Moses & Me: Ten Simple Rules
Rev. Louis Timberlake
July 1, 2018
I have a trivia question for you this morning. If you get it right, you can have a free cup of coffee in the Gathering Space. If you get it wrong, you can still have a free cup of coffee. How many laws are in the Bible? Common tradition claims that there are 613 laws just in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Now, a tougher question. How many laws exist in the United States? More than you can count. Seriously, you probably broke a few already this morning.
We are a people of laws. Exodus and the books that come right after are, in part, the story of an early civilization defining its legal codes. I mean this is truly riveting stuff.
Now, we know that laws aren’t always perfect. We have some absurd ones in the US.
● For example, in the state of California, it is illegal to eat a frog that dies during a frog jumping contest.
● In Rhode Island, if you intentionally bite off part of someone’s body, you face one to twenty years in prison. Otherwise known as the Mike Tyson Law.
● In Kentucky, if you aspire to be a legislator, public officer, or attorney, you must sign an oath that you have never fought a duel with deadly weapons.
● In Nevada, it is illegal to use an x-ray to determine someone’s shoe size. Now, that one makes sense when you know that they used to have such a device, until we knew that a tape measure was safer than exposure to radiation.
● In Georgia, if you engage in llama-related activities, you are responsible for any personal injuries. Now, that’s a good law. Llamas are shady.
● In West Virginia, you can’t take your pet ferret hunting with you, unless you want to pay a fine. I can’t explain this one. But, I know some people from West Virginia and kind of understand why they thought they might need that one.1
It’s not just the US, some of those in scripture seem a little strange too. According to scripture, you can’t eat bacon, can’t wear clothing made of both linen and wool, and guys have to keep a full beard. Don’t get creative with the facial hair. I don’t think they had hipsters in ancient Israel.
Of course, there are good laws in scripture too. Laws to promote good health. Laws to help people to live in harmony with one another. Laws to shape a proper disposition towards God. Laws to ensure a fair justice system. Laws to create a just economy. Laws to prevent the oppression of those without wealth or power.
It is possible to read the Law of scripture and just see it as restrictive. Maybe even oppressive. We read the 613 laws and think, “Wow, God’s really into rules!” But, that’s not how the Israelites saw it. They had just gone from captivity in Egypt to freedom. But, here’s the thing. In captivity, you don’t have a lot of choice around how you live your life. When you experience freedom for the first time, you’re not sure what to do. They even asked Moses to take them back to Egypt!
I remember my first year in college when I had the realization that I could stay out as late as I wanted. I could stay up all night hanging out with friends. It was amazing. Until you realize that you’ve got to be at class at 8:30 and you’re out of unexcused absences. Freedom brings with it the responsibility to exercise wisdom.
The Israelites saw the Law as a blessing from God. As a source of wisdom for how to live, full of grace and love. Interpreting the Law was one of the most important activities you could do, because you were teaching people what it meant to live as God intended. Did you hear that, lawyers? This is a society that fully appreciated you!
We are a people of laws because it helps to order our life together. If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t make wise decisions 24/7. Some weeks, we’re lucky if we hit the 50% mark. As a kid, I had a BB gun. I had a lot of fun with that BB gun. But, I didn’t fully appreciate my parents rules around how to use my BB gun until I got hit in the face off of a ricochet. Good intentions and wise decisions don’t always go hand in hand. We are imperfect, prone to selfishness, greed, fear, pride, lust, and a whole host of other things that keep us from being our best selves. Law, as the Israelites understood it, helps us to be our best selves.
But, here’s the thing about Law. Good laws are grounded in a good vision for the community. The Law in scripture, starting with the Ten Commandments, comes immediately after God presents a vision for the people of God. This is from Exodus 19:5-6: “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
This is a compelling vision. “You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The people of God will be a “kingdom of priests,” which means that they are set apart for a special purpose. To be a beacon for the rest of the world of what is right and just. And, the People of God will be a “holy nation,” which is to say a community that reflects the holiness of God.
If you were to translate this vision into language we use, it might sound something like this: “The people of God are a light in the world, a global community that reflects the love and the justice of God.”
Vision doesn’t serve Law, Law serves Vision. The Law is, for the Israelites, how they will realize God’s vision. By following the Law, this source of wisdom, love, and grace, they will help make that vision a reality.
The problem is, people twist Law. This is one of the core issues Jesus faces. He has countless arguments with people who are experts in the Law, but they have twisted it to the point that it is no longer serving God’s vision.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan exposes this hypocrisy. Jesus tells a story of a man who was beaten by robbers and left for dead. A priest and another religious man both pass by and avoid the man. In doing so, they are obeying the Law. Touching a dead body would have made them unclean. So, by technically obeying the Law, they were sentencing a man to death. Until a Samaritan man came along and his compassion outweighs any legalism and he saves the man's’ life. That, Jesus says, is what the Law is all about. A life of wisdom, grace, and love.
That’s the litmus test. If it’s not marked by wisdom, grace, and love, then it’s not the Law of God. God’s vision for God’s people is that we are a light in the world, a global community that reflects the love and the justice of God. We are a people of laws, but, if the Law we’re following is not working towards the realization of God’s vision, then it’s not the Law of God.
Fiorello LaGuardia was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII. He was called 'the Little Flower' because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was quite the character and used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids.
One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench. A few minutes later, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told him that her daughter's husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It's a bad neighborhood, your Honor." the man told the mayor. "She's got to be punished to teach other people a lesson." LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said "I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions--ten dollars or ten days in jail."
But as he pronounced the sentence, he reached into his pocket for a ten dollar bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying: "Here is the fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant." The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to an old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege, gave the mayor a standing ovation.2
One of the most difficult things I think we face as Christians is navigating the relationship between our commitment to Christ and our participation within the political life of our given place and time in history. As followers of Christ, we have to figure out how the politics of God intersect with the politics of our day. How much does one shape the other? How do we respond when the two seem to be in tension?
This Wednesday marks the founding of our country. Foundational to our country is the separation of church and state. This is a good thing. It protects the rights of people and it protects the church. Historically, when that separation doesn’t exist, the mission and integrity of the church suffers. Too many times in history the church has become a sponsor of violence, oppression, inequality, and injustice because political ambition or the comfort of the powerful masquerades as Christian mission.
The separation of church and state allows the church to be a beacon. Something set apart. A city on a hill. A light in the darkness. But, the separation of church and state isn’t an excuse for the church to be silent in the face of injustice, because creating a more just society is a fundamental task of the people of God. The prophet Isaiah was pretty clear on this, “Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims— Laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, Exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children.”
Now, we are living in a time of heightened political sensitivity. So, I would imagine that some of you may hear this as a response to recent events. Some of you may rejoice in that, others may be angered or dismayed. The truth is, navigating these commitments is a task of the people of God in all times and places. And, if we, the church, allow ourselves to be drawn into the mire of partisanship, then we have already lost sight of God’s vision. It’s not about political affiliation or the lack thereof. There is no part of our identity more significant than child of God. Our time in this world is too short and too precious for us to let lesser identities define us. In the words of Paul, we are called to set our minds on higher things, not earthly things. We are called to be something set apart. A beacon. A people of wisdom, grace, and love.
This is a mighty tension. To be in the world but not of the world. It is a tension with which we must grapple continuously. If we stop feeling that tension, it either means Christ has returned and God’s vision is fulfilled or it means we have stopped setting our minds on higher things, on the vision that God has for us and for this world.
So what do we do with that tension? How do we respond?
● With much prayer and humility, lest our response be inconsistent with the life to which we are called.
● By remembering that our identity as children of God supersedes any other identity we might claim.
● By measuring our response against the litmus test of wisdom, grace, and love, because if it doesn’t pass that test, it is not of God.
● And, by remembering that our role is to be a beacon, set apart to create a more just society. God’s vision for God’s people is that we are a light in the world, a global community that reflects the love and the justice of God. May it be so with us.
2 Brennan Manning, The Ragmuffin Gospel, Multnomah, 1990, pp. 91-2.