“The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. ” Psalm 19:7
There seems a centuries old ambivalent attitude to the law in this country. For generations, the law was something imposed by English rulers, so disobedience, which was often simply a matter of convenience, could be justified by an appeal to patriotism—there could be no wrong in breaking rules made by a foreign occupying power.
If law-breaking was a matter of patriotism, when independence came in 1922, there should suddenly have been a nation of law-abiding people. But attitudes to the law seem to have become increasingly negative. There were always people who thought that laws on licensing hours and the distilling of illicit alcohol were there to be ignored; motorists tended to regard the rules of the road as guidelines; the payment of taxes and duties was something to be legally avoided, or, in some cases, illegally evaded. In recent times, feelings seem to have shifted, from feeling negative towards the law, people have moved to feeling simply cynical. Political and financial corruption have led to thoughts that there are different sets of laws for different sets of people and a sense that the law has become a matter of injustice.
Even the words we use about people who adhere strictly to laws have negative overtones, if we say that someone is ‘legalistic’ in their attitude or in their behaviour, we are not paying them a compliment. People observant of every rule and regulation tend to be regarded as odd, if not actively disliked.
When we turn to Scripture, to the first five books of the Bible, when we look at the books which bring to us the Law of Moses, we see an attitude that is very different. Torah, the Jewish name for the first five books, means, literally, ‘teaching’; teaching believed to have come from God and to have been written down by Moses.
In Scripture there is a delight in the teaching they have received, in the Law that has been passed down to them through the generations. Psalm 19 describes the Law as more precious than anything else a person may possess and as the sweetest tasting food one may eat:
“The decrees of the Lord . . . are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.
In a cynical age, it might seem strange to us that anyone would celebrate receiving laws. The first five books of the Old Testament books have major ethical principles, but they also have much that sounds strange and bizarre to modern ears. Why would the Jewish people have celebrated having the Law?
When we think about law, we think about it as a series of prohibitions and restrictions, it would not occur to us to celebrate having laws, we would not be inclined to see our legal system as more precious than gold or as tasting sweeter than honey.
The book of Nehemiah gives us an insight into what the Law meant to the Jewish people. In Nehemiah Chapter 8, Nehemiah, talks about Ezra reading the Book of the Law of Moses to the people and we are told that he read from daybreak until noon in the presence of all the adults and younger people who were able to understand. They stood and listened, for six hours they stood and listened. Can you imagine someone reading from the Bible for six hours while we stood and listened?
Why was the Law so important to these people? What was all this about? This was the people of Israel being reminded of who they were and how they were to live. They had received the Books of the Law from God. These books told them their story and they told them about the faith which held them together, but they had been through terrible times, including losing their land, and the Books of the Law had been lost.
They stood and listened for six hours because these books told them what their life was about and how they should live as a community. Life as a member of this covenant community is at the heart of the life of God’s people. This reading of the Law wasn’t just about rebuilding their relationship with God, it was also about rebuilding their relationships with each other.
It was the Law that made the Jewish people what they were—their identity as a people came from the fact that they were people of the Book. No other religion in the world of their time had such a set of Scriptures. The first five books of Scripture are much more than just part of a greater whole; they are essential to what it means to be one of God’s people.
Lest Christians think that the Law is something just to be discarded, Jesus emphasises how important the Law is in God’s relationship with his people. In Saint Matthew Chapter 5, Verse 17, he says, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’.
If the Law is part of the identity of God’s people in the days of Nehemiah, then it is part of the identity of God’s people today. The Church of Ireland has always acknowledged the place of the Law at the heart of its teaching. Preparation for confirmation requires that candidates be instructed in the Creed, the Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer: the Ten Commandments, the heart of God’s revelation to Moses, are still at the heart of the teaching of the church.
Have we ever felt like celebrating that we have the Commandments? When we read through God’s words to Moses, have we ever been filled with a sense of joy? We do not have an awareness of how important the Law is in our identity as Christians; we do not have an awareness that it is the Law, fulfilled in Jesus, that makes us different from the world in which we live.
Attending a Christian conference on aid and development back in 1999, one of those present commented that she was not a Christian, but that she held similar values to Christians and that we should all work together on the basis of common principles. She looked askance when it was suggested that the difference in our principles was that her views were a matter of opinion; but for Christians, principles were not a matter of opinion but a matter of absolute imperative, to ignore them would be to deny our identity as Christians.
The Law is absolute; it is God’s revelation to Moses; it is not a matter of negotiation or debate. The Law is the complete opposite of the world in which we now live where we are told that everything is relative, where we are told that everyone’s opinion is of equal value.
Jesus would dismiss the relativism of our times. He fulfils the Law because he is God’s absolute revelation. As was the case with the Commandments, so Jesus is not open to negotiation; the Commandments are there to be obeyed or to be disobeyed, Jesus is there to be accepted or to be rejected.
The Law is made possible because God has a personal relationship with Moses; the Law is made known to God’s people through someone who was far from perfect, but who was open to the voice of God. We can only ponder what Moses’ meetings with God were like, what astonishing moments they must have been.
In the giving of the Law, God has a personal relationship with one person; in Jesus, God offers a personal relationship with anyone who wants a relationship with him.
The Law is God’s dealing with his chosen people; Jesus is God’s dealing with all people.