July 14, 2019

THE ESSENCE OF GOD’S LAW
5th Sunday after Pentecost

BIBLE READINGS
Luke 10:25-37
Deuteronomy 30:1-6, 11-18

 REFLECTION

There is a man who falls into a pit and can’t get himself out.

A subjective person comes and says, "I feel sorry for you."
An objective person comes and says, "It's logical that someone can fall into that pit."
A judgmental person comes and says, "You deserve your pit."
A lawyer comes and says, "Only bad people fall into a pit like that."
A mathematician calculates the way he falls into the pit.
A news reporter wants an exclusive story of the man in the pit.
A tax officer wonders if people have been paying taxes on the road where the pit is.
A self-pitying person says, "Your pit is nothing compared to my pit."
A priest says, "Just confess the reasons why you are in a pit."
An optimistic person says, "Well, things could be worse."
A pessimistic person says, "Things will get worse."

Jesus, when he sees the man, takes him by the hand and lifts him out of the pit![1]

 Just admit it friends, often, we are one of those people who is not Jesus. We like to talk, discuss, speculate instead of doing something to help someone in dire situation.

 That is what Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan is all about. The Priest and the Levite are those who are steeped in religious rules and regulations. They are the ones who keep the words of the Law. Yet, they fail to live up to the Law that they vow to uphold. Their life has not been shaped by the Law they preach.

 The Samaritan, on the other hand, may not be an expert in the words of the Law. But his heart and action are in the right place. He is the true and faithful observant of the Law because his action embodies what the Law requires.

 Jesus’ parable is intended to challenge the Scholar. Jesus tells the parable to remind him that his knowledge will not bring him closer to eternal life. It is the “doing” of what he knows that will bring him closer to eternal life.

 The purpose of the Torah, or God’s Law as told by Moses, is to bring people to life everlasting. But, that kind of life cannot be achieved only by learning about the words of the Torah; that kind of life can be achieved only by shaping one’s life according to the Torah.

 Let’s go back to reflect on the words of Moses himself in our reading from Deuteronomy. We may think that here Moses is commanding his people to follow God’s Law, word by word. We may think that it is all about ticking boxes; of following a list of dos and don’ts.

 Indeed, many people interpret Moses’ commandment as such. Now, there are a total of 613 commandments given to ancient Israel in the Torah. The famous 10 Commandments are only 10 of these 613 commandments. But, Jewish scholars and rabbis have added more layers and interpretations to the 613 commandments. So, there are now literally thousands of new sub-commandments in addition to the original ones.

 For example is the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. It simply means that the Jews are not supposed to work on Saturday. But, to explain this commandment, the Jewish scholars create 39 categories of what ‘work’ means. And, under the 39 categories, there are many sub-categories. In the end, to keep the commandment, there are literally thousands of sub-rules to follow! These include how many steps you can take and how many letters you can write on a Sabbath![2]

 But, trying to follow the Law word by word is to miss the true spirit of Moses’ instruction. He declares (in verse 6) that God will circumcise and cut away the hardness in their hearts; that God will shape their life according to God’s will. That is, I believe, is the heart of Moses’ instruction before he leaves his people for good.

 Obeying and following God’s Law should not be something that is unachievable. Moses does not address super humans; he talks to ordinary people like you and me.

 But, it is human tendency to create barriers and expect other people to jump over them. Often, people create these barriers to protect their own privilege and status. They live by the ‘bureaucratic’ rule: if you can make something difficult for someone, why make it simple?

 But, God likes to keep thing simple. Moses reminds his people that God’s commandment is not that hard to follow. It is not a ‘pie-in-the-sky’ kind of thing. It is achievable. At the end of the day, it’s about shaping their mouth and heart according to the commandment.

 Indeed, for many Jews (including Jesus himself) observing the Torah is not about ticking boxes. For them, observing the Torah is about righteous living or living righteously. It is about living in a right relationship with God.[3]

 Jesus definitively is NOT on the side of legalistic approach to Torah. Often, he prefers to capture the ‘spirit’ of the Torah. He worries less about ticking boxes of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ than about living according to God’s Spirit. He agrees with the Scholar that the essence if the Torah is love.

Friends, being literal with the Law can lead us to death. The Priest and the Levite leave the dying man because they are trying to observe the words of the Law. The man is half dead and may appear to be dead to an observer. And, according to the words of the Law, touching a dead body will make someone ritually impure.[4] Thus, someone on his way to perform religious duty shall not take the risk of making himself impure.

But, by trying to keep the words of the Law and fail to show compassion, they break the Law itself. So, for Jesus, the righteous one, is the one who lives by the essence of the Law, like the Samaritan.

Let me tell you a story about an old lady who was trialed for stealing corns from a plantation. She resorted to stealing because she was so poor and she couldn’t buy food for her grandson. The owner of the plantation didn’t care about her condition and pressed charge against her.

 During the trial, the judge told her that he must uphold the words of the law. Stealing was stealing and she had to be punished. So, she fined her and told her that, if she couldn’t pay the fine, she would need to go to the prison.

But, after giving the sentence, the judge wrote a personal cheque and gave it to the old lady. He then asked the old lady to pay the fine using the money in the cheque. He then criticized those present for their failure to care for the weak and the vulnerable around them. He ordered them to pay an on-the-spot ‘fine’ and collect the money in a bag. The bag was then given to the poor old lady who left the court with enough money to feed her grandson.

I don’t know whether this was a true story or not. Regardless, the judge has shown to us what it means to act according to the spirit of the Law. The Torah is created to preserve life and to pursue greater good. That is the main purpose of the Torah. To achieve that, we often have to see beyond the words of the Torah. We are to capture the true essence of the Torah and shape our actions according to it.

The great French Philosopher, Jean Paul-Sartre says that existence comes before essence. What he tries to say is that it is in the doing that we become who we are. We become a person of love not by studying about love or making rules about love. We become a person of love by showing our love in action to others.

 Amen.
Toby Keva

[1] Adapted from Barbara Johnson, Ecunet, Homiletics, July - September 1995 on Sermon.com for July 14, 2019

[2] The Rules of the Pharisees on www.pursuegod.org (viewed on July 12, 2019)

[3] Luke 10/25-37 Commentary by Marilyn Salmon - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL)

[4] Numbers 19:11