Tough choices…

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The Letter Of The Law/The Spirit Of The Law

Mark 7:22 14 Then (Jesus) called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” 

Here Jesus is challenging some long-held notions about what foods are clean and unclean. In Leviticus chapter 11 God tells the people what animals are considered clean and appropriate for food and which are not. For example, anything from the water is fine to eat as long as it has fins and scales. But if it doesn’t (like shrimp, lobster, crab for example) it’s to be considered “unclean” and not to be eaten.

Religious leaders in Jesus’ day were very concerned about keeping such laws, but then neglected the poor, killed the prophets, and persecuted Jesus himself. The act of devotion (keeping dietary laws) is meaningful if it results in greater devotion to the will and ways of God. If it doesn’t, then following rules is a pointless and hypocritical exercise. In other words…

Jesus was more concerned with the spirit of the law (outcomes) than the letter of the law.

Over the years I’ve seen the church wrestle with this same dynamic – the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law. For instance, depending how you look at scripture the appropriate role of women in the life of the church is debatable. There are places in Paul’s letters of the New Testament in which the role if women is severely curtailed, which is inline with the thinking about gender roles in Paul’s day. They are, in essence, to be seen and not heard.

That said, there are other places in scripture (both Old and New Testament) in which women play prominent leadership roles among the people of God. My denomination has arrived at its practices relative to women with the latter view in mind. Women have always provided leadership for God’s people and should continue to do so. Based on my own study and reflection on scripture, I believe this is the right choice to make – Paul’s directives notwithstanding.

But I’m also a bit wary of this kind of judgment call because, in some ways, it leaves me choosing which parts of scripture I observe and which parts I don’t. Which seems dangerous. I may want to interpret the practices of faith like Jesus did, but I don’t enjoy the same wisdom that Jesus brought because I’m not the Son of God.

Heavenly Father, you gave us the scriptures as an incredible gift to reveal your plan of salvation for all people in Christ Jesus. You also gave us an enormously helpful guidance in how to live each day in line with your will and purposes for us. Give us grace to  balance the need for honoring the letter of the law as well as the spirit of the law. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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