Commentary for the May 24, 2014 Sabbath School Lesson
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Romans 8:1-4, NIV
Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t need prisons or jails? I ask this living in the country that has the highest percentage of its population behind bars of any country in the world.[i]Apparently we are far from that goal, perhaps due to a seemingly never-ending “War on Drugs.”
After several decades of this war, battle fatigue seems to be setting in. Some states like Washington and Colorado have legalized marijuana use, while other states still hand down life sentences for involvement with the same drug.[ii] Maybe there is a corollary to Prohibition. That fiasco did not eliminate the problems created by alcohol and arguably exacerbated them by providing fertile ground for organized crime syndicates to thwart the ban. After Prohibition ended, those syndicates then were able to take the knowledge gained from Prohibition and create markets for all manner of illegal activities, among them the current drug trade. To be sure, there are from time to time high profile arrests, but the numbers who escape detection and continue the trade are legion. Complicating law enforcement efforts further, some of those high-profile individuals seem to be able to continue to run their enterprises from behind prison bars. Perhaps a proliferation of laws is not the panacea some would have us believe it to be.
The problem with laws is that once they are established, a decision needs to be made about what to do with those who do not obey them. Of course in the best of all possible worlds, everyone would obey those laws. However, Voltaire’s “Candide” revealed how ridiculous the “best-of-all-possible-worlds” scenario is. In reality, and borne out by history as in Prohibition and the War on Drugs, scofflaws are far from uncommon. Some will completely ignore the laws, some will weigh the risk and decide that the benefits of crime outweigh the penalties, and still others will engage in all manner of immoral and unethical practices while being careful to never meet the literal definition of breaking the law. In short, laws do not have the power to make bad people good. An argument might be made that they tend to keep honest people honest, but even that may be challenged when an otherwise good, law-abiding citizen must make the decision between obeying the law while watching their loved ones suffer and die from disease or starvation or committing a crime that promises to provide the means to save them. Such a character was beautifully illustrated in Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.” Sent to prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving children, his life was one long struggle to redeem himself in spite of the forceful attempts of the law to bring him down and return him to prison.
Little has changed since Hugo published “Les Misérables” in 1862. Modern Jean Valjean’s still struggle with an often vengeful and relentless justice that would prefer they never again enter society, even for non-violent crimes. Will Foster of California might be an good example.[iii] Arrested for a marijuana violation in Oklahoma, he was imprisoned there until he was paroled. After completing the conditions for his parole and relocating to California, he was arrested for marijuana charges in that state and held in jail for over a year even though he was never sentenced and the case was dismissed, then Oklahoma decided to bring him back to their state to serve more time as the perfectly legal medicinal marijuana growing he was involved in in California was considered a violation of his parole back in Oklahoma. One might ask how justice was served to incur the great expense of extradition, transportation of an individual from California back to Oklahoma, and incarceration, especially when that incarceration was only for a few months before he was released to return to California. Common sense sometimes seems in short supply when enforcement of the law is at stake, and justice loses its proper relationship with compassion.
Why is all of this relevant to us as Christians? Perhaps because as Christians, we seem to be peculiarly susceptible to this kind of legalistic vindictiveness. Maybe it harks back to all the laws of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. After all, if God handed down the Ten Commandments written on stone to Moses to share with the people, then law must be what it’s all about. Obey the law. God is happy. Everything is copacetic. This however, ignores the reality of the Old Testament wherein everyone, from highest to lowest, fell short in the end. Even Moses, the proud herald of those stone codices failed to measure up and was denied entrance to the Promised Land.[iv] Some might have expected that at this point, the vast crowd of law-breakers would have given up and pled for mercy, but no, far from it. Instead they decided they needed more laws.
The original laws had been few and simple, perhaps only two: love God[v] and love your neighbor.[vi] However, when sin continued to be a problem, they were expanded in detail and number to ten rules. But because the law was powerless to change basic human nature, the number of statutes continued to expand, and this has been the case ever since. In spite of its failures, no one appears ready even now to simply surrender to the hopelessness that the Law condemns us all to and plead for mercy and grace. Instead we multiply rules, continuing to believe that is the answer. In the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, we have officially multiplied them to twenty-eight from the ten of the Decalogue.[vii] The twenty-eighth (actually counted as number eleven ???) was added as recently as 2005. However, the obedience still is not sufficient for some so there are often attempts to reword the beliefs to remove any possible wiggle room. A current attempt focuses on inserting language in “Fundamental Belief Number Six” to require belief in literal 24-hour days and seven literal days for the Creation Story in Genesis, chapter one. Those who wish to make this change appear to want to be able to point to someone else and say “You are not an Adventist, but I am, and here’s the proof,” while referencing this belief document.
Sadly for those who wish to enforce such legalistic codes, and that is the only purpose of laws is to accuse and condemn, they are no more innocent of law violations than those they wish to impale[viii] on these standards. How do we know this? Paul made it plain in his letter to the Romans when he wrote that everyone is a sinner, a lawbreaker.[ix] There were others who saw this before Paul. Jeremiah felt that becoming righteous through our efforts to obey was as impossible as an Ethiopian changing his skin color.[x] Isaiah taught that all such efforts would be as worthless as filthy rags.[xi]
The Law was never intended to make us become obedient by increasing our efforts to become obedient. Instead, its only purpose is to show us how disobedient we are and how impossible it is to obey. Our very natures are against it. As long as we continue to struggle to obey, we keep alive the idea that we can do it and that somehow our efforts will be successful, resulting in our winning through to salvation. But that thought is deceptive as no human effort can give us salvation. It took a superhuman effort to accomplish that. When Jesus died upon the cross, He took our struggle upon Himself. He replaced complete impossibility and despair with hope and promise. But there is a catch. We cannot receive that hope until we finally give up on ourselves and admit that no matter how much we multiply rules, no matter what efforts we make to force ourselves to obey, we are powerless to change who and what we are.
It may be easier to use the rules to point to someone else and say, “At least I am not as bad as that person. Look where they are breaking the rules.” But if we do so, we condemn ourselves as lawbreakers as well for judgmental failure to love our neighbor and apply the same remedy to them that we also need, not more laws, not more obedience, but surrender and grace. These and only these, by the love of Christ, are able to take us into the kingdom.
[i] "List of countries by incarceration rate," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_incarceration_rate
[iii] "Ten worst sentences for marijuana-related crimes," http://www.salon.com/2012/10/29/ten_worst_sentences_for_marijuana_related_crimes/
[iv] Numbers 20:1-12
[v] Deuteronomy 6:5
[vi] Leviticus 19:18
[vii] "28 Fundamental Beliefs," http://www.adventist.org/fileadmin/adventist.org/files/articles/official-statements/28Beliefs-English.pdf
[viii] Interestingly the Greek word often translated as “devil,” διάβολος, literally means “one who thrusts through or impales with his spear.” Perhaps we should consider whose work we are doing when we impale others on the law.
[ix] Romans 3:10,23
[x] Jeremiah 13:23
[xi] Isaiah 64:6