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The Law Beyond the Letter

It's the spirit of the Law that counts.

The Law of God and Public Policy: Begin Here (5)

““If men contend with each other, and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but is confined to hisbed, if he rises again and walks about outside with his staff, then he who struck him shall be acquitted. He shall only pay for the loss of his time, and shall provide for him to be thoroughly healed.” Exodus 21.18, 19

Maintaining the balance of justice
The Law of God describes a system of justice designed to maintain the balance of neighbor-love within the communities of ancient Israel. Surrounding nations, God promised, would see the wisdom and justice of keeping God’s Law, and they would desire to realize such benefits for themselves. The words of the civil codes of God’s Law are neither salvific nor exhaustive; they are, rather, designed to illustrate applications of the Ten Commandments in various situations, so that local judges and authorities could reason based on the words of the Law concerning what the spirit of the Law required in any situation.

In the American legal system, those who are found to have caused injury to others can expect that they or their insurance company will be liable for compensatory payments. This is as it should be to restore the balance of, if not neighbor-love, at least of justice, and to discourage the use of violence against one’s neighbor. Such an approach to justice did not originate with American or English law.

In the incident described in the text above, justice would be achieved when the wounded party was restored to health, including payment of opportunity costs to cover his expenses and lost income while recuperating.

The Law of God thus encouraged the people of Israel to check their anger and to eschew violence toward their neighbors. When they failed in this, justice required retribution.

The spirit beyond the words
As Christians, we want to realize the benefits of justice and neighbor-love, as these are revealed in the Law of God, for our own communities and nation. We must, therefore, work hard to understand the concept of justice as this is revealed in God’s Law and the rest of His Word.

But we must not suppose that we are to be bound merely by the letter or words of the Law. In this age when God has poured out His Spirit—Who is the Giver of God’s Law (Lk. 11.20; Matt. 12.28; Ex. 31.18; Deut. 9.10) and both its Teacher (Ezek. 36.26, 27) and its Power (Ezek. 36.26, 27; Phil. 2.13)—believers must look to the Spirit of God to help them discern the spirit of His Law. Thus we will be better prepared to work for bringing neighbor-love and justice to our communities and our nation.

As believers grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, and as we learn to walk in the Spirit rather than in the flesh (2 Pet. 3.18; Gal. 5.16-23), we will discover applications of the Law of God that exceed the letter of the Law and bring renewing and liberating power for reconciliation and justice into our daily practice of the faith. The Law will not save anyone; but the Law can be a source of such benefits as peace, mutual respect, and justice wherever its tenets are observed.

The story of the good Samaritan illustrates this well (Lk. 10.25-37). Here Jesus provides a lesson in how to restore justice and neighbor-love by following the spirit and not just the letter of the Law of God.

The good Samaritan
A man had been beaten. He was wounded and unable to care for himself. Justice demanded that he be restored to health and that those responsible be made to cover his expenses, as well as restore what they had stolen from him. Any first-year law student in any American university would see the justice in this.

But it was not likely that those who perpetrated violence against this man would ever be discovered. Would justice languish and neighbor-love fail?  Hardly. Jesus showed how a Samaritan—the least likely of people to care for a wounded Jew—took it upon himself, without need of law or other compulsion, to restore justice on behalf of the wounded man. He did not owe the man anything. The priest and Levite who crossed the road and refused to help the wounded man doubtless considered that this was not their problem; they did not commit the crime, so they owed the man nothing in the way of help. They could persuade themselves, perhaps, that they were only following the letter of the Law.

But the Samaritan understood the larger demands of justice—Samaritans knew and kept the Torah—and was willing to sacrifice his own convenience and material bounty so that the higher and greater demand of justice and neighbor-love might be fulfilled. He did what was in his power to do, given the circumstances before him. Jesus commands His followers to practice obedience to His Law in just this same way (v. 37). 

Christians and public policy
The Law of God demands justice; at the same time, it guides us in the practice of mercy, generosity, compassion, and selflessness. We are practicing the spirit of the Law when its words lead us to show such neighbor-love to the people around us.

Christians take up the Law of God as a holy and righteous and good standard for following Jesus in bringing justice and neighbor-love to their communities (Rom. 7.12; 1 Jn. 2.1-6). We do not require acts of Congress or local commissions to move us to follow the Spirit of God as He teaches and empowers us to live out the spirit of God’s Law. Jesus expects all His followers to be like the good Samaritan and to “go the extra mile” of loving our neighbors as ourselves. His Law is that standard to which we must turn in doing so.

At the same time, Christians recognize that just public policy requires strictures and sanctions; not all people in our community have the Spirit of Christ. If the goodness and benefits of God’s Law are to extend to all the members of our community, that servant for good which God has appointed (Rom. 13.1-5) will need to draw on God’s Law to help in determining which policies are most likely to maintain the balance of justice and neighbor-love in the community.

The duty of the Christian community is to show the way to justice and neighbor-love within our own communities, and to workfor public policies that will mirror the words and spirit of the Law of God. Especially in a democratic society such as ours, this is an essential part of what believers owe to government and our neighbors.

For reflection
1. What do we learn from the parable of the Good Samaritan about the relationship between God’s Law and loving our neighbors?

2. If the outcome of keeping God’s Law is not love for God and neighbors, have we truly understood and kept the Law?

3. Can government at any level fulfill its God-given calling apart from (at least the spirit of) the Law of God? Explain.

Next steps—Preparation: What is your approach to improving your understanding of God’s Law?

T. M. Moore

What is the place of the Law of God in the Christian’s life? Our book, The Ground for Christian Ethics, answers this question and shows us again why Jesus taught us that keeping the Law is an indispensable part of our calling in God’s Kingdom. Order your free copy of The Ground for Christian Ethics by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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