sermon on Compassion and Law – June 28
Here’s the sermon I did from the worship service on June 28, 2018 at Open Space Church. The focus is “Compassion and Law”
If the media player doesn’t work, for some reason, I included the text below.
What motivated me to talk about this was the migrant crisis, families trying to escape gang violence in Honduras, and the need for us to look at the humanity of refugees, and place compassion over law – which is actually a principle Jesus follows all the time. In fact, it’s a hallmark of his teachings, as he broke the law all the time to act in compassion.
Pastor Lars Hammar
I have kids. I try to teach them to follow the rules.
- I tell them the rules are there for a reason, and that’s why you need to follow them.
- But I know that I’m not 100% with enforcing them.
- Sometimes things come up, and I don’t enforce them.
- Bedtime is 8pm, but when a relative is over, I’m going to let you stay up.
We’ve all done it. Nobody’s 100% enforcer of rules. If you are, your kids are going to have issues.
Because there are situations where choose not to enforce the rules for the sake of compassion.
And this is a principle that seems so common sense to me, that sometimes people have extenuating circumstances in their lives and following the law isn’t necessarily easy or very possible.
I think of the people in Honduras.
- This is a country that has some of the worst gang violence in the world.
- It has gone through military coups, all sorts of exploitation by corrupt governments that were on the take of large fruit companies (it’s where we got the word “Banana Republic” – where banana companies basically ran the country so that the workers would never get better wages)
- And now the violence is so bad that a lot of families will get ambushed by a drug gang, and told, in no uncertain terms, that if they don’t help the gang they’ll get killed.
- And they point to all the houses next door where people were killed, and all the roads where people were literally beheaded and lined up, and to all the pictures they have of your children and how they know where the school is and if you don’t help us now we’ll kill them all too.
- And she’s just some single mom trying to make a living, and now she has to chose between leaving the country to live, or joining a drug gang to live (though she knows that will probably kill her too).
- So she gets in the car and drives to the US border to immigrate.
- But if she doesn’t get across, the gang could get her. And if she does, she’s breaking the law an immigrating illegally.
- It’s not a choice that has “follow the law and live a good life” as an option. Break the law one way, end up dead the other.
What would you do? If it’s your kids in danger? Would you break the law to keep your kids from being beheaded?
- This woman isn’t a political activist out to change American government, or a spy or a drug dealer or a terrorist. Just a young woman trying to save her kids.
Should we bend the law a little, and maybe not punish her to full extent, or should we throw the book at her?
What is the compassionate, loving, caring, Christian response in this situation?
- What is the way that we believe Jesus would want us to do?
- What would Jesus do? (let’s use the old slogan)
- Enforce the rule of law? Or just not enforce it as strictly?
Now, I get that this is not as simple as it seems. Because laws exist for reasons. Breaking the law is something you have to take seriously, because there can be consequences there too.
- And I know that there are lots of people who will lie about their hardships
- I know that criminals will pretend to be refugees.
- I know that a lot of people will make up excuses to justify breaking a law, and that you have to enforce it strictly sometimes to force people to stop trying to justify themselves.
It’s like cops having to be rigid in enforcing handicapped parking.
- If you didn’t bust the violators hard, you’d have everybody and their brother claiming to the cop that they do have a disability, they just forgot the card that day.
- And if the fine wasn’t big, a lot of people would just call it “the cost of doing business” – like buying a close parking spot. (because walking is so bad for your health, you know).
So, bending and breaking the rules is something to take seriously. The law is there to protect us, including the weak and the vulnerable.
But this is where I have to come back, as a Christian, and ask myself what I know about Jesus, and how he handled cases of breaking the law, and when he might have said you should do it or not.
In the Gospels, Jesus gives us a couple stances on the law
1) “I am not getting rid of the law.”
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”
- So Jesus is not blowing up the rules or saying that they’re outmoded and passe and we can just throw them away and do whatever feels good.
2) Sometimes you have to break the law.
This is in our Gospel reading today, where Jesus is in the synagogue, and he heals a man with a “withered hand” (whatever that means). And since it’s the Sabbath, he’s performing medicine, which is working, so he’s breaking God’s law.
Jesus broke the law of God, in a holy place, on the holy day.
He even has this great line “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, so save life or to kill?”
Well, of course, no one’s going to say, “Kill. Kill on the Sabbath. Kill on the sabbath. Kill, kill, kill” (which sounds like an 80’s satanic hair band)
Now, I actually talked to a rabbi here in town about this verse, and he said the whole story is pointless, because Jewish law allows all sorts of exceptions to the Sabbath, including feeding the hungry and working in the ER.
- You can’t do nose jobs and tummy tucks on the sabbath, but you don’t leave the guy with his arm cut off to bleed because you don’t want to work (that’s my analogy, not his).
- But that’s reasonable thinking. That’s saying, “we’re going to keep the law, but define some exceptions to it, because it would be cruel to let people suffer just because of the day of the week”
That’s not the point of the law.
It’s to protect us from overworking, from ruining our families because we never see them, and ruining our health because we’re never at rest, and ruining our employee’s families by making them work without a break.
It’s not a law for its own sake.
This all seems so reasonable to me. Of course, sometimes, you break the rules, or you bend the rules, for the sake of compassion.
- Of course, sometimes, the more moral and ethical thing to do is to not follow the law.
Now, why in the world were the Pharisees, these super-learned religious scholars, these super-experts on the Bible and God’s law, these people who had it memorized a lot of the time, who spent their whole lives learning every part of scripture, why were they so worked up about picking wheat and curing someone’s hand?
It’s not like Jesus was burning houses down or killing people on the sabbath. He wasn’t hurting anyone. He was doing the opposite.
So why were they so worked up about this?
Why did it bother them so much that he didn’t follow the law exactly to the letter?
Why were they comfortable with Jesus and his disciples going hungry, and the man going another day with his bad hand, and so uncomfortable with breaking the law a little?
To get to the answer, you have to remember that the Pharisees are not looking at the question the way Jesus is.
To them, the laws of God are sacred, and they exist to protect us, and they exist to provide order, and they exist to prevent anarchy and abuse and all sorts of problems. The laws are good and necessary.
- And without them you get chaos, you get abuse of people, you could get violence and all sorts of social problems.
- If people stop worrying about breaking the law, some will not just break it to eat, they’ll break it to rape and kill and steal – and people will suffer.
- So this is part of a much bigger picture than just picking wheat and healing hands.
- This is about protecting society from chaos and protecting the weak from exploitation.
Their motivation is not evil. They’re not trying to make people go hungry or go without medicine. They’re protecting us all from something far worse.
And, so the thinking goes, sometimes you have to be willing to let some people endure hardships in order to protect the laws that protect us from things much worse.
That’s the thinking of the Pharisees. They’re not mean.
- They’re just looking at the bigger picture, they would say.
The would say that if you start allowing exceptions to the laws, that everyone will find a way to justify anything they want, and everyone will get an exception, and the law won’t mean anything – and then you’ll have some real problems.
It’s not good vs. evil, it’s two ways of looking at the world.
In one way, you figure that you can bend and break the law sometimes for a greater good.
- And in the other you have to enforce the law all the time for the greater good.
Jesus clearly came down on the side of sometimes you bend or break it, but you don’t get rid of it.
Jesus was clearly not worried about social breakdown if too many poor people gathered wheat and did miracle cures on the Sabbath.
There’s a great line here, that shows what Jesus is talking about
“He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘stretch out your hand’” Mark 2:26
Their hardness of heart.
Jesus got sad, and angry, because they were not willing to let their feelings get in the way of these laws.
It’s easy to talk about the rule of law in the abstract, but it’s hard to be rigid about it when you’re face to face with human suffering.
- It’s easy to talk about slippery slopes and how society will break into anarchy and how we need to make people hurt to teach them a lesson, when you’re not actually feeling the hurt that they’re going through.
That’s the thinking of the Pharisees. They wouldn’t let human considerations muddy their serious thinking about rules.
- And Jesus was grieved, it said. He felt bad.
- And then they tried to kill him.
Jesus fought this battle his whole ministry, if you read through the Gospels. He was always out doing good for this person or that person, and somehow, in the process, he was breaking one of the 613 Old Testament laws.
- He was eating the wrong food, associating with the wrong people, breaking the sabbath, one time they yelled at him for not washing his hands before dinner.
- It was as if he was forced to choose between doing good – healing and teaching and spreading the word of God, and following God’s laws.
And he always broke the laws if it meant that something better came from it.
- He always let the heart guide him on that, and didn’t seem terribly concerned about some sort of slippery slope that the country was going to go down if he started bending the rules so sick and poor people could get cured.
And that’s a lesson worth remembering, because that kind of harsh, punitive thinking can be so seductive. It works on fear, which is a very powerful emotion.
- We can consciously say, “I agree that we shouldn’t be cruel just to follow rules”, but then when you start getting afraid, then the heart gets shut down and the fear takes over and you find yourself suddenly talking about how we need to make people suffer to preserve good laws.
- And you forget that Jesus, the guy the Bible said who never sinned (“He was sin who knew no sin” it says in the book of Hebrews), that Jesus broke laws all the time.
And if Jesus could do it, and with all his infinite wisdom, and all his ability to see into the future, to know God’s plan, to know the larger picture, to see into human hearts – if that Jesus could break some laws for the sake of compassion, and not be afraid of a slippery slope into lawlessness and anarchy, then I think we can too.