Law

I was at a gathering recently where in the Q and A period, one of the attendees asked, if Jesus came to do away with the law, what happened to the law; where did it go? Part of the answer was that Jesus came to fulfill the law. In reflecting on this long after the gathering it seems to me that we might be talking about two ideas of law here. On the one hand there was the vast body of detailed do’s and don’ts relating to virtually every aspect of human life, in excruciating detail, and which were often associated with the most drastic punishments. On the other hand was the law that Jesus said was the most important, to love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself. On that, he said, hangs all the law and the prophets. If you do that – if you can do that – there is no need for a specific prohibition against adultery, against murder, against using false weights and measures, against keeping a pledge after the debt was repaid, against charging high interest, against saying anything that is not true. If you loved your neighbor as yourself, you would never even consider doing any of these things. That to me is the law Jesus came to fulfill, for clearly he did – publicly and pointedly – not follow some of the detailed laws, such as the ritual of washing hands and talking with women. And one can read into the history of the early church that the early Christians were reveling is being freed from the bondage of the detailed body of laws. But they – the laws – did come back, and it didn’t take long, because a goodly percentage of people can’t or won’t live by that one simple law – to love your neighbor as yourself – so sanctions do become necessary for public safety and economic stability

We have seen this over and over in human history, this steady accretion of laws and regulations, each one well-intentioned and each one a response to a cry to address some real or imagined unfairness. Eventually they become too much, and they begin to chafe, to stifle human creativity and freedom, to inhibit change and progress. If the process of growth is the same, the end is usually the same too, for we seem to have never found a way to selectively undo one here and one there and keep a finely-tuned balance between freedom and order. So they are usually overthrown en masse in a cataclysmic social upheaval, and the cycle begins again. It would be a stretch to say that Jesus was the first Tea Party libertarian deregulator, but one could plausibly make that argument. Sadly though, I don’t see much evidence of the simple principle of loving ones neighbor as oneself in the making of public policy today.

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC.

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