The Rev. Peter Faass
Law and Order ran for twenty years (1990-2010) and I was addicted to it. The had great actors: Detective Briscoe, played by the legendary Jerry Orbach, was the cool, levelheaded precinct captain; S. Epatha Merkerson played Anita Van Buren; and Sam Waterston played the righteous district attorney, Jack McCoy.
In seminary, we had a Law and Order night in the student lounge, where 20 or so people would watch the program. Since Law and Order often filmed scenes at General Theological Seminary, we seminarians had a vested interest in supporting the show!
What drew me most to the program was the characters’ passion to enforce the law and bring violators to justice. Law and Order did not always provide a sweet ending to every episode, where the bad guys paid the price and the good guys rode off into the sunset. Sometimes, the law represented by the police, and the order represented by the court system, did not succeed in their endeavors to prosecute wrongdoing. The bad guys sometimes got away with it. This never deterred the good guys, who doubled their efforts to do better the next time. They were committed to justice.
The readings from Leviticus and Matthew’s Gospel this morning focus on the topic of law and order in earlier times.
Leviticus is one of the five books of Moses (the Torah), which contain the law as given by God. The Torah has 613 commandments. These laws cover every aspect of human life, providing order in the Hebrews’ lives after they left slavery in Egypt, wandered in the Sinai desert and began to coalesce as a people. The law was especially intended to help define the people who had been chosen by God as witnesses to just and righteous living. This intent was clarified when Moses relayed God’s directions to the people, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
As the Hebrews entered the Promised Land, they encountered numerous pagan cultures engaged in a lot of less-than-holy living. While the law provided order to people’s lives, it also ideally prevented the Jews from engaging in behaviors that would diminish their relationship with God and His desires for them. If the law commanded one way of behaving for Hebrews, it was because the pagan culture was engaging in its opposite.
Today’s passage in Leviticus centers on God’s desire for just behavior:
You will not harvest your entire field or vineyard when the crops are ripe, but rather you shall leave a portion of the harvest for the poor and the alien so they will not starve.
You shall not steal, lie or deal falsely with another person.
You shall not defraud.
You shall not hold back equitable wages from a laborer.
You shall honor the disabled.
You will not slander. You shall not hate. You shall not take vengeance on one another.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
These laws were intended to hold the disorder of pagan ways at bay, guiding the Hebrews toward a just way of life. To follow these commandments is what it means to be holy like God.
You will notice that all these laws require compassionate behavior toward others. Because of that, we might rephrase God’s directive to, “You shall be compassionate, as I the Lord God am compassionate.” Through God’s compassionate love, life is given order and its ultimate value.
This awareness of the life-giving quality of practicing God’s compassionate law compels the psalmist to sing,
“Incline my heart to your decrees
and not to unjust gain.
Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless;
give me life in your ways.” (Ps. 119:36-37)
Laws, whether religious or secular, can become rigid, applied unevenly, or used for nefarious purposes. We can lose the spirit of the law if we apply it too stringently – and make ourselves less compassionate toward those the law is meant to serve.
Jesus addressed this issue in his time. Recall his healing of the disabled man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees and scribes, rigid followers of the law, criticized him for doing so, believing it violated the command to do no work on the Sabbath.
Jesus notes their hypocrisy, telling them that if one of their farm animals would had fallen down a well on the Sabbath, they certainly would rescue it, regardless of the work prohibition. They still believed humans needed to suffer, so they remained obedient to a rigid application of the law.
Jesus said that this application of the law was cruel and inhumane, defying God’s intent and contravening the law to honor those who were disabled and in great need. This rigid, selective application of God’s law by those in power was chronic in Jesus’ time, which negatively affected the weakest, sickest, poorest and most vulnerable in society.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (of which today’s passage is a part) is a blueprint of what God’s reign will be, which is law and compassion toward all God’s people, especially those who have been violated by egregious, unholy, applications of the law. Jesus tells his followers that addressing this egregious behavior and following the authentic application of God’s laws will allow God’s reign will come.
Jesus said we must bend over backwards to be compassionate in all circumstances. We must love those who hate and persecute us, even though the law says it’s legitimate to hate them back. By using a compassionate application of the law, we engage in behavior that makes us holy, as God is holy.
We find our current circumstances to be frighteningly similar to those of earlier times. We see a rise of elected leaders who do not desire to apply law with compassion, thereby creating deprivation and hardship. These same leaders are increasingly attempting to dismantle laws that are intended to serve the needy and most vulnerable in society. This is nothing less than a return to pagan behaviors where God’s law is not relevant.
Last week in the reading from Deuteronomy, Moses gives God’s law to the people, and he tells them,
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live . . . I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.” (Deut. 30; 15-16a, 19b)
In God’s realm, true, meaningful, holy life is achieved by following the law of compassion. This leads to holiness – and to be holy is to be blessed.
Jesus said we are blessed when we hunger and thirst for righteousness for all God’s children. We are blessed when we are persecuted and reviled and have those who believe otherwise utter all kinds of evil things against us when we resist their pagan behaviors as we exercise God’s compassionate ways in the world.
In this blessedness, we become a light shining in the darkness, allowing all to see the holiness of God reflected through us and calling others to be this light as well.
Sisters and brothers, many of God’s people are crying out for the compassionate law of God; which is love. In our Collect we prayed, “without love whatever we do is worth nothing.”
When we reflect God’s love in our lives, it is worth everything! Let us proclaim God’s love by both our word and deed, being a brilliant light of love, and banishing the darkness. When we do, we will have chosen life, which is worth everything.