The Spirit of the Law

Our second reading was from the Merchant of Venice. In the Merchant of Venice, Shylock, the ‘miserly Jew’, lends some money on the condition that if the debt is not paid in time Shylock is to receive a literal ‘pound of flesh’. When the inevitable happens, and the indebted fails to pay, Shylock demands that he receive what he is due: his literal ‘pound of flesh’. The reading we had is what follows; the lawyer speaks upon the virtues of mercy. The lawyer tries to reason with Shylock, then the lawyer goes on and tries to offer an alternative - don’t take the pound of flesh, take money instead. And Shylock refuses. He demands justice, he demands that the letter of the law is followed, he demands his ‘pound of flesh’.

The Letter of the Law vs. the Spirit of the Law is a recurring theme throughout Shakespeare. More often than not, he who insists upon the letter of the law is the villain. It is the villain, the strong man, who justifies his intolerance by appealing to the letter of the law. He can play his hand like so: I understand the trouble of the poor man, I feel compassion towards the poor man, but the law is the law, my hands are tied, I am bound to act accordingly. Much evil has been wrought in this manner. This logic has hampered our compassion, and diminished our humanity.

 Henry Irving as Shylock

Henry Irving as Shylock

The tension between the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law, is of critical importance when we think about our Judeo-Christian religious lineage. Much of it can be understood through the lens of this simple dichotomy. The tension between following the spirit of the law as opposed to the letter of the law is a recurring theme. Throughout our long history, in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, throughout early Church History, during the Reformation with all that splintering of denominations, and into modern church history, letter vs. spirit of law has come up again and again.

A classic example of this is in the Old Testament. When the Ten Commandments are given, Moses says ‘the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female slave, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns’. But how far should one take that commandment? And what constitutes work? If someone is sick, for example, is it okay to care for them; does that not constitute work?

Of course this question for us today is absurd, it only begins to make sense when you put yourself in the mind of a first century Jew striving to uphold the letter of God’s Law. Then this becomes a very real concern.  In Jesus’ ministry, his revolutionary religious message was that the Spirit of the Law should take precedence over the Letter of the Law. It was a conflict that Jesus came up against repeatedly throughout his ministry, upsetting a lot of people in the process.

One such example relates to Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath. As an aside; we know Jesus is purported to have been a miracle worker. Thinking, as we do today, in rationalistic, scientific terms, it’s difficult to know what to do with this claim. First of all, it should be recognised that in bronze age society, this was not a particularly unique claim. There were many contemporaries of Jesus about which similar claims were made. So all we really know is that some people claimed personally, subjectively, to have been “healed”. And that tells us very little. All we can really take from that is the fact that being in Jesus’ presence was a life affirming experience. It made people feel good about themselves, they could be released from physiological baggage, and destructive self-images. That is what it is to encounter Jesus.

So, Jesus is being carefully watched. It’s the Sabbath, the day of rest, and Jesus is being tested by the Pharisees (the strict Jewish Law Keepers) to see if he will break the Mosaic Law, and work on the Sabbath. Jesus, in effect, is placed into a black and white scenario. A suffering man is brought before him: should he heal the man, or should he not heal him? In typical Jesus fashion he subverts the encounter back on those trying to test him by asking them a question: “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” They don’t answer. And Jesus heals the man who is brought before him. Ultimately this comes down to compassion trumping rules or customs, and that can be really difficult for people. Breaking with tradition, breaking with the norm, breaking with protocol, breaking the law, for the sake of love and compassion.

Our first reading this morning was the story of the good Samaritan. It is generally understood in this way: the first two men who walk by, the priest and the Levite, don’t help, so they’re the baddies. But the Samaritan, he shows compassion and helps the man who has been attacked, going above and beyond in caring for him, and so we should be like the Samaritan, not like the priest or the Levite. And that would be fine, that is a worthwhile message, but the story is much more cutting and controversial than that. So let’s take it from the beginning and do some Biblical exegesis on this passage, because it’s quite an interesting one…

It begins, again, with an expert of the law trying to test Jesus. An expert of the Law in this context, is not an expert of judicial law, but biblical law, an expert of the Old Testament, and all the laws therein, and all the laws extrapolated from it. His initial question is ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ It’s funny that this expert of the law would refer to Jesus as a ‘teacher’. It’s most likely that the expert of the law is taking the piss a bit… “O most learned one, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He’s mocking him, ‘you think you can school me? Oh this is going to be good, please do go on…’

Jesus turns the question back on him. ‘You’re an expert in the Law. Why don’t you tell us?’ And so he gives the textbook answer. He sums up the Old Testament in this way, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” – quoting Deuteronomy chapter 6. And “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Quoting Leviticus 19. The expert of the Law is saying it all comes down to Love of God and Love of Neighbor.

Now it is interesting that the expert of Law actually answered the question Jesus posed. Most of time when Jesus asks questions to those testing him, he is met with silence and more anger. Like the example I spoke of earlier, ‘would you not pull your son out a pit on the Sabbath’? And so now it’s the expert of law’s chance to ask his follow up question: ‘Who is my neighbor?’. And so what follows is a rare occurrence. Jesus liked to make his point by telling stories, by telling parables, and throughout the New Testament whenever Jesus told one of his parables, he was almost always talking to his disciples, or some other followers of his. But here the expert of the Law has shown his willingness to actually engage with Jesus. So he, despite not being a follower of Jesus, is told a parable, the Parable of the good Samaritan, as an answer to the question - Who is my neighbor?

Now to us, this question has an obvious answer, your neighbor is everyone and anyone in need. But the expert of the law is not asking this question in general terms. He is asking it in light of the passages he had already referenced, namely Leviticus 19 from where he quoted “Love your neighbor as yourself”, because there it is not clear who one’s neighbor is. To quote it directly, Leviticus 19 verse 18 reads ‘You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD’. The original command then to ‘Love your neighbor’ in Leviticus was in reference to your own kin, other Jewish people.  But Leviticus goes on, Leviticus 19 verse 33 says ‘The stranger who stays with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God’. So here we have a Letter of the Law vs. Spirit of the Law debate. The letter of the law is that one’s neighbor is just your kin, but the spirit of Leviticus 19 as a whole points towards one’s neighbor also being the ‘aliens’, the non-Israelites, the immigrant, everyone!

So, the expert of the law asks ‘Who is my neighbor?’ and Jesus gives The Parable of the Good Samaritan. It begins with a man making his way from Jerusalem to Jericho – two Jewish cities. We can assume then that the man in question is a Jew. If he’s travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho we might also assume he was visiting the Temple, he was there to worship God and now he’s heading back home. On his way he is attacked by robbers, who strip him, beat him, take everything from him, and, the passage says, leaves him half-dead. Then coming down the same road is a priest. He sees what looks like a corpse; he does not investigate further, he passes by on the other side of the road, he gives a wide berth. And then a Levite comes down the road and does exactly the same thing.

Why do they do this? Scholars point to a couple of different possibilities. It is most probably to do with Jewish Purity Laws. Coming into contact with a corpse makes you spiritually unclean, meaning, amongst other things, you would not be allowed to enter the Temple without undergoing spiritual cleansing. In other words, the laws and customs of their religion closed down the option of showing compassion. And then enters the Samaritan. Who were the Samaritans? The Samaritans were a reviled people. Enemies of the Israelites. Essentially this is an issue of racism; the norm would have been to hold racist views against the Samaritans. But despite our being naturally reviled by this people, it is a Samaritan who stops to offer care. It is the Samaritan who shows compassion. Not only does he care for the stranger, he pays the medical bills too, paying for him to stay on at an inn, until he is made well.

Here’s the odd thing – in the eyes of the Levite and the Priest, they didn’t do anything wrong. You can imagine the Priest’s inner dialogue. ‘Is he dead? Probably. Someone should really see to him. I am late to the Temple, I am needed at the Temple, I have important work to do at the Temple’. He could not even consider stopping. If he stopped, and this lifeless body was indeed dead, that would be it. He would certainly not reach the Temple today. He would need to turn around and make the long journey back home, to undergo the necessary ritual washing. He cannot do that: he has a duty to the people at the Temple. He has a duty to God. And yet, we know, that the priest’s insistence upon following the letter of the law makes him the villain of this parable.

In a lot of fiction, the baddies, the villains, are through and through bad, always seeking to further their own dastardly ways. Take Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, there is some development of his character to justify his wickedness, his insistence upon that ‘Pound of flesh’, but not much. He is a pretty straight forwardly bad guy. A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch, and a cut-throat dog. But in the real world things of course are not so black and white. No one knowingly plays the villain. The shift Jesus is suggesting, from a Letter of the Law stance to a Spirit of the Law stance releases us to follow the way of love as it makes sense in everyone’s specific context. Whereas principles, or a strict adherence to some law, or your own code, puffs you up, and blinds you from seeing the most loving way which is right before you.

So I’ll end by saying:

The steadfast man knows of duty, he knows of honour, he knows of sacrifice. The sacrifice of doing the “right” thing, even when it’s not so kind, not so appealing. The steadfast man will wage a war for a good that difficult to see. You can always depend upon the steadfast man.

O he’ll keep the ship straight and true – no storm will turn the steadfast man. Not a tempest, nor even the rocks ahead will alter his mind. He’ll battle on, when all else have stopped, and he’ll lead the fight, when there’s no one to lead. You can always depend upon the steadfast man.

He has a destination, and his principles lead the way, no tear can break through. It’s the big picture you see, it’s hard but true. O the steadfast man is an arrogant man, in the end, he knows he’s right whether you grasp it or not. You can always depend upon the steadfast man.