October 8, 2023

October 8, 2023

Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Matthew 21: 33-40

“Closing the Loopholes”

Rev. Susan Taylor

Closing the Loopholes

As a mother of three, veteran elementary school teacher and with somewhere around 20 years of youth ministry on my resume, I’ve learned a few things about rules. First, we need them. No entity can function effectively without rules or guidelines. And second, for every rule put in place, someone is going to look for the loophole.

And then there was Chris. He found the loopholes before the rules even existed.  Chris was a member of one of my middle school youth groups. Despite more than a decade of youth ministry experience at the time, who would have thought we needed a rule about not jumping off the church balcony – until Chris. When I confronted him about the in/ap/prop/riate/ness of the activity – rule or no rule- he denied jumping off the balcony. He claimed to have been simply hanging off the balcony, and merely dropped to the floor 15 feet below.

Nor did it ever occur to me to proactively restrict any youth group member from climbing on the church tile roof, three stories above the pavement – until Chris. Again, confronted with his behavior, he denied climbing on the roof, and said he was simply sitting there, not climbing (although that begs the question of how he got there in the first place). It wasn’t that Chris was a bad kid – he was wonderfully bright and likeable – he just happened to have a keen sense of adventure coupled with a poor sense of judgement. And – I don’t think I was being an ogre making up all these rules on his behalf.  I simply wanted to be sure he and the other children in our program would be safe – and I didn’t exactly want to raise the ire of the session by letting these things happen.

God called his people out of a life of slavery in Egypt, rescuing them from generations of bondage and oppression. He was fulfilling the promise he made to their ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had indeed become a great nation, just as God had promised, and now they were on the way to the land promised to their forebears. But they had a few lessons to learn along the way, like my friend Chris. They’d had precious little experience in real self-governance. Although they knew how to obey a rough taskmaster with whip and chains, they did not yet know how to trust and obey the invisible God who loved them.

So, God went about proving his great love. The God who had challenged and beaten Pharaoh, was now benevolently caring for his people. He was with them in the wilderness – in the pillar and the cloud, protecting them from harm. God faithfully provided them with food – manna and quail – and water to drink. And God gave them laws so that they would know how to live in freedom, and how to demonstrate their obedience and trust in God. He gave them rules so that they would know how to govern their possessions, their relationships, and every aspect of life, both horizontal and vertical; with God and with each other.

God’s law was, and is, simple. It comes to us in a very basic form in Deuteronomy and the teachings of Jesus.  First, love God. And second, love Neighbor. That’s it.  Then, God fleshed out these rules in more specific and concrete laws: four that defined the love for God, and six that defined the love for others.  Laws that taught the people how to love the God of the Covenant, and laws that showed how they should treat their fellow human being.  Put God first in your life. Do not worship idols or anything besides God. Do not misuse God’s name. Observe the Sabbath as a holy day set apart to worship God. Honor parents. Do not murder, commit adultery, or steal. Do not lie and do not covet that which belongs to someone else.

There is a traditional Jewish writing that says, the giving of the law can be compared to the child whose parents say, “Watch you step. Don’t trip and hurt yourself.  Take care that you do not allow any harm to come to yourself, because you are so precious to me.”  God gave the commandments to Israel because its people are more precious in the divine sight than even the angels. God gave the chosen people the law because of the love that God had for them. Love came first, law followed.

For me, the pivotal verse in the giving of the Ten Commandments comes in the final verse of this morning’s passage. After listing the laws, Moses tells the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and put the fear – or awe- of God upon you, that you may not sin”.  Moses re-assures them that they need not be afraid of God. They are not to obey the law because God stand before them as a threat. God is no bully who rescues them in order to torment them. Rather, God stands with the people in a covenant relationship. God offers the people love and protection; in return, God simply requests a response of worship, of thanks. The saving work of God, the saving relationship, has already been accomplished. They are out of Egypt. The law offers a concrete way of responding to God in thanksgiving for the act of salvation of Israel.

The covenant God made with Israel can be compared to the covenant in a family or a community. In a marital relationship, in a parent-child relationship, or in a communal setting, there are rules and guidelines regarding roles and expectations. Without rules, there would be hurt and misunderstanding and chaos, and the family unit or community could not survive. But included in these rules are privileges and responsibilities on both sides. When my children were growing up and living at home, they were expected to obey the family rules, but as the parent, I had the responsibility to be fair. My children had the responsibility of obedience, or at least cooperation, but also the right to know why the rules were made and enforced, as well as the opportunity to mutually make changes and adaptations. As a teacher, I had the right to discipline, but it needed to be wise and fair, and more re-directive than punitive. In the church, our leaders have the right to make decisions on behalf of the congregation, but they also carry the responsibility of making those decisions in a manner that will benefit the whole faith community.

Despite the goodness of God’s love and God’s law, the people started looking for the loopholes from the very beginning. Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are filled with more specific details about the law, trying to close those holes. But still, the people kept looking for loopholes. And still they disobeyed God. After the days of Moses and Joshua, God raised up judges to help the people apply the laws to specific situations. But still the people looked for loopholes and still, they disobeyed God. When challenged to love their neighbor, the very essence of the law, the loophole was posed, “Yes, but WHO is my neighbor?”  And still the people looked for loopholes. And still, they disobeyed God.

At last, in the ultimate act of love, God closed the final loophole in the law in the work and person of Jesus Christ. No longer in fire or cloud, God took on human form and human flesh and lived as one among us, until finally offering up his life for the forgiveness of our sins. In this ultimate act of love for God and love for neighbor, Christ was obedient to the father, even to death on the cross. And so, the final loophole in the law has been fulfilled in the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.

Do we humans still sin? We most certainly do. Are we still looking for loopholes to excuse our behavior? You bet! Are we still expected to obey God’s law as found in the Ten Commandments? Of course! And will we fail to do this adequately? Most definitely. Humankind has been looking for loopholes in the commandments since they were first given and hasn’t stopped yet. But now, in the light of Jesus Christ, God is blinded to our transgressions. God no longer sees us in the light of the law, but in the light and redeeming love of Jesus Christ.

Jesus himself closed that final loophole on the night he was betrayed, as he washed the disciples’ feet, as he instructed them to love and serve one another as he had loved and served them. Jesus himself embodied the love that God had for them, and still has for us. Then, as he took the bread and cup, he reminded his disciples to remember his words and deeds whenever they broke the bread and shared the cup, just as we do today.

As we go from here today, let us remember the love God has for us in Jesus Christ, a love so great that it calls and challenges us to respond in love and obedience to God and with love for our friends and neighbors, both locally and globally. Amen.