Law has more to offer us than that. The Law. . . is a friendly guide, walking with us through life.
Frankly, it can be difficult to know how to respond to some of the laws. Some of them were designed for conditions that just don’t exist today: Take, for example, “You will not wear a garment made from two kinds of fabric.” This happened to be a prohibition against sorcery, because sorcery featured certain symbolic combinations of cloth. What we can take from it today is not “Throw out your cotton-rayon blouse,” but “watch out for sorcery.” Other laws were steps on the road of progress, on the way to something better: “Free your Hebrew slaves every seventh year” gradually evolved into “If people become impoverished and sell themselves to you, you will not make them slaves, but treat them like employees or guests.” It’s not always easy – we have to think about the Law; we have to do a little translation, sometimes even a little research, engage our brains. But it is still our Scripture; it is still part of those writings inspired by God. It still has much to offer, and still demands a response.
Which brings us around to Nehemiah. A small, poor, ragtag bunch of Jewish exiles had left the rich and beautiful city of Babylon, in the 5th century B.C., hiked across the desert, and arrived back at a set of ruins which had once been Jerusalem. They fought poverty, they worked around and stood guard against neighbors who tried to stop them, they explained themselves to suspicious Persian officials who threatened to stop them, and finally after years of work, they had restored some semblance of a city, and a Temple – nothing like the days of David and Solomon, but a home nonetheless. And at the culmination of this tremendous undertaking, this great work, this triumph over so many obstacles, they all gathered together in the main square and they threw a big party, right? They ate and drank and danced till dawn, right? NO – they asked the priest to read them the Law! They stood, outside, while he read from dawn to noon – I don’t want any complaints if I’m five minutes too long this morning – and they listened to the Law! And then they threw a big party, right? NO. Then . . . they wept. “The people were all in tears as they listened to the words of the Law.”
Why were they crying? Did they think they had broken the Law and that God was going to come punish them? No, that had already happened – they had just returned from exile, which they saw as such a punishment. Their coming home was a sign that God’s favor had returned to them. Were they sad, because the Law described rituals they could imagine being celebrated in a huge, glorious Temple, and they had only a poor imitation? I don’t think so – it had been over a hundred years since the destruction of the Temple; no one there would have seen it.
I’m not sure why they cried. What I see is a great welling-up of emotion – this event was important, this was what it meant to be an Israelite, this was what it meant to follow God. Perhaps they were crying for their parents, who had had to live under Babylonian law instead of God’s law. Perhaps they were weeping for their friends and families left behind, still under Persian law. Or perhaps it was the weeping of one returning to a hometown or home country after years away, the weeping of a vet at the Vietnam Memorial, the weeping of a parent or a child at a long-overdue reconciliation. Whatever it was, the reading of the Law touched them, on a deep emotional level.
Nehemiah 8 goes on: “Then his Excellency Nehemiah and the priest Ezra and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people, ‘Today is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not be mournful, do not weep. You may go; eat what is rich, drink what is sweet, and send a helping to the person who has nothing prepared. Do not be sad; the joy of the Lord is your stronghold.’ Then all the people went off to eat and drink and give helpings away and enjoy themselves to the full . . . since they had understood the meaning of what had been proclaimed to them.” End of quote. In other words, then they threw a big party. They were happy – because they understood the meaning of what had been proclaimed, the Law.
So what is our response to the Law? It need not be one of ignoring it or changing it – these are not bad or outdated laws which we have made. It need not be one of disdain or disrespect – we don’t have to throw it out because Jesus came; it can still guide us. It need not be one of baffled obedience to an archaic authority; we have the ability to look behind the letter of the Law to its intent, to translate it into our own time, and respond to our situations as God wants. And it need not be one of weeping, out of fear or remorse. We too can rejoice because we have the Law – it can help us, we can draw meaning from it. We have the Law too. Let’s throw a big party.
But first let’s pray: God, thank you for the “friendly guide”, the laws of the Old Testament, walking alongside us to help us figure out what kind of lives and actions are pleasing to you. Help us to understand the laws, to do the work we need to do to see the principles behind them, that we may lead those pleasing lives. Amen.