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Law and Life

Show of hands: based on the readings for the day, who expects that I am going to preach about sabbath-keeping? Well, I’m not. Or at least the duty to keep the sabbath is not the focus on my sermon, because I don’t think it’s actually the focus of our gospel today.

One of my go-to commentaries for Greek study in sermon preparation had this to say about today’s gospel reading:

“I consider this to be one of the key texts in all of the gospels to understand Jesus’ relation to his tradition, particularly to the law. Jesus’ operating principle is that the Sabbath (and, with that, I am reading all of the law and the rituals of holiness) was created for humanity, and not the other way around.”[1]

One of the KEY TEXTS for understanding how Jesus relates to the law. I would say that’s a flag that looking at the way Jesus relates to the LAW in today’s story is pretty important. Especially for Christians in the Lutheran tradition, because the essential Lutheran framework for understanding how God reaches out to humanity with salvation is articulated with the language of Law and Gospel. We need to understand how to relate to the law in order to fully experience the gospel.

And I think that understanding has to begin with the GIVING of the law. Our first reading today is from the Decalogue, otherwise known as the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are at the center of the Hebrew law – the tradition that Jesus was raised in, by the way. The Ten Commandments are more than a list of the ten most important dos and don’ts; they shape the tradition’s orientation toward law. They give perspective on the way in which law shapes and reflects the faithful community’s relationship to God and to each other.

And that is, perhaps, most clearly expressed in the commandment that is the focus of today’s readings. On lists of the ten commandments, this third commandment is usually abbreviated as “Observe the sabbath and keep it holy,” but there’s a whole lot more to it than that.

This text explains the WHY of the law of Sabbath rest.

It’s not rest for the sake of religious piety, or to leave time for proper worship. It’s for the sake of remembering that God saved the people from slavery – an experience that forever changes their perspective.

Sabbath is a rejection of all dehumanizing conditions that deny some people rest for the sake of others’ ease.

And that’s even more clear when we look at the WHO of Sabbath rest.

Rest is not just for the recipients of the law, its for EVERYONE. It’s for the household AND for the slaves. It’s for the Israelites AND for the immigrants. It’s even for the animals! Because all are equal under the law – and all need its benefit. The rest that was once denied to the Israelites as slaves, they are now to share with everyone in the freedom that God’s law brings.

In just four verses, Deuteronomy gives us essential insight into the WHY and the WHO of the Sabbath law, and in so doing it shows us how to understand the way that God gives law. God gives law to BENEFIT the people; and God makes sure that benefit is for ALL.

But that was not how the tradition was always handed down. The Pharisees – like religious legalists in every faith ever known to humanity – couldn’t believe that the law was meant to support us in our relationship to God and others. They thought the law must be the way that they proved their own goodness (and rejected the worth of anyone who didn’t work as hard). They related to the law as an objective standard that humanity has to live up to in order to earn God’s favor, and to prove our worth.

So, when Jesus and his disciples transgressed that standard by travelling on the sabbath and plucking grain – which was considered “work” under the tradition of sabbath rules that had been built up as walls around God’s life-giving law – of course the legalists were shocked!

And Jesus was quite clear that this was what was going on. He understood that they did not understand how the law was supposed to work. And so, after citing David’s story as a “legal exception” that their tradition had always accepted as right, he gave them a simple principle for reorienting their relationship to the law:

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”

It’s a principle deeply grounded in the giving of the sabbath law, which embeds the sabbath practice in the experience of freedom to be shared by ALL. And I agree with the commentator I cited earlier that this principle applies to the whole law, not just the sabbath.

The law was made for humankind, and not humankind for the law.

The entirety of the law was made FOR us – for ensuring our access to what we need, and for preventing the exploitation of some for the benefit of others, and for fostering community practices in which ALL can thrive.

This is sabbath-law, AND this is love-of-neighbor law.

This is also the law of which Jesus is, in his own words, Lord. The legalists got mad at Jesus primarily because he claimed authority over the law. He claimed to be “lord even of the sabbath”… Lord of the law that they were used to relating to as an unassailable authority – one that allowed them to divide the good from the bad.

And Jesus claimed to be able to set it aside if it wasn’t serving it’s God-ordained purpose… which was “to do good,” rather than “to do harm,” and “to save life” rather than “to kill,” (Mark 3:4).

Jesus gives the legalists no way out when he frames the issue that way in the second confrontation – the one in the temple. When he asks them what is “lawful” to do on the sabbath – OF COURSE they can’t say that it’s wrong to good or to save life.

But they can’t say it’s right either, because that means letting go of the way they relate to the law. It means confessing that the law is not absolute – that it’s meant to SERVE the people, rather than to dominate and control them.

So they stayed silent. And Jesus “looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.” (Mark 3:5)

If you know Mark’s writing style, you will realize how unusual this note about Jesus’ emotional response is. Mark’s gospel is a gospel of action – of “immediately” moving on to the next scene, and of giving only the barest detail. But in this two-part, gospel-defining story, told in just twelve verses, Mark pauses to note Jesus’s anger and grief.

The Pharisee’s silence… their unwillingness to shift their perspective and confess that people are more important than legalistic adherence to laws brought Jesus to anger and grief.

And that’s why I can’t be silent. Not when today, in our country, the sanctity of the LAW is being cited as a justification for traumatizing innocent children and their parents, who cross our borders seeking to escape from violence and fear.

Now, I am very aware of how complicated the immigration debate is, and how much misinformation and conflation of different issues is happening in that debate, so let me be clear:

I am talking about the explicit policy of separating families who are seeking asylum – separating children from parents, often by thousands of miles, physically taking them out of their mother’s arms with no guarantee that they will ever be reunited – as an intentional deterrent to other families who may be seeking safety in America.[2]

The justification for this policy has been unequivocally and explicitly grounded in the defense of law. It has asked us to support a practice that clearly hurts vulnerable children and families, because the parents “broke the law.”

But the law was made for humankind – ALL humankind, not humankind for the law. If a law is doing harm, it’s our job to object to that law.

I do understand that national law is different than God’s law. Nations, including our own, can pass laws that contradict God’s law and when that happens it’s the law of the land and the occupational duty of officials to enforce it.

But, for followers of Christ, such laws cannot justify a practice that violates families and traumatizes children solely for the purpose of enforcing that law. Jesus made it quite clear that the absolute center of the law - the center on which "all the law and the prophets" hand - is love. Love of God, and love of neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40).

And when human laws are in opposition to the law of love we must decide where our loyalties lie. Will we affirm human laws as preemptive over the law of love for ALL, or will we follow Jesus?

I opened this sermon with a reference to the Lutheran framework of law and gospel – which makes it clear that we need to understand the function of the law in order to experience the gospel, God’s good news for us in Christ.

God’s law reveals how we are SUPPOSED to live. It also reveals how impossible it is for us to consistently live that way. We NEED grace, and God provides it. And THAT is our source of security before God. NOT our ethic of love. “Pharisees” can and do appear in all political camps, and we must not fall into the error of turning “love your neighbor” into a new law that we use to condemn people with different politics as “bad.” That’s not our job.

But our job IS to affirm Jesus as lord of the law, which means that we have to look at the laws of our country and to ask Jesus’ question:

what is the purpose of the law: “to do good or to do harm… to save life or to kill?”

We serve a God who gives law as a source of LIFE – for us and for ALL people. And our gospel gives us the grace to live like that’s really true. Because it is.

Thanks be to God


[2] See a recent summary of this policy and its impact here:

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