If you grew up with sisters and brothers, then no doubt you know the joys of being crammed into the back seat of the family car. And of Dad threatening to pull the car over to get you and your siblings to stop bugging each other until finally he issues an edict: “Nobody touches anybody else.”
Not ten seconds later, your older brother’s finger will hover a millimeter above your arm while he insists: “I’m not touching you – I’m not touching you.” He is obeying the letter of the law, that’s for sure. But what makes this inevitable scenario more annoying is how much you, the much-maligned younger sibling, knows that he is certainly disregarding the spirit of the law.
Most anyone can become habituated to the laws that govern us and can stay within the guidelines. It’s no real challenge to obey the letter of the law. But the spirit of the law is something else again. When Jesus speaks of expanding existing laws, his concern is not our technical obedience. Rather, Jesus wants to know the state of our hearts. How are we within ourselves, where no one else can see? How are we living in relationship to those around us? Is it enough to be going through life with a finger poised endlessly over someone else’s arm, or can we evolve and mature to the point that we seek actively to wish good things to befall others?
In her novel The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler shows us a man named Macon Leary, who makes a living writing travel guides for people who hate to travel but are forced to for their jobs. His series of books tells these reluctant travelers where to find a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing and how to instruct the Parisian Burger King to leave off the extra pickles.
Consumed with efficiency, the protagonist finds his life becoming smaller and smaller because, even as he scrupulously stays within the guidelines, the absence of relationship in his life robs it of meaning.
Until he meets a scatter-brained, enthusiastic woman and her young son. She fears nothing and jumps into every day with both feet as though she’s being given a grand adventure. While Macon makes a living helping strangers observe the letter of the law, Muriel’s open-hearted self is governed entirely by the spirit of the law.
“I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s not just how much you love someone,” Muriel tells Macon. “Maybe what matters is who you are when you’re with them.” In speaking to the spirit of the law, Jesus is appealing to who you and I are when we choose to live fully present in the Spirit.
And we are relational beings. Jesus is calling on you and me to remember that none of us lives in isolation, but that our whole and complete selves depends on who we are when we are in relationship to those around us. “I’m not touching you” becomes pointless when we’re the only ones in the back seat. Nothing that we do stands alone. Our words and our deeds affect those around us. To be accountable to a community puts some checks and balances in place in the life of a disciple.
When Moses led the Israelites out of slavery into the desert, God had first to teach them how to live in community. To live enslaved is to live entirely in the present moment and entirely for one’s own self-interest, with no emotional energy to spare for the lives of others. But before he could show His people how to live as a community of faith, God had first to show them how to live as though what they said and did affected others.
Who we choose to be in the world is a manifestation of those we are connected with. While most of us can claim with confidence that we’ve never murdered or committed adultery – that we have no problem hewing to the letter of the law – it becomes a lot more difficult to claim that we are free from the spirit of the law. I can think of a number of occasions when my words have slaughtered others. I can think of times when, like Jimmy Carter, I must confess to have lusted in my heart. When I weigh my words and my actions as though they will affect others, I move with much more intent, so that I am closer to the spirit of the law in which Jesus invites us to dwell.
But the weight of the spirit of the law bears good news for you and for me as well. It reminds us that we are never alone. In a society in which it is increasingly easy to feel isolated, divided, and disconnected, the spirit of the law turns our every word and deed into a welcome reminder that we are part of a community that is much larger than our own small selves.
Who we are when Jesus is present within you, within me, reminds us that we are each of us God’s beloved creation in the world, sisters and brothers to all we encounter. And we need that good news, because to live within the spirit of the law would seem to set impossible standards. Can we really go through our lives, or even the day, without violating the guidelines that Jesus sets so broadly?
Of course not. But Jesus isn’t standing by with a clipboard, ready to record our numerous violations. Instead, Jesus is inviting you and me to see others as he sees them. To view everyone we encounter with the eyes of Christ. To envision life in the Kingdom of God here on earth by holding the welfare of our neighbors close to our hearts and trusting that they are doing the same for us.
What would our community be like if we genuinely cared for each other? How do we observe the law not just to stay out of trouble but to seek the welfare of our neighbors? What would happen if we treated every encounter as an opportunity to make the day a little brighter for those around us? We just might begin to feel like a new person. Like who we are when we are guided by Emmanuel, God with us.