Fulfilling the Law

FULFILLING THE LAW

 

MATTHEW 5:17-20

prisonerchloe's cupcake kitchen

 

 

She is a threat to America. She is going to run this country into the ground. She is power hungry. She is in it for the money. And she must be stopped.

No, I am not talking about Hilary Clinton. I am talking about Chloe Stirling. Some have described Chloe, and by some I mean myself and no one else, as a cupcake anarchist, out to uproot the established way of doing business in this country. As the TED radio hour show Solving It reports, Chloe is an eleven-year-old girl who lives in Illinois and loves cupcakes. Not only does she love to eat cupcakes, she also loves to make them. She started selling cupcakes to all her friends. As we would say in the inner city, this girl was making “bank,” raking in something like $200 a month. Her mom hoped she would be able to save up enough for a car, a sweet ride, by the time she was sixteen. This kid, this cupcake baron, was out to get rich or die trying, and the government, a.k.a the ‘Man,’ well the Man was not going to let her endanger the rest of us with her fluffy chocolate cupcakes full of icing and moist cupcake goodness. After two years of running this illegal, underground baking ring, the health department called and told Chloe that she could not bake anymore because “she didn’t have a business license.” The authorities told Chloe that she needed to either buy a bakery or build a separate kitchen under the health codes. Thank God we have Big Brother to protect us from evil child bakers like Chloe Sterling.

Philip Howard is a lawyer who keeps track of these types of stories. To quote Howard, we in America “are increasingly moving to a rule based fetish about law where it’s not a question about what is wrong anymore but did you comply? And if you did not comply…. Throw the book at them!” One of Howard’s favorite unnecessary warning labels is on his five-inch fishing lure with a three prong hook in the back which has a warning label that reads, “harmful if swallowed.”

To quote Howard, “We’ve been taught to believe that law is the foundation of freedom, but somehow or another in the last couple of decades, the land of the free has become a legal minefield.” Howard goes on to say, “What we have is a combination of anarchy and public paralysis. There is this fetish with rules that has come to replace morality. And it works in a gotcha sort of way and it works in an avoidance of responsibility sort of way. And it has affected our political culture and our broader culture.”

In Howard’s words, the solution is not to do away with regulation and law entirely but to make law simple so that people “can internalize the law in their daily choices. If they can’t internalize it they won’t trust it. And how do you make it simple because life is complex? And here is the hardest and biggest change. We have to restore the authority to judges and officials to interpret and apply the law. We have to rehumanize the law. To make law simple so that you feel free, the people in charge have to be free to use their judgment to interpret and apply the law in accordance with reasonable social norms.” Our dependence upon rules and regulations has arisen, Howard argues, because of a corrosion in the belief in authority, in the authority of an actual person, to make decisions that may affect our lives.

I mention the predicament we in modern America face because I think it is the predicament that Jesus faced as he began his ministry. The Jewish people had lost sight of the purpose of the Law, or Torah of God. And in this passage and in passages to come, Jesus is going to offer such a radical reinterpretation of God’s Law, that many would accuse him of being a heretic, of dishonoring God, when in fact he was revealing the weightier matters of the Law, revealing the Law’s true purpose, which is to set boundaries and provide guidance for human life and human flourishing under God’s Will.

Today, the word “Pharisee” has a bad connotation in Christian culture. It basically means someone who is judgmental, legalistic, and a hypocrite. But in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were well respected, the rock stars of the Jewish world. Jewish scholarship had become increasingly focused on the letter of the Law, on keeping the law. As John Stott points out in his book Christian Counter Culture, scholars at the time found that the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, had 248 positive commandments and 365 prohibitions (Stott, 74). As Paul notes, the Law itself was meant to bring life but sin brought death through the Law (Romans 7:7). Jesus will later challenge this notion of obedience through Law keeping by summing up the entire Law as Loving God and Loving your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40). Yet this seems to be contradicted by Jesus’ claim that not an “iota, not a dot” will pass away from the Law. This would seem to suggest Jesus’ support of the very legalism that he would later critique. How can we reconcile what seems to be a command for strict observance of the Law from Jesus with his later actions which suggest more following the Spirit of the Law rather than the Letter?

Most scholars agree that the key to understanding this passage is the Greek word “to fulfill.” Most agree that this word means “to completely fill up,” much like one would fill up a cup with water till it overflows. The idea that Jesus seems to be suggesting is that the Law of God is the cup and he himself is the water that will fill it. Jesus is bringing the Kingdom or Rule of God, God’s personal, powerful presence into our lives. And it is God’s Law, God’s Commandments, that give that Rule of God shape and form.

I know some might take issue with the idea that love does not nullify the ethical commands of scripture but allows us to see their true purpose. In the words of John Stott, “In every generation of the Christian era there have been those who could not accommodate themselves to Christ’s attitude to the law. The famous second century heretic Marcion, who rewrote the New Testament by eliminating its references to the Old, naturally erased this passage. Some of his followers went further. They dared even to reverse its meaning by exchanging the verbs so that the sentence then read: “I have come not to fulfill the law and the prophets, but to abolish them’! Their counterparts today seem to be those who have embraced the so called ‘new morality’, for they declare that the very category of law is abolished for the Christian, that no law any longer binds Christian people except the law of love, and in fact the command to love is the only absolute there is” (Stott, 72).

As the Gospel of John says, “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” I believe that the main reason the modern church remains divided is because the human heart often refuses to take both Grace and Truth. Depending upon our disposition, how we were raised, and the strengths and weaknesses God has placed in us, we will tend to gravitate towards a church that supports one and not the other, but rarely do we find a church that lives in both Grace and Truth. Dr. Henry Cloud, in his book Changes That Heal, defines Grace as, “the relational aspect of God’s character. It shows itself in his unconditional connection to us” (Cloud, 19). Cloud defines Truth as, what is real; it describes how things really are (Cloud, 19). He then goes on to define the interaction between the two: “Just as grace is the relational aspect of God’s character, truth is the structural aspect of his character. Truth is the skeleton life hangs upon; it adds shape to everything in the universe. God’s truth leads us to what is real, to what is accurate. Just as our DNA contains the form that our physical life will take, God’s truth contains the form that our soul and spirit should take” (Cloud, 20).

We can see this struggle between Grace and Truth, between the letter and the Spirit of the law, play out in the This American Life radio episode entitled Father’s Day 2011 . Radio show host Ira Glass tells the story of Daniel Johnson, a 66 year old inmate, who has spent over half his life behind bars. And according to Glass, it shows. In Glass’ words Daniel is, “pale, gaunt, and has lost most of his teeth.” . Before he went to prison Daniel was a father of four and ran a successful insurance business. But he had a dark side. Daniel had a habit of infidelity and being a ladies man. When a woman turned him down, well things got ugly. Daniel was convicted of rape and given a sentence of life in prison. Daniel was actually able to reconcile with his victim but his family relationships never recovered. In Daniel’s words, “I really abandoned my children. Bradley will be 48. Michael is 46. Jacqueline is 45. And Tyler would be 34. When I lost them, through my own criminal acts, of course, that put a big void in my heart.”

Jesse Johnson (no relation to Daniel Johnson) is a 34 year old inmate who was also in prison for sexual assault. According to Glass, the host of the radio show, “Jesse never really knew his dad, and after he was separated from his mother at five, his grandmother had to take him in. He says she never really took to him, used to beat him. And he ran away when he was 11.”

Daniel and Jesse connected in prison and they found an opportunity for grace. The truth is they had both messed up. The truth is they deserved the punishment they received. But the grace of the story is that Daniel became a father figure to Jesse. Not just a father figure. One day in 2009 Jesse called Daniel “dad” almost by accident. But it seemed to both of them to be the most natural thing in the world. To quote Daniel, “ He told me one day, he said, you know– and he was looking at me as a father anyway– he kind of called me Dad, you know. He said, when I was born, I didn’t have a father on my birth certificate. I said, you know, there’s a big void in my heart, too, Jesse. I said, I’ve lost my children. And I said, it would be wonderful for me to have a son. I’ll adopt you.”

That’s right a grown 66 year old white man in prison agreed to adopt a grown 34 year old black man in prison. Legally, it turns out it isn’t that hard to adopt an adult. In Texas, the state they were in, both parties have to agree to it, and a judge has to sign off on it. So Daniel filed the paperwork and sent it to a judge. Months went by but Daniel finally got a letter from a judge asking him why he wanted to adopt Jesse. This is Daniel’s reply, “There’s a lot of love of a father within me. This love has found a child. It’s found a home. It’s someone I can call my son, who is not perfect, and I’m far from perfect. And we’re going to do just fine, because I’ve accepted him, in my heart, as my son.”

No surprise, that was enough of a reason for the judge to approve the request. Jesse also told This American Life why he wanted to be adopted. According to Jesse, “I thought it was just God sent that he didn’t have a relationship with his children, and I didn’t have a relationship with my father. He fulfilled that spot that I always wanted. I always wanted some male figure in my life, somebody that I can look up to that had achieved something, that had done some things in life that I can say, hey, I want to do that. And someone that would just be there for me, that whenever I messed up, they wouldn’t criticize me, they wouldn’t hit me, they wouldn’t be verbally abusive with me.

He would never be that way towards me. If he saw any of my shortcomings, my weaknesses, he would just inspire me. Like, that’s OK, you can do better, take your time.” The reaction at the prison was of course mixed. The older guys in Daniel’s wing didn’t have a problem with it. But the younger guys in Jesse’s wing did. Some thought there was something sexually inappropriate going on between the two of them. Jesse even got attacked in his cell one night. Officials decided to send Jesse to another prison, they said for his own safety. But Jesse and Daniel think it was because the officials didn’t approve of the adoption. And that’s how people often react when we show grace in the context of truth. They don’t understand it. They think there must be an ulterior motive. But as Bono from the band U2 once said, “grace finds beauty in ugly things.”

Where are you coming from today? What part of God’s Truth have you denied? What part of God’s grace have you yet to receive? To come before the living God requires our acceptance of both Grace and Truth. It requires a deeper love of the Lord than just following the rules. It requires that we be touched by the Holy Spirit who inspired God’s commandments. In short it requires that we cry out in the Spirit of adoption. As Paul says in Romans 8:12-17, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs-heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” That my friends is Grace and Truth. That my friends is the fulfillment of the Law.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen

Note: Chloe Stirling got a commercial grade kitchen donated to her by a contractor. Jesse is now out of prison and can visit is Father. 

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