“The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul”. Psalm 19:7
“Your Sponsors did promise for you, that you should keep God’s Commandments”, says the Catechism. I wonder how many of us think of the Commandments as something to celebrate?
Attitudes towards law generally are often far from positive. Perhaps it is a reflection of the history of corruption in public life, perhaps it is because we might feel that laws depend on how rich we are, but people are often deeply cynical, even feeling 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.
In the light of people’s attitudes, how do we present the idea that “you should keep God’s Commandments” as something positive? When law is thought of as being about negative things, about the things we “shalt not”do, how do we present it as being good and positive?
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, Law that has the Ten Commandments at its heart, we see an attitude that is very different. Torah, the Jewish name for the first five books, means, literally,”teaching”. If we read Exodus Chapters 19-23, we see this teaching coming from God himself and being 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”.
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, an insight into why being told they should keep the Commandments was a source of joy. In Nehemiah Chapter 8, Nehemiah, talks about Ezra reading the Book of the Law of Moses to the people and we are told in Verse 2-3 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.
The Law that made the people what they were—their identity as a people came from the fact that they were people of the Law. The Law, with the Commandments at it heart, was essential to what it meant to be one of God’s people.
Sometimes Christians tend to sit easily to the Law, but Jesus himself 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. Our 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, the heart of the Law, are at the heart of the Catechism, 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.
At a Christian conference on aid and development, 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 attitudes of our times, the “whatever” attitude which says that anything goes and that nothing really matters. 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, Moses; in Jesus, God offers a personal relationship with anyone who wants a relationship with him. We should keep God’s Commandments, not out of a sense of legal duty, but out of a sense that this our part of the relationship, that this is our joyful response to the God who loves us enough to send his Son to die for us.