Summary: We all focus far too much on the things that make churches different rather than the faith that makes us all one in Christ.
My Cousin Louie 6-24-07
I think we all know what it means to follow the “letter of the law.” It means you do exactly what you are told to do, no more, no less. And, often, when we tell somebody to do something, especially someone who works for us, we expect them to do it exactly as we told them. And, that can lead to some problems. I ran across a story about a man named Tommy Bolt. He’s a hall of fame golfer who won the U.S. Open in 1958 and, while he was playing pro golf, he was known to have a fiery temper. The story goes that Bolt was playing a tournament in Los Angeles and he had a caddy who had a reputation of being rather talkative. Before they teed off, Bolt told him very sternly, “Don’t say a word to me. And if I ask you something, you just answer yes or no. Do you understand me?” The caddy nodded yes. During the round, Bolt hit a shot that wound up in some trees. He found a ball right next to a large oak. He got down on his knees and looked through the trees and sized up the shot. He saw that he was going to have to hit under a branch and over a lake to hit the green. He looked over to his caddy and asked, “What do you think?” “Five-iron?” “No, Mr. Bolt,” the caddy said. “What do you mean, not a five-iron?” Bolt fired back. “Watch this shot.” The caddy rolled his eyes, “No, Mr. Bolt.” But Bolt hit it and the ball went under the branch, over the lake and stopped about two feet from the hole. He turned to his caddy, handed him the five-iron and said, “Now what do you think about that? You can talk now.” The caddy finally got to say what he had to bottle up the entire time, “Mr. Bolt, that wasn’t your ball.” (Crossroads, Issue No. 7, pp. 15-16 from http://net.bible.org/illustration.php?topic=874) I’m sure Tommy Bolt was furious. But, his caddy was only following the letter of the law that he himself laid down.
Following the letter of the law is very comforting for some people. They like having a set of rules to follow so that there is no question as to what is right or wrong— no question as to what is permissible or forbidden. Many faith traditions offer that sense of comfort to their supporters. They offer a set of dogmas, creeds and confessions that help the believer know what to believe— that help the believer figure out exactly where they are supposed to stand on certain issues of theology or scripture or style of worship. But as I was reading this scripture, I remembered a conversation I had with a coworker back when I worked for D.H. Holmes in New Orleans— long before God called me into the ministry. His name was Louis J. Piazza. You can surmise from his name that he was of Italian ancestry, and you would be correct. Louis was very Italian and, in many, many ways, he reminded me of Joe Pesci. In case you don’t know who that is, Joe Pesci is an actor known for playing very over the top Italian characters— more like caricatures or stereotypes. He played in a lot of mob movies like Goodfellas, Casino, and Once upon a Time in America. But he also did comedies like The Super and My Cousin Vinny— he’s a very funny guy. Louis reminded me of that comedic Joe Pesci. Louis too was a very funny guy— sort of like My Cousin Louie. But, one day we were sitting around the store talking when the subject turned to religion, Louie was a devout Catholic, and he said something that really stuck with me over the years. He said, “It’s not religion that sets you free; it’s faith.” I don’t know if he knew it at the time, but I think Louie nailed the overall theme of this scripture passage. The dogmas and creeds and confessions that human beings devise for their particular religions really do very little to bring us closer to God. It is faith that opens our eyes and our hearts to the joy that is to be found in a relationship with God through Jesus the Christ.
The Law that Paul is writing about here is, obviously, the Law of Moses that, as we’ve discussed before, was a bone of contention for the church in Galatia. The Jewish Christians believed that the Law still applied to their newfound religion whereas the Gentile Christians did not think it was necessary to follow all of the rules and regulations laid out by Moses— and there were quite a few. According to a third century rabbi, the Law of Moses consisted of 248 positive commands and 365 prohibitions (http://net.bible.org/illustration.php?topic=870). That’s 248 dos and 365 don’ts. How would you like to have to follow all of those rules just to be considered as a faithful Christian? But, in spite of the disdain the Gentile Christians had for the Law, it did at one time, serve a useful purpose and it was seen, by the Jewish people, as God’s gracious gift, a source of wisdom and life. Psalm 19 says “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” By following the rules and regulations laid out by God and given to Moses, the Jewish people felt as though they were fulfilling God’s will for the people. The Law gave the Jews guidelines so that they would know exactly what was a sin against God and how to adjust their behavior accordingly in order to please God. For the Jewish people, following the Law made them feel somehow closer to God. And, in deference to what Paul says in verse 23, the Law wasn’t really this oppressive set of rules designed solely to enslave the people. It was an important part of God’s ultimate plan of redemption— a plan of redemption that was ultimately realized in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.