The Spirit vs the Letter

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
—Matt. 5:17

I. Roy, Westy, and Skinny

Roy Blakely was a Boy Scout in the earliest days of scouting. In fact, he was the leader of his patrol. Well, one day when he was following a trail left by another Scout months earlier, he suddenly found himself so deep in a swamp that not only could he not find his way out, but he couldn’t have gotten out even if the way was obvious, so deep in the mud had his feet gotten stuck. The harder he tried to free himself from the muck, the more stuck he became. He tried pulling himself up by vines and tree branches, but they were all too small or too weak.

He finally became so discouraged that he decided there was no way he was going to get out of there, and it bothered him that if he died in that place, they’d never find his body. But he found the stub of a pencil in his shirt pocket, along with a piece of paper, and he wrote down his name and date and the cause of his death, and attached it to a nearby tree branch.

What he didn’t realize was that the swamp he was in was actually the bed of a tidal creek. And gradually—so gradually that he didn’t realize it at first—the tide started coming in and the water around him started rising. It sounds disastrous, I know, but eventually the mud around him loosened and he was able to swim his way free. Being a resourceful Boy Scout, he found a big log, and floated with it to the old houseboat that his troop was restoring so that they could eventually take it to their summer camp.

Sounds like a happy ending, doesn’t it? But when the boys took the houseboat out for the first time, they, too, forgot that the river (of which Roy’s creek was a tributary) was also tidal, and as the tide went out they got stuck on a mudflat. As they were sitting there it got dark, and off in the distance they heard some fishermen whose voices they recognized. And Roy could barely make out his name being spoken. He wondered why they were talking about him, but then he realized: The fishermen had somehow found his note, and they were intending to break the news to his parents when they returned to town.

He frantically shouted at them to tell them he was alive, but by then they’d moved on. Now, mind you, Roy’s mother had already lost one son, and his death had nearly killed her. Roy couldn’t let his mother believe that he’d died, too. And so he asked the best signaler in the troop to send up Morse Code in smoke signals in the hope that somebody in town could decipher it and tell the fishermen not to tell the Blakelys something that wasn’t true in the first place.

When the tide came back and the boys floated into town the next morning, Roy discovered that his parents were upset with him for being gone all night, but they hadn’t heard the other news. But he never found out who had read the smoke signals.

Well, the following day, the boys met once again to do more work on their houseboat, and when Roy’s friend Westy Martin didn’t show up, the scoutmaster had Roy call him. His mother said he’d left earlier that morning with his baseball glove, and so Roy had to tell the rest of the troop that Westy was derelict in his responsibilities and had preferred his own fun to sharing in the workload of the troop. During his lunch break, he decided to look for him. And once again, he followed a trail. And this one led not to a baseball diamond, but to a tenement slum, which was odd, because Westy’s family was quite wealthy.

And when he knocked on the door, it was Westy who opened it. And there Roy saw a sickly boy lying in a bed barely conscious, and beside him was Roy’s baseball glove. Come to find out, the boy’s name was Skinny McCord, and his mother did Westy’s family’s laundry. When she’d arrived at the Martins’ house that morning, she asked Westy if he’d sit with Skinny, because he’d been out all night himself. Skinny had consumption, and the night air had nearly killed him—in fact, Skinny couldn’t live much longer without fresh air or medical care.

Come to find out, Skinny had been out all night because he’d gotten his hands on one of Westy’s old Boy Scout handbooks and had memorized Morse Code. When he saw the smoke signals in the air the evening before, he’d made his way to the docks and told the returning fishermen what he’d learned. So it was Skinny who, as far as Roy was concerned, had saved Mrs. Blakely’s life.

And so Westy had broken scout law when he hadn’t shown up to help work on the boat: he hadn’t been trustworthy. But in bringing a dying boy his prized baseball glove and sitting with him while his mother was out working, he was certainly kind and helpful and even loyal to his friend Roy. So in breaking one area of scout law he was upholding several others.

And Roy, in finding Westy and Skinny and not returning to do his duty by the troop had also broken the scout law. But he, too, had upheld several others. And so when the two boys returned to an angry troop and discovered that they were ready to reprimand Westy and replace Roy as patrol leader, they said they were willing to accept that judgment, but that first they wanted the troop to find a place for Skinny McCord in their ranks.

When the other boys found out why first Westy and then Roy had gone AWOL, they quickly changed their tone. They ended up cheering them for having the right priorities, and they welcomed Skinny into their troop. As it turned out, Skinny recovered enough to go to camp soon after that, and the fresh air and exercise saved his life.

II. The Law of God

The story of Roy, Westy, and Skinny is a great example of what happens when we try to abide by the law. It’s great to be law-abiding, isn’t it? But sometimes, when the letter of the law comes up against the spirit of the law, there’s a problem. And several times through his ministry, that’s what we see happening with Jesus. He’s a stickler for God’s law… just not in the way Fundamentalists usually are.

Since some of the strictest of legalism in those days had to do with observing the Sabbath, the way Jesus dealt with it is of particular interest. And it’s also one of the areas where he was criticized the most. His response? “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” In other words, even the laws intended for our holiness are to be observed with human beings in mind.

And that seems to be a common thread throughout this morning’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount: How can the law be interpreted to respect the integrity of the human person? Knowing that the authorities are going to be taking issue with what he has to say on the subject, Jesus starts off this section by saying that he’s not doing away with the law of God, but he’s fulfilling its original purpose and teaching others to do the same.

And its original purpose is fullness of life.

To better understand the purpose behind the law, let’s look at one of our own most commonly disobeyed laws, that being the speed limit.

No matter what road we’re on, there’s a legal limit to how fast we can drive on it. If there’s a lot of traffic—and a lot of traffic signals—then we might well drive under that speed limit. But if the coast is clear—no cars in the way and green lights as far as the eye can see—then chances are we might go over the speed limit. The temptation is too great.

But even then, I think all of us are perfectly aware that the speed limit doesn’t exist for its own sake. Nor does it exist to make the police force’s job easier. It exists for safety’s sake—that is, for the sake of life. By driving at a safe speed, we’re helping to save the lives of other drivers and of any pedestrians who might be trying to cross the road.

Such is the case with God’s law as Jesus interprets it. God didn’t give it to us simply to test us in order to see if we could do as we were told. God gave us a law to make us safe and to make us happy. But this happiness can only be complete if we can look at the law from three points of view—our own, of course; but also God’s and another person’s. That’s because God does not love just me in isolation. I’m part of a people, and God loves all of us together.

Let’s look at an oft-discussed section that begins with verse 27. Jesus reminds us of one of the Ten Commandments—Thou shalt not commit adultery. But he takes this commandment out of the realm of the literal interpretation, and says that adultery starts in the heart. If we entertain fantasies about other people, then we’ve already lost the battle. God’s commandment, therefore, wasn’t just about what we do with or to others. It’s about how we perceive them. They are not objects, but beloved children of God.

It’s the same thing with Thou shalt not kill. The act of murder may culminate in a gun being shot or a knife being used. But it starts in the heart, and so once we entertain hateful thoughts about others, we’ve already started down the road that leads to death.

The idea of revenge is one of the hardest concepts in the Sermon on the Mount. The law of God allows for revenge: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, as Jesus reminds us… but the actual law goes further and allows for a life for a life. Jesus’ interpretation of this is that just because God’s law allows for something, doesn’t mean we need to follow through. Just because revenge exists as a possibility doesn’t mean we have to take it.

Jesus uses graphic imagery—turn the other cheek—to tell his followers what their attitude toward vengeance should be. It’s the very policy adopted by King and Gandhi: Nonviolence in the face of violence, a conscience decision to stop a vicious cycle in its tracks. We have seen with our own eyes that this strategy is not passive and it’s far from cowardly.

When we read this section of the Sermon on the Mount, I hope we’re reminded in a very strong way that we cannot interpret it literally. Jesus is taking words and creating pictures here, and he’s showing us here that much of the law is based on only one snippet of a particular situation. The act of adultery is the culmination of selfish thoughts. Murder doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but only after we become possessed by hateful thoughts. If revenge is taken to its logical conclusion, the whole world will be blind and toothless.

The best laws—whether they be the Boy Scout Law, the statutes of the City of Huntsville, or the Ten Commandments of God—are intended not for mindless obedience, but to serve a purpose deeper than the words convey. Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount in an age when, in the eyes of many, literal interpretation had taken the place of thoughtful consideration. This happens, I believe in every age, including our own. If the Sermon on the Mount serves no other purpose in our lives, it should certainly show us that God’s purpose for us isn’t to chain ourselves to the letter of the law, but soar above it and understand its spirit. Only when we make connections between thoughts and actions can God’s reign on earth be realized. And only when we are willing to connect with others in a meaningful way can we take part in the beloved community that comes about as a result.
—©2017 Sam L. Greening, Jr.