About 35 years ago, American involvement in the Vietnam War came to an end, and the U.S. military stopped inducting draftees. Nonetheless, the Selective Service System remained in business, and the requirement that young men register for the draft when they turn 18 was never repealed. Apparently, however, there arose a popular misimpression to the contrary, and the government bureaucrats in charge of such things were alarmed at the level of noncompliance. So they resorted to desperate measures, and retained the services of an advertising agency. The resulting campaign was run for several years during the 1990s—on television, on radio, and in print. There were several different scenarios that set up the situation, but the punchline was always the same: “It’s not just a good idea, it’s the LAW.”
It’s the law.
Those words can evoke different responses in different people. In some, they call forth humble compliance, a submission to something larger than oneself, a realization that the rule of law is the very basis of civilized society. In others, the phrase stirs up a spirit of rebellious defiance, like a playground bully exclaiming, “Oh yeah? Well make me!”
But in either case, it does get our attention. Whether we comply with the law or defy the law, our behavior is nevertheless defined in terms of the law.
In today’s liturgy, we are confronted with the ultimate expression of the concept of law: the Ten Commandments. They have been around for more than 3,000 years, and constitute the bedrock of the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition. Within the culture of Anglican Christianity, the Decalogue, as the Ten Commandments are known, is particularly conspicuous and ingrained. When Archbishop Cranmer reworked the liturgy of the Eucharist for the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, he put the Ten Commandments at the very beginning of the service, and they have remained there—either prescribed or as an option—ever since. In many parish churches both in England and in older parts of America, they are engraved in stone or wood and displayed prominently on the east wall. One might argue, of course, that the Ten Commandments are honored more in the breach than in the observance—but either way, they are conspicuous.
The notion of law seems obvious enough. Every human society and community has it in one form or another. If we break the law, there is some adverse consequence, some kind of punishment, either now or later. If we keep the law, there is some sort of reward or other pleasant consequence (even if it’s just the avoidance of a negative one). But can it really be all that simplistic? I suspect we do well to disabuse ourselves of childish misconceptions
about law in general, and God’s law in particular. One of these misconceptions is that, by keeping God’s law faithfully, we can put God in our debt. By walking the straight and narrow, we can obligate God to bless us or favor us. By obeying God, we have earned our reward, and it is morally incumbent upon Him to produce it, to hand it over, as if it had been justly bought and paid for.
The fact is, though, every arrow we shoot toward the target of trying to earn God’s favor by keeping His law falls way short of the mark. The New Testament Greek word for “sin” is hamartia, and it literally means “falling short of the mark.” St Paul tells is in the epistle to the Romans that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Some of our arrows, to be sure, get further on down toward the target than others, but they all fall short. So no amount of law keeping can ethically obligate God to even give us the time of day, let alone a heavenly reward.
Another misconception thinks in terms not of results, but of effort. This is certainly a more kindly view. It doesn’t matter that we hit the target, but only that we try really hard, give it our best effort, and get as close as we can. This inclines God to love us, or perhaps only like us, or at least think we’re cute. We could do worse, I suppose, than to be God’s affectionately smiled-at pets, mascots of the kingdom of Heaven. But such a view woefully underestimates the nature and purpose of human existence—we are created, after all, in the very image and likeness of God, to be His friends, not his pets. But more than that, the “A for effort” view of keeping the law betrays a paltry understanding of the purity of God’s holiness. It isn’t that God is arbitrarily mean or cosmically uptight. But by his very nature, in his essential being, God cannot indefinitely tolerate imperfection. He is patient and long-suffering and abounding in mercy. He accepts me, as the song says, “just as I am,” but he does not wish me to remain in that condition! He wants me to be able to hit the target every time, and not ever fall short. And he will not simply move the target in order to enable me to do so. That would not be fair, either to God or to me.
Now, from a negative perspective, there’s another misimpression of what it means to be law-abiding. The experience of many is that the law is a cruel joke, by which God amuses himself by watching us fail. “Oops! There they go again, those silly humans. Won’t they ever get it right?” Or, in a less cynical and more rational mode, the law is not really “from God” at all, but, rather, a projection onto God of the human need for security, for boundaries we can rely on. The courageous thing to do is to admit that all laws are man-made, and while many of them may indeed be good ideas, we are not ultimately accountable to any of them. No law is immune from the possibility that circumstances may justify an exception. The Ten Commandments are, in effect, ten “guidelines” which are good to check in with before making an ethical decision.
Now, I hope I don’t have to tell you that I believe all of these notions—that we can obligate God by keeping the law, that we can increase the chances of God liking us if we try really hard to keep the law, that the law is a cruel joke for God’s entertainment, and the that law is merely a human invention and projection—all of these notions are based on false suppositions. But they arise from an understandable desire to integrate our immediate experience with our search for ultimate meaning, to have our conception of what is ideal for us determined by our prior experience of what is real for us. And so there are fragments of truth and goodness in what is otherwise a nasty pile of selfishness and moral relativism.
The 19th Psalm, which is part of our prayer at this liturgy, expresses in beautiful poetry what I am trying to say through less than adequate prose: “The law of the Lord is perfect...and revives the soul.” Far from being oppressive or authoritarian, far from being lifeless and technical, the Psalmist sees God’s law as life-giving, refreshing and reviving to the soul, like water flowing through a desert. He goes on to say that the “testimony of the Lord...gives wisdom”—it gives us practical aid in coping with the bewildering complexities of human relationships. “The statutes”—what more legal-sounding word is there than “statutes”?!—the “statutes of the Lord and just and rejoice the heart.” There is something beautiful about justice, just as there is in an elegantly crafted geometric pattern. Both are a joy to behold. And it is only the law that allows us to see the beauty of justice, that allows our hearts to rejoice thereby.
The Psalmist continues, “The commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes.” Eyes tell the story, don’t they? When someone’s heart and soul are whole and integrated, you can tell it in his or her eyes, and vice versa. It is the commandment of the Lord that reveals the integrity of the way we live, a revelation that is visible in our eyes.
According to the Psalmist, then, there is intrinsic good that is made evident in the law. The law refreshes and nourishes and strengthens. To be nourished and refreshed and strengthened are the fruits of a life lived close to the heart of God. In fact, “keeping the law” is a practical description of what it looks like when we align ourselves with the flow of God’s loving energy. It’s not that the law is an end in itself. We don’t keep the law just for the sake of keeping the law. In fact, our aim shouldn’t be “keeping the law” at all, it should be singing in harmony with God, allowing our energy to flow in the same direction in which his is flowing, letting our hearts assume the shape of God’s heart.
And how do we know how well we are accomplishing these aims? By means of the law. The law is a measuring stick by which we can tell how we’re doing in the process of offering ourselves to God for the purpose of being blessed and broken and given for the life of the world. The law of the Lord is perfect and just and clear. It revives the soul and gives wisdom and joy and light.
Most of us have used a computer program. Even if there’s not an appliance in our home that we call a computer, if we drive a car that’s been built in the last fifteen years, or use a cell phone, or even a microwave, we are, in fact, using a computer. Now, for everything that we use each of these “computers” for, some programer had to sit down and write what they call “lines of code”—hundreds and thousands of individual commands that tell the computer how to do what we want it to do, breaking down complex tasks into simple “Yes/No” bits of information. Of course, when we use a computer, for instance, to support a graphics program capable of creating beautiful works of visual art, most of us are not thinking about lines of code. But the lines of code—prosaic and dull and technical as they are—the lines of code are essential to the creation of the poetic and artistic and transcendently beautiful output that eventually emerges from the color printer.
“Lines of code” describe, in effect, what it “looks like” to be able to create graphic art. It’s the same relationship between God’s law and human moral behavior, human integrity. The law describes what it looks like to be attuned to God’s love, God’s ways. We can’t keep it perfectly. Much of the time, we can’t even keep it well. But by the grace of Christ, we can, in time, be transformed into people who keep it naturally, without even thinking about it, as part of our redeemed nature. Only then will the law become obsolete. Until then, it’s a good idea to keep the law. Amen.