God’s law vs man’s law
The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany
Deuteronomy 4:5-13, 32-40, Psalm 66, Romans 13:1-7, St. Matthew 8:1-13
Law and Order
Deputy Barney Fife is leaning forward in his most earnest posture, resting his hands on the desk of Sheriff Andy Taylor. Barney is explaining to his boss the deplorable state of laxity into which their jail administration has fallen and the need to tighten things up.
Behind Barney in one of the two cells in the Mayberry jail we see Otis, the town drunk. Otis is, of course, a regular guest – and that, in Barney’s estimation, is precisely the problem.
He wants permission to begin a crackdown by administering a sobriety test to Otis – like they do in the big-city jails. Andy points out that sobriety tests are ordinarily given at the time of arrest:
“You should’ve given it to him when you brought him in last night.”
“Ah, Andy,” says Barney, “you know I couldn’t have given Otis a sobriety test last night.”
“He was too drunk.”
Barney perseveres until Andy allows him to give Otis an “alertness” test. He orders Otis out of the cell, whereupon Otis reaches through the bars and removes the key from a hook on the wall and lets himself out. Otis, by the way, is my all-time favorite town drunk because he always wears a suit and tie.
Barney motions for him to sit in a chair. First comes the verbal alertness test. Barney tells Otis to say, “Peter Piper picked a peck of . . .” He keeps trying until Otis says, “You mean, Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”?
Then comes the dexterity test. Barney demonstrates by extending both arms, bringing his hands together in front of his face and touching the tips of his index fingers. Otis complies, but with Barney leaning forward in front of him his fingers meet at the deputy’s nose. Oh, well.
Last comes the endurance test. Deputy Beanpole commands Otis to stand up and hop on one foot, then the other, as Barney does the same. Before long, Otis has to grab Barney to prop him up and then set him down on the chair, flat wore out.
The sheriff tells Otis to go home. Then he tells the bedraggled Barney he should submit his test to the FBI. “You could call it the ‘Barney Fife Peter Piper Nose Pinching Test.’”
Oh, for the good ol’ days. Funny thing about the law, though; it’s easier to laugh at it when we take it seriously, and that’s not always the case.
We can be certain that God takes it seriously. We have read this morning from Romans 13: “whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”
Beginning in the Garden of Eden, God has imposed law on His people. That first legal code was fairly basic. God told Adam:
“Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
At the outset, Adam and Eve needed no law beyond that one about what they could and could not eat. If Adam and Eve had rendered to God the love, trust and obedience due Him, they would have lived forever in a state of grace, unencumbered by any further laws.
They would have lived forever in a state of innocence – the innocence that was lost at the fall.
Laws define for us the good and the evil, the right and the wrong. They enshrine a code of morality – and morality is precisely the knowledge God reserved to Himself. The tree that bore the forbidden fruit was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of that fruit, Adam and Eve were not to partake.
If they had shown God the gratitude they owed Him for their creation, they would have loved, trusted and obeyed Him perfectly. What they should and should not do – moral choices — would not have been a matter of their discernment but of God’s command.
Had they obeyed, they would never have faced a question of right and wrong. What God says goes – period. They would have lived forever in a state of innocence. Their disobedience introduced sin into the creation, and where there is sin there must be law.
Our God is a God of order, and when Adam and Eve sinned they brought about the circumstances in which we live, in which only law can produce order. You remember “Law & Order.” Jack McCoy, the crusading prosecutor, is society’s avenger. His cases are fraught with moral ambiguities: It’s the law, but is it justice?
The executive producer of the series once said, “The first part of the show (the cop part) is a legal mystery; the second part (the lawyer part) is a moral mystery.”
Our hero Jack, a non-practicing Catholic who is twice-divorced, drinks Scotch, rides a motorcycle, has affairs with comely assistant prosecutors, finds flimsy pretexts on which to charge people when the original charges won’t stick and charges innocent folks to scare them into testifying against the bad guys.
In one episode, the Russian mob has been raining down mayhem, including killing an assistant district attorney. The mob’s lawyers have leaked information so witnesses could be intimidated. When the mobsters plant a bomb in the basement at police headquarters, Jack has had all he can stand.
He tells his boss, DA Adam Schiff, he’s going to send out the police to haul in his suspects. Adam tells him he doesn’t have enough evidence to arrest them:
Adam: I see. You’re planning to violate three; no, five amendments to the Constitution.
Jack: It’s time someone talked to Mr. Volsky in a language he understands.
Adam: And what language is that?
Jack: Adam, unless you order me not to do it . . .
Adam: I’m ordering you! (He walks out.)
Jack: (to his assisting prosecutor) Hand me that stack of arrest warrants.
Having blown up habeas corpus, he proceeds to string together appeals to higher and higher courts to keep the suspects cooling their heels in the pokey.
Jack McCoy is no Barney Fife. The more nervous we become about order the more serious we become about law. And the more conflicted
We’re at a far remove from a theocracy these days, but we can learn something from the theocracy God reinstituted when He ushered His covenant people Israel out of Egypt and formed them into a nation – a nation of sinners and a nation of laws.
God divided the religious and civil functions in the nation. He appointed Moses the administrator and judge. You’ll recall from Exodus that the burden of judging soon bore so heavily on him that he took the advice of his father-in-law Jethro and established lower courts to hear minor disputes. Only the major cases made their way up to him.
And God assigned Moses’ brother Aaron the role of high priest; he ran the church, the sacrificial system by which the people entered into the presence of their Lord.
So in the theocracy, Moses as prophet certainly operated in a religious capacity in delivering God’s judgments to the nation but we see a separation of sacramental and secular, of church and state. It points us forward to a time when men who don’t know the God of Israel will make and enforce the laws.
In a theocracy – rule by God – sin and crime are synonymous. In a monarchy – rule by one, whether he be called caesar or king or emperor or czar – and especially in a realm in which the monarch doesn’t know Israel’s God, church and state must run on different tracks.
A sin may not be a crime, as with fornication and adultery and homosexuality in our day; a crime may not be a sin, as with disobeying the authorities when they command you to disobey God.
That was the case in the first century, when Rome ruled the world, including the people of God in Palestine. Caesar put his face on the coins to remind everyone who was in charge. Israel could worship Yahweh if they first worshiped Caesar, something their commandments forbade.
Still, when God put on flesh and stepped into this world He taught His people, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). The next sentence is, “And they marveled at Him.”
Little wonder. Jesus had commanded them to support this government which was oppressing them . . . to honor the separation of church and state even when state is bludgeoning church. And in our passage from Romans Paul is expanding on that instruction.
He’s teaching that civil law is necessary to godly order and in consequence Christian citizens must obey their governing authorities. It is, after all, God above who appoints those who enact and enforce our laws below.
Are their exceptions? Of course there are. For today, we’ll leave it at this: When the authorities tell you to sin, follow Peter in Acts 5 and obey God and not man.
What thoughts must have tumbled through Paul’s head as, sitting in Corinth in southern Greece, he wrote these words to the church in Rome?
The Roman authorities saw Christians as a subset of the Jews, and thus officially protected in the practice of their faith . . . but things were not nearly that simple. Paul must have pondered long and hard the ramifications of his teaching.
The Christian is a “new man” who has entered a “new era” and is even now reigning with Christ in the spiritual realm. Is he thus immune from the laws of man? Does freedom in Christ mean exemption from civil rule?
“And be not conformed to this world,” those Roman church members had read in the previous chapter of this epistle. Did that mean they could ignore its laws?
The attitude of the authorities no doubt cost Paul some sleep as well. They might have tolerated Judaism and with it Christianity as a Jewish cult – but they didn’t have to like either one, and they didn’t. Even before Jesus began His earthly ministry, back in the year A.D. 18, the emperor Tiberius had run the Jews out of Rome.
In Roman eyes the whole lot of them were practitioners of “a disgusting Oriental superstition” (F. F. Bruce).
Before the apostle wrote this letter, the historian Suetonius reports, the emperor Claudius “expelled the Jews from Rome because they were constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus.” That name is a Romanized version of the Greek “Christos.” We see that in this case the Romans made no distinction between Christian and Jew.
When the Romans did regard Christians as a group apart, they associated them with their founder, He on whose cross was inscribed, “King of the Jews.” These Christians were ones who followed an outlaw — tried, convicted and executed under Roman law as a challenger to the sovereignty of Caesar. The historian Tacitus wrote that they “fomented subversion throughout the world.”
With the political winds swirling, we can be sure Paul picked his words most judiciously. “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities . . . whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”
Paul sets out a high view of the authority of the state, higher than any before him, higher than Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. The overarching principle, again, is order. “Without justice,” St. Augustine would ask, “what are kingdoms but great gangs of robbers?”
Paul’s colleague in apostleship, Peter, sounds the same note. We find in 1 Peter 2:
“Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men — as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (13-17).
The apostles agree. At an early date, their teaching on this subject flowed from an established tradition, which began with our Lord Himself.
Not many years after Paul wrote his letter to Rome, Rome burned. The emperor Nero, turning blame away from himself, laid it on the Christians. The Romans accused them of incest and cannibalism, and branded them “enemies of the human race.”
In the persecutions that followed, the authorities whose rights they had defended martyred both of these great saints. Paul and Peter would want us to take from their teaching first and foremost, I think, the idea that our God of order wants order in His creation and decrees that His people seek it whenever possible.
And that His people should obey every human law that does not contradict God’s law so that if the day should come when we must stand against the state to be true to our Lord we will have a record of faithfulness to stand on. Our children may see that day.
In a democracy – rule by the people – the governing authorities derive their mandate not from God or king but from the people. When the people believe their government is ignoring their will, the bonds that hold us together begin to fray.
For eight years we had a president who, many believe, exceeded his authority time and again. When the people’s elected representatives would not enact his desires he overrode them by use of the executive order. In some instances, the result was a refusal to enforce some of our laws.
Now, for a little over a week, we have a man in that office who appears to many bent on pursuing an imperial presidency of his own. This very different group of citizens mistrusts him as vigorously as others did his predecessor. They have taken to the streets – mostly peacefully, to this point. The pot is simmering.
For democracy – rule by the people – the danger is that large numbers of the people, regardless of their politics, abandon trust in their government’s will or ability to enforce law and order and decide to impose their own version. This danger is grave indeed.
I’ve run out of TV shows to sprinkle in as illustrations. I quit watching them when they ceased to be plot-driven and began devoting more and more time to the personal lives of the characters.
We knew enough about Jack McCoy, the son of a cop, to understand the passions that fueled his crusade for justice. We didn’t need to know about his son’s addiction, his daughter’s pregnancy and all the lurid details of his own malleable morality.
Our fictional guardians of law and order grow ever more conflicted in a post-Christian culture in which right and wrong, good and bad, true and false grow ever more frayed and confused.
Where does that leave us who cling to our religion? Our Lord came the first time to save those who could not save themselves. He will come the second time to govern those who cannot govern themselves. Even those of us who are saved cannot rule our passions, not while we reside in this sinful flesh.
The reign of justice will commence only upon His return. The last government on earth, like the first, will be a theocracy. But when it comes, there will be no sin, and no penalty for sin, for we will all have known its horror and its horrific price – a price that has been paid.
Unlike Adam and Eve, we will wish nothing more ardently than to leave that terrible knowledge of good and evil to God. Obedience will suit us to a faretheewell.
In the meantime, we continue to pray for our leaders and to submit to them . . . unless and until they command us to disobey God, before whom we bow yesterday, today and tomorrow. Amen.