Summary: When we examine the 10 Commandments more closely we understand the inner logic of God that forms them. We understand the Spirit of the Law.
February 16, 2020
Hope Lutheran Church
Rev. Mary Erickson
The Spirit of the Law
Friends, may grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and Christ Jesus our Lord.
When I was growing up, my sister Sarah received a science kit for her birthday one year. It contained some ingredients so she could conduct simple lab experiments. The kit also came with a rudimentary microscope. The microscope came with a slide and you could put things from simple tap water to ketchup on the slide and look at it under the scope.
One recommendation was to put some onion skin under the scope. We had an onion in the house and so we did that. I was completely unprepared for what I was about to behold. Seeing the structure of the individual cells took my breath away. It was a God moment for my childhood brain. Who knew that such delicate structures were present in these simple onion skins?
We see so many different items of creation all around us. At first glance they seem quite ordinary, like a slice of kiwi. But when their inner structure is revealed, we’re awestruck by their beauty and form. There’s a whole world of hidden beauty within them! It’s vibrant and pulses with life! If a humble kiwi can show such splendor and grace, what is hidden within each of us?
Today our two biblical texts both speak to God’s commandments. The commandments are God’s law given to us. They have a dynamic much like the difference between viewing kiwi fruit with the naked eye and looking at it through a microscope. The more we investigate the commandments, the more closely we probe and ponder them, the more we come to appreciate the wisdom of God.
It comes down to the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. When we have a superficial connection with the law, we tend merely to the letter of the law. We complete the bare necessity in order to be compliant. Take a four-way stop at an intersection. The letter of the traffic law requires that I come to a complete stop. But if the traffic is light and I’m in a hurry, I might be tempted to make that complete stop something closer to a slow roll. The law requires that I come to a stop. So long as I stop, no matter how briefly, I’m following the letter of the law.
But the spirit of the law looks beyond just my raw actions. The spirit of the law pulls out a microscope. It examines the inner workings of that law. Why is it necessary for me to stop here? How is society benefitted by a full stop and a thorough search to all directions? How can I enhance the safety and welfare of my community?
Our two Bible passages look beyond the letter of God’s commandments to the spirit of God’s law. They look to the divine brilliance and wisdom established within these commands for us.
The passage from Deuteronomy takes place as Israel stands on the far banks of the Jordan River. They’ve left their slavery in Egypt and travelled through the wilderness for 40 years. Now they stand ready to enter the Promised Land. But before they enter, Moses addresses the nation.
How are they going to order their days in this new land? Moses encourages them to align their living in accordance with God’s commands. He tells them these commands are intended to promote life and goodness. That’s why God gave them to us! They’re for our benefit. “Choose life,” Moses says.
Moses realizes that the spirit of God’s law promotes life. The writer of Psalm 1 understood this, too. Psalm 1 is a hymn of praise to God’s law. It states that people who follow God’s law are like “trees planted by streams of water.” They continue to thrive, even through dry seasons. They’re tapped into the source of life and goodness.
I grew up in Nebraska. It’s much drier there than it is here in Wisconsin. Nebraska is a prairie state. Trees are much less common than they are here. It’s not uncommon for us to see vast stretches of forestland. But on the Nebraska prairie, trees are an uncommon sight. When you drive through the countryside, you know right where all of the creeks are located. How? That’s where the trees are. The trees take root along the water sources. The water is life.
Both the Psalmist and Moses knew this. God’s law is life. God has given us the commandments for our good. When we live according to God’s law, we’re like trees planted by water.
Jesus also looks at the spirit of the law. In our reading from Matthew, Jesus lifts up several of the commandments and puts them under the microscope. Under this closer examination, the scope of the commandments becomes much more expansive.