Of Laws and Legalism

If you have ever spent time in an airport terminal, then you’ve heard—and most likely learned to tune out—that perpetually played recording of a robot warning travelers not to look after others’ luggage. In fact, the friendly, albeit monotonous voice, even informs you that if you are so much as asked by someone to watch his or her bag, you are to report that individual to airport authorities immediately. In general the rule of thumb goes: “If you see something, say something.”

It was with this not-as-pointless-as-you-may-think preface in mind that I, a law-abiding and upright citizen, was waiting for a flight a few weeks ago when an elderly woman approached me and asked if I would watch her bag. She needed to use the restroom and seemed nice enough, but the recording suddenly came to mind, and I started to stutter something to the effect of: “Well, I’m really not—” until my mother, who was sitting beside me at the time, salvaged the situation: “We would be more than happy to watch it for you while you go to the bathroom.” The woman in need was relieved (pun-intended). My mom expounded on her decision and lovingly added in my defense: “My son is—he’s just a real rule-follower.” The woman nodded with an understanding smile and headed for the restroom as I reflected on my response.

Without advocating the disregard of FAA regulations or the taking of the law into one’s own hands, I think that most of us would agree that certain circumstances and situations call for rule-bending—within reason. Undeniably, it can be an acquired art that exhibits among other things—initiative, thought and wisdom. Which is why in its hiring process, Southwest Airlines will often ask applicants to describe a time when they thought company policy needed to be sidestepped. They are looking for an exercise in judgment; Southwest does not want to hire an unthinking machine, but someone who has both ingenuity and know-how. And as one of England’s greatest military commanders, Sir Douglas Bader once observed, “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men." I can’t help but speculate under which category a “real rule-follower” like me would fall. That job at Southwest Airlines isn’t looking so good.

Without advocating some kind of militant evangelism, dare I say that our beliefs and convictions as Christians often at conflict with our societal laws? Rest assured that’s how it was nearly 2,000 years ago. In fact, one of the greatest themes of the New Testament is the curious conflict between the legalism of the revered religious teachers and the unconditional love of Jesus Christ. It seems that Jesus was always rebuking the “pious” Pharisees. “Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whosoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19-20, TNIV). And talk about “real rule-followers!” The Pharisees liked to emphasize the most frivolous of formalities, devise their own set of oral rules and scorn the sinners who fell short of their many requirements. In contrast, Jesus went out of His way—and even outside (gasp!) the Law—to serve those that needed Him the most. He ate in the company of sinners (Matthew 9:10-13), He healed the suffering on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11), and, most importantly, He forgave (Luke 5:17-26)—all actions against the Law.

Accordingly, the Pharisees were more than dismayed and disgusted with the Son of Man, but one thing was made clear by Jesus from the get-go: “I’m after mercy, not religion. I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders” (Matthew 9:12-13, The Message). God did not turn flesh to show us the lousy lives we were leading in the light of the Law. Sure, He could have come down on dark clouds with lightning and thunder, but He didn’t. He came to forgive, to love and to serve. He didn’t stick to the book and enforce all 613 Commandments. Instead, He fulfilled all this Law business and “put it all together in a vast panorama” (Matthew 5:17-18, The Message): “Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s Kingdom” (Matthew 18:2-5, The Message).

That being said, I truly think that too much of the time I resemble the Pharisees and their mixed-up priorities. I don’t want to unconditionally love others—wholeheartedly serve others. It’s too hard, and I am not here to put myself on the line for others and their troubles. They will get what’s coming for them, and that’s neither my concern nor my problem. I have worked my way to God, and my merits will produce a FastPass to the Pearly Gates. End of story. Well, as silly as all of this sounds, I don’t think I am alone in having these thoughts from time to time. Don’t we all become Pharisees now and again? We get caught up in ourselves or hide behind man-made rules, and lose sight of who Jesus was and what He did—what he came to do.

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Even Paul—one of the most influential and purposeful persons in the spread of the Message—was not exempt from such symptoms of self-satisfaction: “I was a member of the Pharisees, who demanded the strictest obedience to the Jewish law … I obeyed the Jewish law so carefully that I was never accused of any fault.” Nevertheless, while all of that was fine and dandy, Paul ultimately came to this conclusion—and this conclusion alone: “I once thought all these things were so very important, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done … I no longer count on my own goodness or my ability to obey God’s law, but I trust Christ to save me” (Philippians 3:4-9, The Message).

Pharisees of the world (myself included), take note.

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