There are three kinds of people in the world: Those that can add and those that can’t. I guess that explains the title. Actually, I thought I was done, but after wrapping up this series, I felt there were things left unsaid… mostly about how we (individually) apply Justice and Mercy.
What is left unsaid? Maybe, the application.
The physicist in me likes to think in terms of the “big picture”. Therefore when I launch into a subject area as broad as Justice, Mercy, and the Laws of the Spirit, I tend to talk about them as if they were parts of the Laws of this Universe. And they are. Just like everything else created by God, they are defined by Him; and, thus, they are unchanging and their domain of applicability is universal. But so are the Laws of Physics. What is different, then, between the Laws of the Spirit and the Laws of Physics?
The Laws of Physics “happen to us.” We cannot change the fact that if we jump, Gravity will bring us down. We cannot change the fact that energy cannot be created. In a sense, we are slaves to the Laws of Physics. But, “it’s nothing personal”.
The best we can hope to do is figure out how to do what we want to do under their constraints. The better we learn how to work within the Laws, even to using the interplay between several of the Laws, the more we can accomplish. In fact, I can use some laws to temporarily overcome other Laws, to accomplish my goals. Given enough explosive fuel, we can use the laws that govern the conversion of chemical energy into kinetic energy to end up standing on the Moon instead of on the Earth.
Still, laws are laws. No one in their right mind, who set out to accomplish something using the Laws of Physics – but then failed – would blame those Laws. After all, not only are they universal (everyone is in the same boat), they are objective, they are impersonal.
It turns out that we could live our lives with the same outlook toward the Laws of the Spirit. We could just list them all, carry the list with us everywhere we go, and mark the box next to each one as we fulfill it. When we have checked off every box, we win. It is almost like a game: given the rules, I figure out how to use them to accomplish my goals, and in the end, I get what I deserve. It is nothing personal.
Such an attitude treats the Laws of the Spirit the same way we treat the Laws of Physics. Isn’t this how the Pharisees, the Scribes, and the Sadducees come across in the Gospel? In fact, they were such experts at the Law that they had figured out how to use some laws to temporarily overcome other Laws, in order to accomplish their goals.
If the Law is external to me, I will find a loophole
In Mark, chapter 7, the Pharisees see Jesus’ disciples sitting down to eat without washing their hands, and so they complain to him that they are eating with defiled hands and are not following the traditions of the elders.
This was Jesus’ response:
Mark 7:6-12 But he answering said to them, Well did Esaias prophesy concerning you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching [as their] teachings commandments of men’. [For], leaving the commandment of God, ye hold what is delivered by men [to keep]—washings of vessels and cups, and many other such like things ye do.
And he said to them, Well do ye set aside the commandment of God, that ye may observe what is delivered by yourselves [to keep]. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, he who speaks ill of father or mother, let him surely die. But *ye* say, If a man say to his father or his mother, [It is] corban (that is, gift), whatsoever thou mightest have profit from me by… ye no longer suffer him to do anything for his father or his mother;
To get what was going on, we need to remember that according to God’s plan for the 12 tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi was not allowed to own land. They therefore could not grow crops or raise cattle to support themselves. The Levites (and the Priests descended from them) were dedicated exclusively to the work of the Temple. Thus, they depended for their livelihood on the tithes and offerings that the rest of Israel brought to the Temple.
That made voluntary gifts and free will offerings to the Temple an important kind of “good work” that any Israelite could do. Because they were voluntary, there was no Law of Moses that forced anyone to make such gifts. But, once you offered to give something to God, that offer had the weight of a vow. And all vows made to the Lord had to be honored.
Numbers 30:2 If a man vow a vow to Jehovah, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; according to all that hath gone out of his mouth shall he do.
At the same time, in that society of Jesus’ day, the children were expected to take care of their parents’ needs in their old age. In fact, Jesus interprets the fourth commandment, ‘honor thy father and mother’, to mean precisely that.
But what happens when you treat the Laws of God as if they are the rules of a game? You can use one to block another. That apparently had become an accepted practice in this case. Suppose a man’s parents had lost all their means of support. And their son owned a piece of land that he could sell to support them. If he instead dedicated the land as Corban, a gift to the Temple, then it could not be sold to help his parents.
The result, as Jesus tells the Pharisees, was that they were… making void the word of God by your traditional teaching which ye have delivered; and many such like things ye do. (Mark 7:13)
This is the fundamental problem when we treat the Law as something external, something that is outside of us… something impersonal. We reduce it to its letter so that it loses its life. It just becomes rules of a game. And ever since Adam and Eve ate from the tree of all that can be known about good and evil, we are all experts at finding loopholes in the letter of the Law.
But Jesus’ accusation goes further. Not only are we playing games with the Law, we are making up our own laws and holding them as important or more important than the Laws of God. That is the same as making ourselves to be gods.
The buck stops here… in my heart
Jesus took that opportunity of the Pharisees’ complaining about ‘eating with defiled hands’, to try to get the people to understand a key point of the New Covenant: In the Kingdom of God, the Law of God is an open book to our hearts. That’s the good news. The bad news? In the Kingdom of God, our hearts are an open book before the Law of God.
Mark 7:14-23 And having called again the crowd, he said to them, Hear me, all [of you], and understand: There is nothing from outside a man entering into him which can defile him; but the things which go out from him, those it is which defile the man. If any one have ears to hear, let him hear.
And when he went indoors from the crowd, his disciples asked him concerning the parable. And he says to them, Are *ye* also thus unintelligent? Do ye not perceive that all that is outside entering into the man cannot defile him, because it does not enter into his heart but into his belly, and goes out into the draught, purging all meats?
And he said, That which goes forth out of the man, that defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, go forth evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickednesses, deceit, licentiousness, a wicked eye, injurious language, haughtiness, folly; all these wicked things go forth from within and defile the man.
Evil doesn’t come from outside. Sin is not a hole we happen to fall into. We dig our own pits. Our hearts are the problem.
But as long as we view the Law as something external, we feel justified in telling the Law: “Hey stay out of my life… that’s none of your business!” We’ll go as far as telling God, “Hands off! I have a constitutional right to my privacy.”
Unfortunately, it’s too late for that. The Son of God already entered into the timeline of humanity. That is what we celebrate at Christmas, the birth of the Christ child. And, of him, Simeon prophesied in the Temple:
Lo, this child is set for the fall and rising up of many in Israel, and for a sign of contradiction… so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
There is no going back. In the Kingdom of God, we are all responsible for the words and deeds that flow out of our hearts. In the Kingdom of God no one can claim they “did not know”. Look at Jesus’ repeated use of the word hypocrites in another encounter with the Pharisees.
Matthew 23:23-26 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye pay tithes of mint and anise and cummin, and ye have left aside the weightier matters of the law, judgment and mercy and faith: these ye ought to have done and not have left those aside. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat, but drink down the camel. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but within they are full of rapine and intemperance. Blind Pharisee, make clean first the inside of the cup and of the dish, that their outside also may become clean.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye are like whited sepulchres, which appear beautiful outwardly, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Thus also *ye*, outwardly ye appear righteous to men, but within are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
There are a lot of people who think of Jesus as a kind and gentle, “peace to everybody”, “can’t we all learn to get along”, kind of person… a tame Jesus. That is not what comes through in passages like this. These words are rough; maybe even insulting and meant to be so. Sometimes we need a slap on the face.
Jesus is telling the Pharisees that they knew what mattered, yet they chose to set it aside. He tells them, no one can swallow a camel by accident. No one can walk around with their insides rotting with hatred, and not hear themselves spewing it out at those they deem lesser than themselves. No one can walk around pretending they are the righteous ones without seeing the contradiction between their claims and the consequences of their own words and actions.
But are we any different from those Pharisees?
The strength of the accusation stands on the contrast between the “inside” and the “outside”. The real me is that which I am on the inside. We can try to hide it from the outside world. We can even try to hide it behind the Law… by picking and choosing those external laws that we are willing to keep (while that outside world is watching.) But eventually we all slip up. Eventually, the fruit we bear testifies against us and reveals what kind of tree we really are (Matthew 7:16-20). And all that pretending is all a wasted effort anyway because the Law of the Spirit judges us on the content of our heart. And no one can hide their heart from God.
As the Jutland pastor, near the end of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, says in his sermon: “in relation to God you are always in the wrong”. This cannot be a surprise to anyone that has ever read the Bible: Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and incurable; who can know it?
Which is precisely why God put into motion His plan of Salvation from the very beginning, and promised Moses He would do the job of healing the human heart, Himself. Deuteronomy 30:6 And Jehovah thy God will circumcise thy heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love Jehovah thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.
This is why the Law of the Spirit can be fully summarized in two commandments:
Matthew 22:37-39 Thou shalt love [the] Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy understanding. This is [the] great and first commandment. And [the] second is like it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
Love, only love, can keep the Law. And love comes from the heart.
The end of all loopholes
When the Law is stated as the two great commandments, there are no loopholes possible. There is no way to try to use one law to block another. All the wisdom of man becomes useless when the letter of the Law cannot be twisted to mean other than what was intended.
In the Courtroom of the Ages, at the end of time, when all of us give account for our lives, there will be no hiding behind technicalities, there will be no claiming protection based on some other precedent; the Judgment will be clear and indisputable, as rendered by God. And that is the way it should be. Who else can be trusted to render the right judgment if not the inventor of Righteousness? And who better to guarantee that the Truth about my case is not distorted, who better to guarantee that all the relevant evidence is brought forth, than the only One who can see my heart?
Jeremiah 17:10 I Jehovah search the heart, I try the reins, even to give each one according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.
We will be judged according to our hearts. But if that is the way it is going to be in the End, why not live that way now?
The heart lives by Mercy
The letter of the Law, like Justice, is black and white. To the human mind that may seem like the best way to rule society but it will never save a human being.
You see, the fact that we all end up breaking some of its rules, and, upon so doing, immediately react instinctively to hide those failures (or find a way to justify ourselves), that fact should tell us that we are ill qualified to use that selfsame Law, that same Justice, to judge anybody else… much less to save anybody else.
Really, think about it: If the letter of the Law has not changed my heart, why would I think that I can use it to change somebody else’s heart?
The only way that my heart gets changed is by the Mercy of God. And therefore, that is the way I want to live toward everybody else in this world.
Micah 6:8 He hath shewn thee, O man, what is good, and what Jehovah requires of thee: but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.
Do Justly: Justice does have a place in my life: It must rule the choices I make for my life. If God has indeed performed that heart operation in me, if I have accepted the Spirit to live within me, then not only does God know my heart, it is also clearly revealed to me. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I can do right.
But that is where it ends. I cannot use Justice to judge the choices you make, because I cannot see your heart. Instead, I must…
Love Mercy: In every interaction I have with you and everybody else, I must act in Mercy. This is the Hebrew word Khesed, also translated in the Old Testament as lovingkindness. I must live it, in word and in deed.
In word, I must tell you how God loves you; and how everything that He has ordained in this Universe (including His Law), and every gift He has placed in your life, have all been done out of love for you. They are all good. And every circumstance in our lives He can use for good (Romans 8:28). But He knows full well what each one of us is going through. He knows that this life we live is not easy. How could it be? It isn’t the Eden He planned for us. It is precisely because of that that He created Mercy. And in that Mercy, He willingly gave up His One and Only Son to open the way of Salvation.
In deed: to love Mercy means to live by the golden rule of like-for-like: The way I wish God to treat me, in that way I will treat you. If I want to live blessed by my Father in heaven, then I must choose to actively bless every one my life touches. If I want my father to forgive my sins, then I must forgive those who sin against me. If I want to be loved by God, then I must love you like He loves me.
That is what Jesus taught us:
John 15:9-13 As the Father has loved me, I also have loved you: abide in my love. If ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love, as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have spoken these things to you that my joy may be in you, and your joy be full.
This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, that one should lay down his life for his friends.
This is what Mercy requires. What else is left?
To walk humbly with thy God: To accept that the first two (do Justly and love Mercy) are the sum total of my mission in this life. I wasn’t put here to win the Nobel prize, peace or otherwise. I wasn’t put here to save the Planet. The only reason I am here is to tell you that God loves you (with word and deed), and that He has already given His All to bring you home.
(An unnecessary disclaimer)
As I said in an earlier part, I believe one of the key differences between the New Covenant and the Old Covenant is that the New is about individual salvation, not corporate salvation. This means that my whole discussion about Justice and Mercy has been centered on how those concepts play out in my life and the choices I make as an individual Christian.
How Justice and Mercy play out in the life of a community or a society is a different discussion. I cannot evangelize a society, I can only proclaim the Gospel to individuals. To expect a society to act like individual Christians are supposed to act is an error of mixing categories. Just try to imagine what “turning the other cheek” looks like when an enemy army attacks your land.
I claim this final comment is unnecessary because anyone who has read the Gospel knows that this was Jesus’ take on the subject. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” is a statement of that principle. Paul’s advice that we respect and obey the authorities over us (even if they are pagan Roman oppressors) because they were given that position (and its associated responsibilities) by God, is also a statement of that principle.
The whole subject of the role of Christians in social justice endeavors (and the way politics folds into that) is therefore another discussion. There are many good advocates out there that can make the important, scripturally sound, points better than I can.
I only mention this because when we look at the Old Covenant and how it operated in the nation of Israel, we see an instance where the Laws of the community were the same as the Laws of the individual. But, as I have pointed out, during that time, God was visibly in charge (it was a theocracy). If you broke the Law as an individual, you knew you would have to answer to God. If another nation attacked Israel, they soon found out that God was really in charge of the battle.
That is not the way it is today.