Playing Games with the Law
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was younger, during the summers I had a job as a lifeguard at a day camp. It was an interesting job, and often fun, but as anyone who’s been a lifeguard knows, it was mostly about enforcing the rules. One of the rules was that when a group came to the pool, they had to swim. Otherwise, with all the counselors and lifeguards focused on the water, the campers could get into all sorts of trouble or get injured in the woods around the pool.
And, as anyone who’s ever worked with children knows, there’s always one—that kid—in every group. The one who likes to test the waters, push the envelope. That one showed up one day, determined to test the limits of the rules. He refused to even change into his swimwear. But because camp rules were that everyone at the pool had to be in the pool, even if it was just feet dangling in from the edge, I announced that everyone had to put on their swimsuits. He silently went into the changing stall and came out in his trunks and then sat on the deck. I asked what he was doing and he said, “You only said we had to change. You never said anything about getting in the water.” Only after I told him he had to get in the water did he do it, even if it was only his big toe, which he was very obvious in showing to me that was all he was going to do.
“Do I have to?” “How much do I have to do?” “How long does this paper have to be?” “What’s the latest deadline I have to follow?” These are questions that not only teens who want to push the envelope ask. They’re questions that we all ask. Or, to formulate it the way the Pharisees in our Gospel reading for today did, “Is it lawful?” All of us—Pharisee, surly teenager, or middle-class suburbanite—all want to know exactly how closely we have to follow the rules. It comes up all the time in Bible study and confirmation class: “It is a sin if I…fill in the blank?” And then we get into the possible exceptions: “But what if it’s because of this? Or because I can’t do that?” The old fallen nature in us is looking for the minimum goodness we have to achieve. Or, barring that, we want to know the loopholes so that we can get out of trouble. You know, just in case.
The Pharisees wanted to push their question to Jesus as far as they possibly could in our reading today. “Is it lawful”—notice how that one starts—Is it allowed? Is it a sin if do it or not?—“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Notice though, that this isn’t just an innocent or curious question. Mark tells us that they came up and in order to test Jesus asked this question. Now the Pharisees had a couple of resources to pull from here. Depending on how Jesus answered, or how they felt about the topic, they had some rabbis that said absolutely not, that it was not lawful for a man to divorce his wife at all. They had others that said that yes, a man could divorce his wife for any reason he wished: If she was unfaithful, or she couldn’t bear children, or was a bad cook. So no matter how Jesus answered the question, they had an answer to throw back in His face. They could take him down with exceptions, or what other rabbis said, or some other loophole.
Why do the Pharisees ask such questions? Why do we ask questions like this? Why do we want to know the minimum amount that we have to keep the Law, follow the rules? Why do we want to prove that we have an answer, or at least a loophole or exception or good reason, for when we don’t keep it? Why do we sit on the deck and tell the lifeguard, “You only said that we had to change,” when we know what the spirit of the Law is?
The reason why is that we are hardwired, due to our fallen nature, to justify ourselves. We want to prove to God, or the world, or to ourselves, that we’re doing OK, that our status is just fine. We want to show that anytime we’ve done something bad, or harmful, or against the commandments, or against the spirit of the Law, that we had a good reason to do it, and so we can’t be held accountable for it. “Is it lawful if I don’t give to charity or the church?” “Is it OK if I don’t go to hear God’s Word and receive His body and blood in Communion?” “Is it a sin if I live my life like everyone else, so that I don’t stand out as one of those weird Christians?” We ask these questions because we’re testing Jesus, to see if He’ll actually say that we’re in the wrong, that there’s something about our lives that needs to change, that we need to actually confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean, that we have sinned against Him in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.
Here’s the trouble though: whenever we want to play that game—the “Is it lawful?” game, the “Is it a sin if I…fill in the blank?” game—we’re asking a Law question. We’re asking a Ten Commandments question. And the Ten Commandment are written in stone—unyielding, hard-edged, unbending, unmerciful stone. So when the Pharisees ask if it’s lawful (there’s that Law question) for a man to divorce his wife, Jesus answers them with the stone tablets of the Law: “What does Moses command you?” Aha, now they have their loophole. They pounce. “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” They had their loophole.
But the Pharisees—and we—should know that we can’t win if we’re going to play Law games with the One who actually wrote the Law. Jesus explains, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses wrote you that commandment, the exception, what you think is a loophole.” The hammer drops. It’s because of hardness of heart that these loopholes—that any of the loopholes we look for—exist. It’s because rather than asking God for forgiveness for what we’ve done, we’d rather try to force Him to declare us guiltless. It’s because we want to wrench righteousness out of His hand, we want to prove that we’re so good all on our own, that we’re doing fine, that we’re holy and pure, it’s because we want to prove that we’re all those things all on our own that we even search for loopholes in the first place. It’s because of hardness of heart that we try to play Law games.
But when we try to play Law games we lose. And we lose badly. Jesus shows the Pharisees that although there might be loopholes in the Law of Moses, that it was never meant to be that way. “But from the beginning of creation,” He says, “‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
This makes us uncomfortable, and it should. We don’t like accepting that we’ve lost the Law games. But it’s a good thing when we do accept that we’ve lost. Because only when we recognize that we’ve lost at trying to be holy all on our own through the Law can we realize that we must be made holy in some other way. Jesus doesn’t want the Pharisees to prove their righteousness through loopholes and exceptions. He doesn’t want us to prove how good we are through those things either. In fact, He doesn’t want us to prove to God how good we are through the Law at all. So the answer lies not in what is lawful, or allowed, or in loopholes, or exceptions, or what ifs or anything of that ilk. The answer is somewhere else entirely.
Look at where Jesus goes immediately after this lesson. “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And here’s the key: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Children, especially little children, don’t try to justify their place in the household. They feel no need to justify the fact that they have bedrooms and a chair at the dinner table. They don’t worry about paying rent on their cribs or race car beds. They simply receive their parents’ care and love because of who they are and because of who their parents are. They receive it freely, without worrying about those Law questions or proving themselves worthy or in finding loopholes, or showing that they’ve kept enough of the house rules to stick around.
Learn from this. You are not justified by how well you keep the Law. You are not justified by the loopholes or exceptions you can find. You are justified by Jesus. You have a place in your Father’s house because Jesus paid for it on the cross with His own life, with His body and blood. He faces the Law and keeps it in your place. He doesn’t worry about loopholes because He does all things perfectly, and He does it on your behalf. He takes away every accusation, all the ammunition it could ever have against you. It’s not because of how good you’ve been, or how you can prove that it was really OK when you didn’t keep the Commandments. It’s because of Jesus, the ultimate Good, who forgives you, who makes you clean, who makes you pure, who makes you perfect.
And being made perfect, you now want to make your Father in heaven happy. You do that by keeping his house rules. But when you fall short, turn back to the cross. Don’t play the Law game. Don’t make excuses or search for exceptions to the Law. Don’t play games at all with your God. Look only to Jesus and His cross. That’s the only shield, the only righteousness you’ll ever need. Be His child and come to Him again. In the name of Jesus, who is our Righteousness, Amen.