Q: Why did New Jersey get all the toxic waste and California all the lawyers?
A: New Jersey got to pick first.
Having any number of friends who are lawyers, I don’t really mean that, though the joke is funny. Americans tend to both lean heavily on the law and lawyers while claiming we don’t like either of them, which always strikes me as weird.
“Our nation, of course, is a nation of law, and that is a good thing. Something we all applaud and are proud of, because, of course, it protects us from the arbitrary or self-interested whim of a tyrant or president or a congress. But that happy circumstance, you know, is such a given in this country that to most I suspect it seems abstract. And I suspect as well that most Americans like me get their backs up when they bump into a law. I don’t like to be told what to do, nor do I like to be told what not to do. Laws get in my way; they cramp my style. And since they are usually coupled with a threat or a penalty, I feel coerced.
“And so perhaps it was a fortunate and wise choice when translators gave us “commandment” instead of “law” in the lessons we heard this morning. For, you see, it was a choice: the word in Greek is exactly the same, entolē – and it means commandment; it also means law. But there is a difference, isn’t there, in the way it feels when we hear “A new commandment I give you” rather than “a new law.” From Jesus, our master and our friend, “commandment” doesn’t sound so bad, and we know that He would never coerce. But even from Jesus do we really want a law? Besides, isn’t Christianity supposed to be the end of the law? Didn’t St Paul tell us – with a certain joy and relief – that Christians were no longer bound to those six hundred and thirteen laws that governed and regulated the life of a pious Jew?
“And yet in the Greek of the New Testament, the word is the same, and so when we heard “commandment” in the lessons this morning, we could equally have been hearing “law.” Moreover, in the original the force of the word and its implications are the same: “A new law I give you that you love one another.” Love – it is a law. And if Jesus is Who we say He is, it is an obligation, which is absolute.”1
That’s the way the ancient Jews saw laws, as absolute, as natural, springing from God Himself. St. Paul speaks of the law that way in his letter to the Romans, writing to them about the sinful nature of man. Paul writes that he finds “it to be a law that when I do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members (that is, in his body, in his appetites), another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.”
See the natural law aspect to all of that? Law as unyielding, a natural force, as mysterious yet as identifiable as, say gravity.
And so we have the law of sin and the law of love, and like matter in quantum physics, they can’t dwell in the same space at the same time. Sin, John tells us today, is death, and so to dwell in sin is to dwell in death. Love, however, gives nothing but life, and John reminds us that we didn’t even know what love truly was until love Himself came to us in the person of Jesus Christ: “By this we know love,” John tells us, “because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”
That’s phenomenal stuff but it’s also challenging stuff; the Beatles told us that all we need is love, but the love to which we are commanded, the law of love, is to do whatever it takes to make sure that our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, everyone around us, knows love the way we love, in Christ Jesus: the love that lays it all down for the other, the kind of love that gives life to the world.
1Fr. Warren, Church of the Advent, Boston, May 10, 2009.