Christians and the LawSermon passage: (James 2:8-13) Spoken on: May 20, 2012
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Sermon on James 2:8-13
Today’s passage is a continuation of last week’s topic of favoritism. However, I’ve intentionally covered favoritism fully last week, so that I may reflect on a specific issue in today’s passage: the issue of Christians and the Law. I’m interested in going deeper into this topic because we Christians often have an uneasy relationship with the Law. On one hand, the Law is undeniably one of the central themes of the Old Testament. You cannot avoid a subject that is so prominent and spans more than half of the Bible. The God we worship is the Law-giver. On the other hand, matters of the Law seem to have been superseded by faith in Jesus Christ. Paul said in Galatians:
Galatians 3: 23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
The words of Paul created an impression that the Law was a thing of the past. Though it used to be a really big deal, we can seemingly ignore it now that faith in Jesus Christ is revealed. Yet, we have to be extremely cautious here. It would be foolhardy to dismiss such a major element of the religion so quickly. After all, the importance of the Law continued to resonate with other New Testament writers like Matthew and James. Even with Paul, the subject of the Law never really faded away, but reappeared in different forms as he wrote on. So after Galatians 3, we read this in Galatians 5:
Galatians 5: 13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Romans 3: 31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
We see that even Paul himself continued to “fulfill” and “uphold” the Law. It is therefore not a straight-forward case that we can ignore the Law just because we have Jesus. It would be wise for us to study this issue deeper. What exactly should be our attitude towards the Law? To address this question, we need to understand the historical transitions in perspectives towards the Law. We begin with the Jews themselves during the Old Testament times. As outsiders, we would imagine that the Law was a huge burden that they had to bear. It must be like a torturous shackle that restricted their lives and how their society must behave. Thou shall not eat this or that. Thou shall do this or that at a specific time or day. To us, the Law appears to be a long list of do’s and don’ts. We lament these rigid and nitty-gritty rules and wonder how James can call it “the law that gives freedom” (v.12).
Yet surprisingly, that was not how the Jews perceived the Law. Witness how they sang of the beauty of the Law in the Psalms.
Psalm 19: 7 The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. 8 The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. 9 The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous. 10 They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.
There is even a Psalm 119, the longest Psalm of the Psalms, which is a 176-verse Psalm primarily praising the wonderfulness of the Law. The words that are used are so graphic, and embarrassingly emotionally strong, even for a love poem. Get a room, Law and Jews.
We may wonder, how can something so controlling as the Law be so cherished by the Jews? I believe there are 2 factors that lead to this. Firstly, the concept of laws may seem restrictive, but well-constructed laws actually allow law-abiders more freedom to live. Imagine a soccer match without rules or referee, how are you going to play the game properly? Anybody can use whatever method they like to win the game, from using their hands to even using flamethrowers and chainsaws. The game becomes senseless. In other words, the nitty-gritty rules, from the offside rules to the amount of extra time allocated, are important elements of the game that allow playing to be enjoyable. Similarly, the Law allowed the Jews to function by providing rules for a humane society that respects one another, takes care of the poor and needy, and reminds them of the authority from above. The Law allowed the Jews to live life to the fullest by providing considerate and well-defined boundaries for them. 
Secondly, the Law was also cherished by the Jews because the Law connected them to the Law-giver. So in everything that they did or abstained from doing, they did them conscientiously and purposefully. This gave a sense of meaning and identity to their life. If you think of it as “I had to do this because God made me do it”, then every obligation would of course be painful. But if you think of it as “God cares about this, I get to do something God wants”, then you see how every task can be a joy and an honour. I have a couple of orthodox Jewish friends with whom I chat online. Obeying the Law gives them great meaning in life. For us, a meal is a meal. But for them, each element of their meal is meaningful and purposeful, and linked to their identity as a people of God. And this is why they don’t call it the Law, but rather words or instructions from God. There is a person behind the Law, and this is how they relate to the Law-giver as a people. Now you can understand why the Law was enjoyed and appreciated by the ancient Jews.
Such an attitude towards the Law became more pronounced during the post-exilic years. The Davidic dynasty had ended. The Temple was destroyed. The holy city razed to the ground. As you can imagine, religious practices also had to change in a radical way. As a narrative, Judaism shifted from a focus on royal leaders to the solidarity of a community struggling for identity. In terms of piety, Judaism shifted from a cultic religion based on sacrifices in the Temple to a life-based religion based on daily practices. The center of authority was no longer built on a holy city or building, but on the holiness of the written word. These shifts channeled religious fervor towards knowing the Law and living it out literally. Such an obsession with the Law resulted in the rise of the Pharisees. They were the leaders from the common people who were respected for their skilled interpretation of the Law.
It was at this juncture that Jesus entered the scene. Like the Pharisees, Jesus was called a Rabbi, meaning that he was recognized as a teacher of the Law. On one hand he was serious about every single law when he said: Matthew 5: 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
On the other hand, unlike some (not all) Pharisees who tried to obey the Law in a legalistic and exhaustive way, Jesus fulfilled the Law in a holistic manner. Ironically, the way to be serious about every single law was to summarize them into the two greatest laws. Matthew 22: 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
How Jesus interpreted the Law is of tremendous implications for us. Although there were other religious teachers who also summarized the Law in this way (see Luke 10:25-27), Jesus gave it his definitive ruling on the matter by instating a new covenant with his followers with his blood. This is a new covenant where the Law would be fulfilled in our hearts. This is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 31: 31 “The days are coming,” declares the LORD,“when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
After surveying through the evolution of perspectives towards the Law, following the Jews from the ancient times till Jesus' time, I believe we are now better equiped to address the question: What exactly should be our attitude towards the Law? Like the Jews, we honor and cherish it. We believe the Law connects us to the Law-giver. Our lives are enriched when we live out God's will freely. However, as followers of Jesus, our interpretation of the Law is authoritatively defined as the commandments to love God and our neighbors. And this is why in today's passage, James concludes on the matter of favoritism in a direct manner. When you love your neighbors as yourself, you are living righteously. But when you disdain the poor and honor the rich unfairly, it is not love, and you have broken the essence of the Law. Sometimes, church members have queried, what should we do with all the laws found in the Old Testament? If I may sum up the take-home message for today, it would be this: Fulfill the Law. And as a follower of Jesus, fulfill the Law by loving God and loving your fellow men.
In trying to fulfill the Law, you may wonder about an issue : Are we going back into legalism? What about grace and mercy? James talked about this in Verse 13: “ Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” The concept of mercy seems to be in contradiction to the concept of Law. If God is merciful, how can he be judging without mercy? Conversely, if God is indeed serious about law-abiding, then why does James conclude that mercy triumphs over judgment? Won't everybody then rely on God's mercy and disregard the law? On the surface, mercy and law are contradictory. However, the contradiction is resolved when the law itself is a law to be loving and merciful. In Matthew 7:2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. God is consistent in his fairness, just as he is consistent in exercising his mercy and grace. If we follow the law to love and be merciful, God is fair and will be loving and merciful to us. If we disobey the law and act unmercifully, God would be equally fair to be unmerciful to us as it is what we deserve. It seems like legalism when we say we aim to fulfill the Law. But it is not, simply because the law we are fulfilling is the law of love, mercy and grace. When we are loving and merciful, it is not our justification. We act in grace so that God may be gracious towards us.
I wish to end our reflection on Christians and the Law on a more practical note. By now, it should be very clear that Love is the way to fulfill the Law. Yet, what is love? The commandment to love your neighbors as yourself is actually quite similar to the golden rule “do unto others what you want others to do unto you”. It may seem like common sense, but you would be surprised how much we neglect this basic common sense. We get upset when we are criticized, yet we can be so critical of others. We want to be heard, yet when do we listen? We want more warmth in this community, yet we choose to stay aloof. We want others to sing our songs, yet we are biased when they want us to sing their songs. When will we ever sing in harmony with one another?
In the end, the question “What is love?” has a simple answer: whatever you want others to do to you, you do it first. Many of us want to be understood; learn to understand others. Many of us want to be appreciated; then appreciate others. Many of us want love; I think deep down inside, you know how to love.
 You may be wondering about many of the peculiar Jewish laws, such as the food laws. Don’t the Jews find them to be a huge sacrifice on choices in life? But I think we would be looking at this in the wrong way. We think it is a sacrifice like how a person on diet looks enviously at fried chicken. But I suspect it is more like how the vegetarians and vegans look at meat. It is not a lack of choice if it is not a consideration in the first place. You cannot lose something which you have never wanted.
 Another side issue is in Verse 10: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” It seems a little extreme for James to equate breaking one law as breaking the entire law. If that is true, then won't we be paranoid of every law recorded in the Bible? That is not the objective of James. He is addressing some Christians who think that favoritism isn't a big deal since it is just a cultural practice. Towards such a mindset, James has 3 things to say. First, even if you break a small law, the status of a law-breaker still applies. Status-wise, a law-breaker is a law-breaker whether the broken law is big or small. Secondly, the nonchalant attitude reflects a disregard for the Law-giver. We follow the law, not because it is big or small, but out of love of the Law-giver. Lastly, the laws, whether big or small, are united in the principle of love. When you act unlovingly, you are breaking the law at its core. Now that we understand the objective of James, we should not be overly alarmed about observing every nitty-gritty law. The key lies in the attitude towards the Law. If we are serious about honoring the Law-giver and fulfilling the Law, then just be serious about Love. For just as breaking one point of the Law breaks all of it, fulfilling the law of love fulfills the entire Law.
James 2:8–13 (Listen)
8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.