This is what the Lord has commanded: A man who makes a vow to the Lord or makes a pledge under oath must never break it. He must do exactly what he said he would do. [Numbers 30:1-2 (NLT)]
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. …For you say that it means nothing to swear ‘by God’s Temple,’ but that it is binding to swear ‘by the gold in the Temple.’” [Matthew 23, 15-16 (NLT)
As any parent of a teenager knows, it’s impossible to have enough rules to cover all the ways your child can err. Schemers that they are, they’ll always find a way around restrictions. When I attended boarding school, for example, several of us girls had our ears pierced by a fellow student (an aspiring physician). We knew that neither school nor parents would endorse numbing our ears with icicles and piercing them with a sewing needle and dental floss but, without a specific rule against it, we pierced them anyway. Because it was the school’s second year, the administration hadn’t anticipated all the ways we teens could misbehave and our student handbook was only one page. Now, 57 years later, that handbook is 33 pages long and covers such things as body piercings and tattoos, drones, room searches, recording devices, prohibited clothing, subwoofers, a roommate’s rights, and unauthorized access to the school’s computer system. I imagine next year’s handbook will be even longer and reflect yet another way its students have managed to flout authority.
Of course, it’s not just teenagers who assume that, if something isn’t specifically prohibited, it must be allowed. No matter their age, people will try to find a way around every inconvenient or bothersome rule. For example, God made it clear that a vow made before Him was binding. Keeping promises, however, can prove problematic and, through a convoluted re-interpretation of the law, the Pharisees of Jesus’ time created a loophole. If one swore by the gold on the altar, the promise was binding. But, if one swore only by the altar or temple, it was like crossing your fingers and the promise could be broken with impunity: a promise was only a promise if it was expedient.
We girls knew we shouldn’t have pierced our ears that way, the Pharisees knew that God meant for all promises to be kept, and today’s students shouldn’t need a specific rule stating that roommates must be spoken to in a respectful manner. While there were plenty of laws in the Old Testament, Jesus boiled them all down to two simple ones: love God and love our neighbor. In a perfect world these would be the only laws necessary. The world, however, isn’t perfect which is why we still have regulations and school handbooks.
Just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily make it right and just because something isn’t specifically prohibited doesn’t mean it should be done. Jesus lived by one law: the law of love. Regardless of the rules, like Him, we must let the two-fold commandment of loving God and loving our neighbor guide us in everything we do.