Is there Such a Thing as Too Much Freedom?

last will and testament
Photo credit: <a href="">Ken Mayer</a>

Galatians 3:15-18

Take this real-life example, friends. Nobody makes corrections to or ignores someone’s will once it’s been notarized. The promises God made to Abraham and to his heir. It doesn’t say “heirs,” as in many heirs. It says “heir.” One person. That person is Jesus.

Here’s my point. The laws of Moses came 430 years later. That law can’t annul a deal that God had already notarized. It can’t cancel the promise already in effect. If the inheritance were based on Mosaic law, it wouldn’t have any relation to the earlier promise. But as it is, God notarized it with Abraham.

Paul is desperately grasping at straws here. None of this logic makes any sense.

  1. The promise to Abraham is pretty clear (Genesis 15:5) that God is promising a lot of descendents to be Abraham’s heirs, not just one person.
  2. People contest wills all the time. And it’s certainly not uncommon for provisions in wills to be declared invalid, or for them to be over-ruled in court.
  3. Laws change over time. So do terms of agreements. Even notarized agreements.
  4. If God is the one of the parties to the agreement, it’s God’s prerogative to change the agreement.

Besides, it’s sheer folly to use a legal argument when the whole point you’re trying to make is that the law doesn’t apply.

As much as Paul wants to make a case for Christ superseding the old Mosaic law, he’s still so ingrained in and bound by legalism that he himself can’t escape it.

Better to recognize that Jesus was indeed an heir to Abraham’s promise, and that so is everyone else. It’s just that Jesus realized the freedom of that promise in a way that the vast majority of the rest of us haven’t.

Better to recognize that if everyone is the heir to Abraham’s promise, then all of us have the capacity to be blessed and to be a blessing to many.

Better to recognize that declaring faith in Jesus isn’t a magical key that unlocks the pearly gates, but it is a way to realize and live into the freedom that is available to anyone who wants it.

Alas, for many, like Paul, that much freedom is too much to think possible without trying to make more rules about it.

Why Rules?

class rules bulletin board
Photo credit: <a href="">Linda Hartley</a>

Romans 4:13-25

The promise to Abraham, that he would inherit the world, didn’t come to him or to his descendents because by keeping rules. It came by making a commitment. If inheriting the world were a matter of keeping rules, commitment wouldn’t count for anything. Following rules only brings trouble. But if there are no rules, then you don’t have to worry about breaking them.

So it all depends your commitment. That way the promise is backed by a guarantee available to all Abraham’s children, not just the ones who follow the rules, but also those who make the same commitment Abraham made. And, since the sacred writing says, “I’ve made you the Father of the Nations,” Abraham is the father of us all. We all stand before Abraham’s God who brings revives the dead and makes something out of nothing.

Abraham took it to heart, even when there was no use hoping to be the Father of Nations, because God told him, “You’ll have scads of children.” He didn’t waver from his commitment even though his hundred year old body was as good as dead, and Sarah had never been able to get pregnant. He trusted what God said without flinching. In fact, the more he gave God credit, the deeper his commitment got. He was totally convinced God would do what God said. So, it was his commitment that made him right. And, when scripture says “his commitment made him right,” it wasn’t talking about just him. It was talking about us. If we commit to the proposition that God raised Jesus from the dead, you’ll be right, too. He was killed because we broke the rules, and raised so that we’d be made right.

At first, this all seems very libertarian. No rules, no worries about conforming. But it’s not.

Like any master of any art who can bend and break the rules, what allows them to go beyond the rules is their greater commitment to their art.

There are rules of grammar writers must generally follow to write well. But the masters, Shakespeare, Faulkner, e e cummings, Vonnegut, break the rules because they are committed to the art. They know the rules better than anyone. But they know more than the letter of the rules, they know the spirit of the art about which the rules speak.

Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello, and knows the rules that make the music what it is. But when he plays, it’s his commitment to the music that speaks, not the rules he knows.

So, too, the art of the life well lived. There are lots of rules that have been set out in holy writ. But the life well lived is not about following the rules, it’s about one’s commitment to the art. And, while rules may be helpful, they are not the purpose of the exercise, or the result we are ultimately seeking.

Learn the rules. Know the rules. Follow the rules. But don’t be committed to the rules. Be committed to the art.

Jesus and Civil Disobedience

Jesus bus
Photo credit: <a href="">Seth Anderson</a>

Mark 2:23-28

One Sunday, as Jesus crossed a field where grain was growing, his students picked some of the grain. The legalists confronted him, saying, “Look! What they’re doing is breaking the blue laws.”

He told them, “Haven’t you ever read the story of King David? How he and his friends were hungry and got the food they needed by taking the bread out of the Temple, from the special holy stash kept only for the priests. David ate it and gave it to his friends.” Jesus continued, “The day of rest was made for people, not people for the day of rest. So, if you’re human, you get to decide about your day of rest.”

Yes, technically, historically, it would have been Saturday. Well, it could have been Friday after sundown. But our Blue Laws in the US were about Sunday. Go to a historically Muslim country and it will be Friday. Many Pastors take Monday as their “Sabbath” and are just as legalistic about it as any Pharisee.

The point is not which day. The point is what the day is about. We need a rest that is truly restful and re-creative. On a personal level no amount of legislation can enact it. Legislation is to protect against business and commerce precluding the opportunity. The 40 hour work week. The requirement that employees get a day off. These are safeguards against abuse. What you do with your time off is up to you.

More broadly, there is another issue. It’s what happens when laws enacted as safeguards are re-interpreted in ways that become abusive. Laws originally meant to provide shelters that will increase opportunity (say that corporations are given some legal protections afforded individuals), are misinterpreted in ways that institutionalize unfair advantages and preclude opportunity (corporations become de facto legal persons).

In other words, what Jesus means is: the law is supposed to serve people; people are not slaves to the law. Even Augustine realized that “an unjust law is no law at all.” (On Free Choice Of The Will, Book 1, ยง 5)

It’s the foundation on which Christian civil disobedience and non-violent protest is based.

Just Because It’s Legal Doesn’t Make It Right

couple sculpture
Photo credit: Daquella Manera

Mark 10:1-9

He left there and went back to eastern Judea. Again the crowds gathered around him, and he began teaching them, as usual.

Some legalists came and to test him asked, “Is it legal for a man to divorce his wife?”

He answered, “What did Moses say about it?”

“Moses said a man can divorce his wife by writing a note to leave.”

So Jesus said, “Yes, he said that because of your callous indifference. But the prior law is that since, “God made them male and female, and therefore a man leaves his parents to be joined to his wife: the two are one entity. Because they’re no longer two but have become one entity, what God has created, a man shouldn’t destroy.”

This is a matter of people wanting self justification, and legal cover, for something they know is wrong without having to ask. And Jesus doesn’t play that game.

Jesus doesn’t deny that the statute is there, or that it shouldn’t ever be used. But Jesus is clear: it’s there because something has gone terribly wrong. And anyone who has been or is currently going through a divorce can tell you that it’s true. Something went wrong. And it has to do with callous indifference, or hardheartedness, somewhere in the picture. Could be mostly one partner, or the other, or both. But there it is.

The statute is meant as an emergency release, to allow people space to heal and move on after something terrible has happened. In other words, it’s purpose is healing and redemption. And it’s just as necessary today as it was then. God doesn’t intend for people to be locked into abusive relationships, for example.

But the legalists have made the statute into a means to commit a domestic violence, by using it as a free legal license to betray a sacred trust. It’s not the statute, but the circumstances in which it’s abused that Jesus objects to.

Same goes with any law that’s intended for people’s protection but re-interpreted and implemented to betray a sacred trust so that one person or group can gain an unfair advantage over another.