The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt -- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. -- Jeremiah 31:31-33
I have been thinking a lot about legalism, lately. Legalism is this idea people have that what God really wants is for us to follow a bunch of laws. All we have to do are these ten things, or these 613 things, or these five things, or any number of things, and we are right with God.
We all have a tendency to do this, to separate the "letter of the law" from the sense of the law. This is not an inclination that is unique to one group of people. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all do this. Perhaps this is a natural inclination of all humanity. I think it stems from wanting to know how to follow the law, instead of thinking about why the law is there. Asking the question, "How do we follow the law?" leads to an interpretation of the law in which the law gets broken down into greater detail: this is what we need to do or not do. Then following the law, becomes more about following these details. And in this way, we actually move further and further away from the intention of the law.
For example, think about the law: "Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord you God; you shall not do any work." (Exodus 20:8-10). People of faith, of course, want to follow God's law. So, those who want to do as much as possible, and those who want to do as little as possible, and everyone in between, ask, "How do we follow this law?" And so the law gets interpreted by various scribes, those religious lawyers found in all cultures and eras. And we are told to behave a specific way on a specific day and at specific times. We are told what we should not do, and what we should do to satisfy the original law.
In this way, even with the best intentions, the law, and the reason behind the law, get lost in the details. People begin to think, for example, that if they do not use any tool or eat a specific kind of food between the hours of such and such, then they are right with God. Or, if they go to church on Sunday morning, and sing a specific kind of song then they are right with God. Or if they dress a certain way, and perform a specific ritual then they are right with God. The result is that the original law and the truth behind it, however, has been lost. Whether intentional or not, the law gets so removed from its original purpose that one can actually be defying the law even as they follow the specifics of the law!
Jeremiah, Muhammad, Jesus, and many others, understood that God does not want mere law-abiders, or people who follow the "letter of the law." What God really wants is our hearts. God wants our whole being to be attuned to his will. God wants our spirit to be attuned to his spirit.
Jesus' entire ministry illustrated this understanding. He continually admonished those who protested the breaking of specific external rules and yet ignored the person within. Regarding the sabbath, when the scribes and Pharisees protested that Jesus and his disciples plucked grain from the wheat in the fields, and thus did unlawful "work", Jesus tried to explain the purpose of the sabbath: "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath." The sabbath was made to enrich man's life, not restrict it. When the scribes and Pharisees protested against Jesus healing on the sabbath, Jesus "looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart." (Mark 3:5) They had totally missed the original intention for the sabbath.
What was the original intent? Well, the original intent of all of God's laws has always been the same: Love. The original intent for keeping the Sabbath was love. It was a time that was to be set aside from the usual busyness of life so that we could express our love for God, and so that we would still our frantic minds long enough to listen to his loving will for us. Without some quiet time to remember God, we would miss everything God wants us to learn.
Love is the attitude behind the two greatest commandments, which are so named because they include every other one of God's laws: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. As Jesus said, these commandments are alike. You cannot love God with all your being, and not learn to love your neighbor as yourself. In turn, you cannot love your neighbor as yourself, without surrendering your whole being to God's love.
Julian of Norwich also captured this understanding. After her profound revelations of Jesus, she desired to know the Lord's meaning. The response she was given was thus: 'Would you know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Keep yourself therein and you shall know and understand more in the same. But you shall never know nor understand any other thing, forever.'
Keep love in your hearts and you will be well with God.
Dear Lord, thank you for loving us so deeply, so steadfastly, and so patiently. May we always turn to you, listening to your will for us, in every moment of our lives. Love always, Pam