The Kindness of the Law

Delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
February 19, 2017

Church of the Intercession, NYC

Text:  Matthew 5:38-48


In the name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

When we hear the word “law,” we have a very specific idea of what that means:  we think of a written set of rules and regulations that can be enforced: we think of laws either as either prohibitions – things that you can’t do without risking punishment, like robbing someone, or as requirements, things that if you don’t do them, you risk punishment, like paying your taxes.  

In general, we don’t think of our laws as happy things, they are mostly there to tame our worst impulses to be selfish or violent or create mayhem, and of course by putting laws in place we hope to create a more just and peaceful society.  This is the concept of law that we bring to the Bible, and it’s entirely anachronistic:  it is a view of law that is western and relatively recent.  What “law” meant to people who lived during Biblical times was entirely different, and we need to recognize this or risk very serious misinterpretations of the Bible.

Let’s start with the word “law” itself.  Did you know that the word “law” is “torah” is Hebrew – and that “the Torah” is the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible? These not only include what we would think of as “laws”, the set of 613 commandments of what you should and shouldn’t do (which are included in those five books), but also many writings that are very different from traditional laws: there are the stories of creation and Noah’s Ark, the lives of Abraham and Moses, the telling of the Exodus story, and much, much more – these are all considered “Law” by Israel.  That’s because to them “law” meant teachings, lessons on how to live with God, how to be obedient to God’s moral law.  By far the majority of the material in those books are not rules but examples of what to do, and what not to do, and none of that is enforceable.

Take the life of Abraham, an example of both the right way and the wrong way to approach a life with God – Abraham gives us a spectacular model to follow when he obeys God’s voice to leave his homeland and his pagan family.  But he also does some stuff that we could only characterize as dumb – like having a child by his wife Sarah’s servant, which caused a great deal of trouble.

Learning from the patriarchs and matriarchs is a large part of what “law” meant to the ancients, right up until Jesus’ time.   We’ll return to Jesus in a moment.

But first:  did you also know that the word “commandment” – a large part of what we think of as “laws” in the Bible – is the word “mitzvah” in Hebrew?  Many of us New Yorkers know what the word “mitzvah” means – it’s a blessing, something that we do for someone else as a kindness, not expecting payment in return.  This means that what we call the Ten Commandments are really, the Ten Mitzvot, the Ten Blessings.  God gave them to the nation of Israel as blessings, as something to aspire to, not something to fear.  The idea is that if you follow these mitzvot, you will live a life pleasing to God.  And if you and your community live a life pleasing to God, as does the next community, then the next community, and so on, it isn’t long before Torah is creating the world that God dreamt of at creation.

In order to accomplish this, the nation of Israel was given a new concept: the legislation of kindness.  This had never appeared before in history, certainly not in the Code of Hammurabi that predated the Bible by a millennia.  If we take a close look at what is in our reading from Leviticus today, you’ll see what I mean.  Look at what is commanded by God, who begins with these words:

You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

“You shall be holy” – not “You shall be law-abiding” – but “holy.”  The idea of Torah is to encourage a holy lifestyle and a godly mindset, an orientation and approach to life that seeks the very best choices, and then goes beyond them.  These encourage us to develop what might be called “habits of mind” that seek God first.  

The very next verse is a beautiful example of one of these beautiful “habits of mind,” generosity:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.

There follows is more about kindness to others – regarding not slandering, not deferring to the poor or the rich, not mistreating the handicapped, even not hating your relatives or bearing grudges.  These are all utterly unenforceable, yet they are included in the Law, because they promote holiness.  We don’t have any laws that require us to be kind to the poor and the alien; perhaps we should legislate that instead of deportations: we need to develop that “habit of mind.” 

Now, back to Jesus.  By Jesus’ day, there was a strain of what we would call “legalism” that had been introduced into Jewish law, of course, by those in power.  This nit-picky legalism was never the original intention of the Torah, but it had been perverted to serve the purposes of a few at the expense of the many.  

Throughout the gospels, Jesus was recovering the original intent of the Law, not fighting it.  This is very evident in today’s gospel. Take for example the famous phrase “an eye for an eye”:  it was never understood as permission to maim an offender – Israelites never did that, the law always meant what the sages called “measure for measure,” payment commensurate with an offense, but it had come to mean cruelty, it’s meaning had been perverted.  Look closely and you’ll see that Jesus was himself promoting the Law as – guess what? – a path to holiness, just as in Leviticus.  Don’t just follow the rules, he’s saying, do them one better:  turn the other cheek to someone who mistreats you, give someone two coats who only asked for one, love your enemies, not just your friends.  Be holy, for the Lord your God is holy.

So what does this Biblical concept of law have to do with us today?  How do our laws compare with Torah?  Let’s turn to the legal career of a man who was a contemporary of many of us, and a parishioner in our diocese of New York.  Justice Thurgood Marshall has passed on, but there is no one better to turn to find an example of a truly holy life.  In his illustrious legal career, he strove to accomplish exactly what God was saying through Moses in Leviticus through our justice system.

Justice Marshall was fond of saying that racism was a “habit of mind” – by which he meant that racism was the reflexive, unexamined, automatic thought pattern and behavior for many. He also often said, “We cannot ignore what we really want to create.”  Specific legal decisions and legislation were therefore needed to address first and foremost, discriminatory behavior, but the ultimate objective was – and still is – to break that racist “habit of mind.” Notice that this is only the first step to encouraging the holiness of life promoted in Leviticus: not only stopping bad behavior, but replacing it with the generous and self-giving mindset that when practiced by not only individuals but by a people as a whole, leads to what scholar Raymond Brown calls the Beloved Community in the Gospel of John, the creation of God’s world on earth.

Much of Justice Marshall’s work during his long life and career was dedicated to accomplishing the first steps towards the United States becoming a Beloved Community. As a card-carrying, lifelong Episcopalian, first in Baltimore, then here in Harlem at St. Philip’s, then in Washington, DC, Marshall not only showed up on Sundays in church but fully participated in the life of the church communities to which he belonged (he was a vestryman).  And when he emerged from church, he took his faith with him into the courts and the halls of justice.

Now Justice Marshall loved bantering – he was famous for his stories and his jokes, not unlike Abraham Lincoln – for example, Marshall always greeted the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger by saying, “Hey chiefy, what’s shakin’?”  But underneath his genial, blunt, and often very funny front was a faith joined with an intellect that fueled the urgent, tireless pursuit of a just and holy society.  He, first of all, knew that the victory he won in Brown v. The Board of Ed was a triumph, yes, but also was only the first step on the long road to an end to discrimination. He also knew that the way this country was born meant that we were far from the Beloved Community. He stirred up controversy with in his speech commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Constitution, calling it a document that was so defective at its start that required amendments, a civil war, and titanic social changes to make it even remotely viable.  He concluded that speech by saying:

Some may more quietly commemorate the suffering, struggle, and sacrifice that has triumphed over much of what was wrong with the original document, and observe the anniversary with hopes not realized and promises not fulfilled. I plan to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution as a living document, including the Bill of Rights and the other amendments protecting individual freedoms and human rights.

We are still walking the same road that Justice Marshall helped set us on. Indeed, our Constitution is not set in stone, and it cannot go backwards.  This “living document” as Marshall calls it, is a tool to help us form the right “habits of mind,” a way to strive for a society that protects both individual freedoms and our collective human rights. That is what Law is truly about, what Torah in about, what the Commandments or mitzvot given in Sinai are for, what makes the Beloved Community of Jesus, and it is what we strive for today in our country. 

Church, we, too, cannot ignore what really want to create. We must fight the forces that would drive us back into the past, roll back the progress we have made, and force us to fight battles that we believed already had already been won, which were steps in the right direction towards holiness of life. The stakes are too great, the consequences too dire if we remain passive in the face of bigotry. Let us take the words of Justice Marshall and Leviticus and Jesus to heart: be holy, for the Lord your God is holy, and never be afraid to stand for true justice.