Good Samaritan

Tensions in the Law

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Amos 7:7-17 OR Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Law and land are themes running through this week’s lectionary readings. In Deuteronomy, Moses spells out the law for the Promised Land that the Israelite’s will soon inhabit. In Luke, Jesus discusses Torah and its interpretation with a young lawyer as he journeys to Jerusalem, a journey that requires many Israelites to pass through the land of the Samaritans, a people in dubious relation to the law. In Psalm 82, God is the great judge holding council with the gods of the nations.

As a member of a late modern society, I sense in myself a certain complacency with regard to the law of this land. Even dramatic cases of judicial corruption do not, I am sad to say, disrupt my complacency for long. ‘We’ve got checks and balances,’ I say to myself, ‘the system will right itself.’ In blinding us to corruption, our system may find a reflection in the system confronted by Amos. Amaziah, Jeroboam’s chief priest, becomes a recognizable image of an administrator of human justice. He seems well aware that, for the system to function, protocol must be maintained. And this protocol entails a kind of behavioral training for those who live in the system. Amos flouts the dispositions for the professional prophet with the disruptive tenor of his words. It is not for speaking falsehoods that Amaziah diplomatically tries to banish him to a place where his words can do little harm; it is because he threatens the stability of the kingdom.

So the surface issue of law hovers above a deeper, systematic condition. Law is underwritten by ideology: a symbolic order by which we justify frequently unjust ways of life.The lawyer’s interrogation of Jesus in Luke 10, and the parable Jesus tells in response, lay bare the workings of (legal) ideology. The man’s question — “who is my neighbor?” — already harbors the tension between law as worthy and useful tool and instrument of oppression. The response of the priest and the Levite to the victim of injustice illustrates vividly the problem of law as one of blindness. Their preoccupations and their systematic training lead to an inability to see the victim as victim. Instead of the law making them more human, it perversely makes them less, stopping up the responses of mercy. Further, the parable draws upon the role of land and national identity in such legal systems, as the presence of the Samaritan and their territory signifies border crossing and lawlessness (because they are outside of Torah). Law, land, and ideology.

Theology has its own ways of reflecting this tension within law. Here, the issue is what theologians call “natural law.” One side of the debate espouses the need for an account of the moral order in which all persons have a share by virtue of being created as embodied reasoners. The other side voices biblical worries that such accounts will frequently be perceived as coercive by those to whom they are addressed. Not to be forgotten either is how a desire to rule may tempt the authors and purveyors of such accounts.

A version of the legal tension perhaps lurks within the conflicts among the Colossians that Paul addresses in his letter. Law here has the form of certain practices of moral/religious asceticism, expressive of a particular cosmic vision, being practiced by some in the community. As these urge it on the others—at the same time accusing them of loose-living?—division in the body results.

What strikes me here is the wisely pragmatic nature of Paul’s response. He reminds the Colossians of the good news: it is this gospel that saved them when they heard and received it. Their faith in it is the whole reason he finds himself writing to them now. The only thing possible, and needful, for them is for Paul to further draw out the ramifications of being saved in Christ, and so to allow them to mature and bear the fruit of this redemption.

How does he do so? Well, to repeat, the first thing is to remind them that their life is a gift, received on the day they heard the gospel (1:7). As God has made them “fit” (1:12) for this new life in Christ, they should go living in a way that embodies thanksgiving. In redeeming them, Paul says, God has “transferred” them to a new kingdom. Membership in the body entails a transfer of allegiances. As citizens of Christ’s kingdom they have a freedom superior, it would seem, to the rulers who still live in darkness. (1:13)

Next, reframing the debate with regard to its source in a cosmic vision, Paul proclaims Christ as the origin, master and end of all cosmic powers, saying “all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (1:16-17)”

How, then, are we to take steps forward, knowing that our laws and codes readily become idolatrous? We are to turn to Christ, Paul suggests. Like Paul, we may see this as identification with Christ, for the church: “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, on behalf of his body, which is the church. (1:24)”

The social implications of this are not necessarily radical, as the well-known “household” passages a bit later suggest. Yet the implication is that the social structures of our day, whatever value they may have in themselves, are now placed in relation to God’s saving work in Christ. Whether we are lawyers or anarchists, member of privileged classes or oppressed peoples, highly educated or barely literate, we can become free to suffer his wounds in our own bodies. United in Christ’s suffering, the body and its members — that is, the church – can be a sign for the world of its creator and Lord.

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