So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading... All the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. - Nehemiah 8
[Jesus] unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." - Luke 4
Ezra, the priest, stands in front of a large crowd at the Water Gate in Jerusalem. He reads to this crowd of "both men and women and all who could hear with understanding". He reads from the scroll of the law, from morning to midday. The gathered crowd listened intently, and "wept when they heard the words of the law".
I have a hard time imagining a similar crowd congregating in front of the State House to listen for several hours as our modern equivalent of a high priest reads the law. Much less can I imagine this gathering weeping with emotion upon hearing the law read to them. We might hear some cynical snickering; we might see a few listening respectfully, at least for a while; but mostly what I imagine is profound boredom, with much of the crowd slinking off to buy a coffee somewhere down the street. Or not showing up in the first place.
It's tempting to try to reduce the vast questions, dilemmas, and debates of faith life into something simple. If not a simple answer, then at least a simple question. This is a dangerous effort, but here's another try at it. It seems that one of the essential questions of the Spirit is this: do we live by a God of law, or by a God of love? Is God tallying up our failures and sins in anticipation of the big, final, harsh judgment? Or is God ever searching for ways to forgive, to shower us with grace, and to bless us with new life and new chances to shine in the Spirit-light?
This question has been framed, over the millennia, in some pretty ugly ways.One obvious, absurd, and destructive framing has been to say that the Old Testament God - the Jewish God - is an angry, judgmental God, and the New Testament God - the Christian God - is a forgiving, gentler God. But simple questions don't always yield simple answers. This simple answer is insulting to the Jewish faith and tradition, and has long been murderous in its application.
"The law", as set forth in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible - the Torah - was and remains a powerful and binding force in Jewish life. It is also a law infused with love; love of community, of shared self-protection; and of life itself. And it was the law that guided the life of the people of Israel, including Jesus himself; it held community together in times of great stress, misfortune, exile, and oppression. No wonder the reading of it in front of the new, yet unfinished restored temple in Jerusalem, from which the Hebrew people had been exiled for many years and had only recently returned, caused the people to weep and let their heads fall to the soil.
We human beings have always had a complicated relationship to the idea of law. Lifetimes are spent writing and refining laws; we hew to them closely when we are filled with fear and doubt. We shake the law book before the bad guys that make us angry, and we quietly tuck that law book into the drawer when the scofflaw is someone of privilege. We constantly make up new laws to cover new crimes - real or perceived.
But most of us harbor a certain resentment against a law-bound culture. We write carefully worded laws and then despise the lawyers who interpret them. We are often able, with clever rationalization, to excuse ourselves from observing laws that we feel certain that others should obey precisely. If Judaism has ever been guilty of being too legalistic, can we really say that Christianity has never fallen down the same rabbit hole?
A God of love seems to understand that we - no matter who we are or to what faith tradition we subscribe - need to make and live under some framework of laws. But God has always reminded us - Jew or Christian or whatever - that, as Nehemiah puts it so sweetly, "the joy of the Lord is your strength."
Jesus stood in front of his homefolks and delivered a short sermon, based on an old text from his Hebrew ancestor Isaiah. He didn't have to invent Good News for the poor; he simply had to remind his own people that this was their own Scripture - their own law: release of the captive; recovery of sight to the blind; freedom for the oppressed; and "the year of the Lord's favor".
At best, our laws are infused with a spirit of gentleness, forgiveness, and love. And our application of such laws is, at best, infused with the same. Jesus' Jewish sisters, brothers, and neighbors needed a reminder of that in his day, by this Jewish teacher who had already amazed his neighbors with his wisdom.
And we need a reminder of the same today. "Law and order", a phrase with which we are all familiar, is often not much more than an ever-tightening noose. And it usually leads to great disorder.
Law and love - the heart of the Jewish and Christian sense of who God is - invites us to remember why we are here: to proclaim God's favor, and to live in the joy of that strength and the strength of that joy.
There's' no law that says you have to join us at church tomorrow at 10 AM. Thank God for that.
But we'd love it if you did. And so would God.