Monday, March 2, 2015

The Law and Love

One of the questions that Christians have debated for centuries is what exactly we are to do with the Law. That is, what place is there for the Old Covenant in the New Testament? 

Jesus did an amazing job of walking this line, and that's part of the problem. He knows His Jewish roots. He knows the Law well. He knows what the commandments require of Him; He knows what the faithful expect. He references these things again and again...usually while He is breaking them. 

And yet, it's not so simple as turning His back on the old commandments. Never once does He simply dismiss them; He always gives these old laws their due. He speaks of them with intelligence and respect, even when He does not intend to comply with them , and so it is important that we come to understand what this is all about. It's not enough for us to turn our backs. It's not enough for us to say that Jesus has come and the old law has passed away and none of it matters any more. It's not so simple.

There is a verse Jesus speaks that I think starts to get at the harmony of the Old and New Testaments. Although I have to admit that it's not easy to get there, even from these pointed words. He speaks these in Mark 2, after responding to a question about fasting.

John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came to Jesus and said to him, 'Why do John's disciples and the Pharisees' disciples fast, but your disciples don't?' Jesus replied, 'Can wedding guests fast while the groom is still with them? As long as they have the groom with them, they cannot fast. But the time will come when the groom will be taken away from them. Then they will fast.

'No one patches an old coat with a new piece of cloth that will shrink. Otherwise, the new patch will shrink and rip away some of the old cloth, and the tear will become worse. People don't pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the wine will make the skins burst, and both the wine and the skins will be ruined. Rather, new wine is to be poured into fresh skins.' Mark 2:18-22

Ok, so...what? What does this have to do with the old and new covenants? What does this have to do with anything? 

On the surface, it looks like another one of those riddles of Jesus, just another place where He answers in cryptic language so that only the wise can figure out what He's really trying to say. But that's not true. The three examples He uses here are so common that it's folly to think it's meant for the wise; these words are meant for the common man - the man who knows people who get married, the man who patches his beloved coat, the man who drinks wine. Today, we're only going to look at the first part. (And then, the following two - the coat and the wine - tomorrow and Wednesday.)

This idea about fasting is an old religious law. It was established before love, which means it's not even a discipline. (Discipline, of course, requires love; without love, it is mere regulation.) It's a regulation that the religious ascribe to. They fast because they have been told to fast. They fast because it is the thing they are required to do. They fast because the law dictates that they fast. 

Then Jesus says they can't fast right now. Something bigger than the law is happening, and this is not the time to fast, no matter what the regulation says. See, regulation never fit into Jesus' paradigm. Law never fit into love. Because love is build on the relationship, not the regulation. It's built on knowing one another, on trusting one another, on fellowshiping with one another. Jesus does not say the law is null and void; what He says is that the law is not meant for this space, not meant for Love. And it can't be. Not if it's meant to be Love.

What I think is interesting is that Jesus says there is still a time and a place for this law. It's...absence. It's when He's gone and missing and no one can seem to find Him that the law will come back into play. It's when He's no longer with them that the law will tell them what to do. The law will remind them how to live. And what's cool about it is that in this setting, the law is something more than it has ever been. Because the law now lives in the echoes of love, it's no longer regulation; it's discipline. It's no longer arbitrary rule; it's guidance. 

Prior to Christ, the law could never bring a man to God. It wasn't designed to. But in the mere absence of Christ - a Christ who has come, a Christ who is known - the law can point a man back to God. Prior to Christ, man follows the law because he is told to, and he is an obedient man. In the mere absence of Christ, man follows the law because he remembers, and he is a longing man.

Sometimes, sometimes God feels so distant to us. Sometimes, this man named Jesus is hard to hold onto. It's hard to understand what He means in a Twenty-First Century world. It's hard to live a faithful life, always knowing, always loving, always trusting Jesus. If we're being honest, we're being human. None of us is so close to God all the time, even if we want to be. There are times when the distance is just too great, when the gap is just too big. And when Love seems far off, we feel a little lost. 

But not totally lost. Because to some degree, we still get it. We still know what we're supposed to do or not do or when or where. Even if we've lost sight of the why. I don't have to feel the closeness of Christ to remember the value of truth and choose not to lie. Maybe it's not Love that drives me toward truth; maybe it's Law. But something brings me there, and in truth, there is Christ. I don't have to have that overwhelming understanding of the provision of God to understand that stealing is wrong. The law tells me that stealing is wrong, even when I don't understand that God has given me more than enough. But choosing not to steal, choosing to live in what I've been given, brings me to a place where I can understand what God has given me. I don't steal because the law tells me not to steal, and this choice - this discipline - brings me to a place where I can understand again what God has given me. See, the law keeps leading us back to Love. 

This is only true after the wedding. It's only true after the feast. It's only true when the groom has been taken away, when we have known Love and when it seems to be, temporarily, empty. 

And that's what Jesus is saying here. He's saying - look. All this fasting you're doing, it's not getting you anywhere. It's a rule. It's a regulation. It's empty. You have to learn Love first. That's when it starts to matter. That's when it starts to mean something. Because this thing you do - you won't do it any more just because you do it; you'll do it because it brings you back to Love. Because it brings you back to Me. 

That's the foundation of the relationship between the old covenant and the New Testament, between the Law and Love. There are, of course, dangers in that. Namely, the coat and the wine.

Stay tuned.

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