Love and the Law

Sunday 2nd June 2013
Year C, The First Sunday after Trinity
St Giles, Shermanbury
Deuteronomy 5:1-21
Acts 21:27-39

"If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble in Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, vulgarising a passage in a 17th Century play of disputed authorship, Revenge for Honour, "the law is a ass - a idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience - by experience". And hardly a day goes by when we don't agree with Mr. Bumble to a greater or lesser extent because the law is too strict or too lenient or too long-drawn out in its proceedings, as equally famously described in Dickens' Bleak House in the case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce which is responsible for the death of the young Richard Carstone. And heaven knows what cumulative damage was done to the occupants of the Marshalsea debtors prison in Little Dorrit.

And although we may chip away and make things a little better, more elegant, more streamlined, the law is still a cobbled, ugly, edifice, the monument to our shortcomings and therefore, a permanent reproach to beauty, truth and love.

In the theological context, The Law of the Old Testament is often contrasted with love in the New Testament and although that is a valid contrast, we need to be careful because they are simply different responses to the same imperfection, the one, essentially negative, the other, essentially positive.

As an example of the negative approach to human nature represented by Law the Commandments cannot be bettered; for they are framed in the negative; they ask nothing voluntary, let alone sacrificial or heroic. The teaching of Jesus, however, particularly in John's Gospel, emphasises the voluntary, and even the heroic, in calling upon us to love one another as a way of building the kingdom, of narrowing the rift between the human and the divine. And so, although there is some good sense in the Commandments, they don't tell us very much about our Christian vocation. After all, it's easy enough to infer that people bound to God should worship; and equally easy to infer that we should not murder, commit adultery, steal, perjure ourselves or covet. But if I was to rank my top ten commandments I would be inclined to worry more about sins of omission. Most of us fall short not in what we do but in what we fail to do.

Saint Paul was both a Jew and a Christian which is why he is so torn on the issue of human behaviour; at one point he is writing the sublime hymn to love in 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 but in many other places he lists sins in an Old Testament sort of way; and all his letters bear the stamp of his legalistic Rabbinical training. That is why we find him in the Temple fulfilling a vow which he made to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost, long before the ill-humoured James enjoined Temple observance. And then Paul's ritual is broken by a lynching mob; and enter the Law in the form of the Roman military. But, try as they do in a long tradition of scrupulous adherence, the Romans can't fix this dispute between the Jews and the emergent Christians, so Paul ends up in Rome, waiting.

But for all our criticism of the Law and our Christian advocacy of love, we easily fall back into legalism because, we think, it helps to ground us in reality; but of course the more we try to refine our contracts the more open they are to challenge; the paradox of the law is that the more precise it is the less sure it is. This is why we pile law upon law upon law. In every age more law has been made than in the age before and there is no sign of abatement. Every time humanity shows yet another aspect of its imperfection we call for a new law. In the past two decades hardly a year has gone by without a new criminal justice act.

Now, conversely, love, which is dismissed by cynics as sentimental, as shifting and unreliable, is much more secure as a basis for human relations because at least we can ground our social relations in good faith. Whereas a contract is grounded on the basis that the other parties are not to be trusted, the basis for love is trust. Admittedly, that trust will often be abused, which is why love is such a painful business, but it is much surer than contract which might be why we hurt so badly when our trust is betrayed. Still, as a Christian, we have no choice but to live in unconditional love for just as we receive it from God it is our duty and our please to return that love unconditionally to God and to live it in our life with all creatures made in God's image.

Now, admittedly, you have head this said hundreds of times and wonder why hearing it once more will make any difference. Well, it might not, but have you ever looked at the subject from the perspective of the beloved, whether that person is close to us or whether it is a stranger on whom we choose to bestow love. Perhaps the best way of performing this imaginative feat is to stop thinking about love as caring and to think of it more as our openness to the other. The problem, from the beloved's perspective, with love expressed through caring is that it's a power relationship with the lover exercising power over the beloved. Love as openness, on the other hand, displays the vulnerability of the lover to the beloved; it is the true love of the powerless which models in our human relationships our love as creatures for the Creator.

In his better moments, Paul knew this but, like all of us, he found it very difficult to pull himself away from the Law of his ancestors and commit to the vulnerability of the Christian; his head knew what he had to do but his heart found it difficult to follow. As with Paul, so with us; we know the theory but the practise is extremely difficult. Still, it's better to love imperfectly than to put your faith in the law. After all, The law is, as Mr. Bumble said, an ass.