Happy are they whose way is blameless! who walk in the law of the Lord!
For somebody who grew up on (what was taught as) Paul’s view of the Jewish Law, the love fest in this morning’s lessons is a bit hard to take. If you are reading along in the lessons for the daily offices, we heard Paul in one of his other epistles:
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? … The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? … Does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:1-5) If that weren’t enough, this child of the sixties and seventies “knows” full well that anything connected with law, cops, judges, and the lot are all corrupt. (Fortunately, I’ve grown up since then.)
What is this law that our lessons seem to be so excited about, this law that seems to be so much about who the people of God really are?
Law as relationship/covenant
The author of the Psalm this morning wrote the longest poem in the entire Bible—176 stanzas. It’s made up of groups of eight stanzas beginning with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet: eight stanzas beginning with aleph, eight stanzas beginning with beth, and so on, all way to shin and tav. Each stanza is built around a synonym for the law. This morning we read the first—the aleph—section. 176 stanzas. The great love song, the Canticle of Canticles or Song of Solomon is only 104 stanzas long. What kind of religion is this that wrote a poem, half again as long as its most significant paean to a lover, to the LAW?
I know a lot of lawyers, and good ones who really care about the law, but I don’t think one of them could write anything longer than a limerick or a haiku to the Revised Code of Washington. What is going on here?
For an observant Jew of the centuries close to Jesus’s time the law isn’t just a bunch of accumulated rules that you have to keep; the law is the description of a relationship with God.
In other words, Psalm 119 really is the longest love poem in scripture. Listen the words the poet used for law in this section and the verbs which animate the relationship:
walk – in the way
seek God’s decrees
embrace – the commandments
hold on – to the statutes
adore – the commandments
thank – God for judgments
cherish – the decisions
This poet isn’t talking about the latest thing he read on LexisNexis. He’s writing how he loves God and how he sees God structuring the love life between them.
You see, for the Psalmist, the law is much more like the “rule” that my spouse Lorelette and I have that we go out for dinner at a nice restaurant on our wedding anniversary. Why do we have such a “rule”? It’s not to make us spend time together. It’s so we can’t complain to each other about how much it cost when we went to Canlis for our 40th Anniversary (or to Chez Panisse for our 30th).
God’s Law, our lessons this morning tell us, is not about how little we can get away with, but rather give us a vision of how a relationship with God can express its abundance. Our collect this morning puts it this way: “that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed.”
Law as word
Law is not just a relationship, it is revelation. The law tells us what the God with whom we are in relationship is like. The law, the torah is God’s revelation. It is the revelation of a God who calls us to choose, to act, who does not constrain us:
God has placed before you fire and water
Stretch out your hand for whichever you choose
Before each person are life and death and whichever one chooses will be given
And yet it is also a God who gives Godself to us in the Son, Jesus Christ; it is a God who gives Godself to us in bread and wine; it is a God who gives Godself to us in words of challenge and forgiveness. The God of the Law is the God who in the words of “Immortal, Invisible” (Hymn 423), is
Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light, nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might: thy justice, like mountains high soaring above, thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.
This true law is something we can love; more importantly, it is someone who can challenge us to live, not a merely “good people” but a people who live in the impossible good of a Jesus who demands that we be reconciled with each other before we offer our gift at the altar.
This true law is Jesus in last week’s gospel: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And that “fulfill” is not to tick off all 613 of the mitzvot or commandments in the torah, but make them spill over with joy! Jesus proclaims a law that is beyond impossible, a law that demands that we chop off our hands or rip out our eyes if we can’t keep it—but then gives us the help of God’s grace, because in Jesus, this law is already completed for us as we walk in God’s commandments. Syrach tells us:
Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.
Jesus has already chosen us into life, for this God we worship is “the strength of all who put their trust in God.”
Law as worship
The great commentary on the Jewish law is the Talmud. The very first tractate of the Talmud—and thus the book on which the following thirty or so volumes are based is titled Berakhot. Berakhah means “blessing”—really “blessing, and glory, and praise, and thanksgiving” as the saints around the throne sing in the book of Revelation. Keeping the law is thus, at its very core, worship, and to to worship in full abundance is finally and definitively to keep the law.
Happy are they who observe his decrees * and seek him with all their hearts!
Jesus, in today’s gospel, tells us: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” The law is relationship—be reconciled to your brother and sister—but do not let it stop there! The overflowing of the law, the full-filling of the law is the reconciled community offering its gift of the realized law on the altar.
The Law: God’s 176 stanza love poem to us
The Law: our response to the love letter
The Law: a life lived in harmony with God
The Law: come be reconciled to your brothers and sisters, come bring your gift, come, eat, drink, and be made one with Christ’s over-filled full-fillment of relationship with God, come, walk in the way of the Lord.
“that in keeping God’s commandments we may please God both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”