What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. [Matthew 23:23 (NLT)]
Many years ago, we had a teen-aged foster daughter. Along with a smoking habit, she brought along plenty of emotional baggage. Choosing our battles carefully, we decided that an outright prohibition on smoking would not top our list. Instead, we made the rule that she couldn’t smoke in our presence or in our house. One night, after walking outside for a cigarette, she immediately returned. She explained that while she knew smoking outside was allowed, she also understood it was something we didn’t want her to do. Wanting to please us, she returned to the house and decided to quit. Hallelujah! She’d seen the difference between obeying the letter of the law and living the spirit of it. She recognized that rules aren’t necessarily made to keep something from us, but are made to get something better for us. She’d come to experience the joy that comes from pleasing the ones who love her.
If simply following the letter of the law was enough to guarantee a place in heaven, the scribes and Pharisees had a guaranteed spot. They followed over 600 laws governing diet, fabric, attire, tithing and bathing. Following those rules, however, wasn’t nearly enough for salvation. Jesus criticized them for missing the whole point behind God’s laws. While following the letter of the law, they ignored the spirit behind God’s laws: love, generosity, fairness, compassion, and commitment.
The New Testament has only two laws but, even then, it’s not easy to obey the simple directions to love God and to love others as ourselves. Once we have the saving grace of faith, however, obedience becomes much easier. Our foster daughter’s obedience came not from fear of punishment, but from her trust in and growing love for us. Like her, when we have faith in God, our obedience comes from love instead of fear. With faith, we want to please God; without it, we want to please ourselves. With faith, we know that God’s laws were given in love and we want to live within them. If we love and trust God, we will live to obey and please Him. Only then will we come to know the joy that comes from living in His light.