Shall or Shall Not?

Lectionary Readings:  Leviticus 19:1-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

This American Life:  408 – The One Thing You’re Not Supposed to Do

Grace and peace to you today. This week we read about some of the ‘do’s or ‘don’t’s of faithful living. But in faith language we like to call them the ‘shall’s and ‘shall not’s. These dichotomous philosophical imperatives call us to different modi operandi, both holding merit for faithful living.

You shall not. The shall not posture provides great utility in faithful living. In Leviticus 19:2b, we hear, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy,” but this holiness comes from acts of holiness or, better put, acts of abstention that lead to holiness. The Lord says, “You shall not…I am the Lord.” Our respect for God, our community, and our ourselves comes from:  Not wasting one’s harvest; not wasting even a small grape that a poor person or immigrant could eat; not violating relationships through slander, fraud, stealing or lying; not profaning the name of God; not violating persons with disabilities, not unjustly judging others, not profiting from violence; not hating others; and not taking vengeance or holding a grudge against another.

The shall not posture helps establish norms and rules for conduct in our communities, so that all may mutually benefit from being in relationship with one another. It is essentially the Law (often called the Law of Moses though the law comes from God). This law we see gratitude expressed for in Psalm 119:33-40 this week:

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.
Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.
Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.
Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you.
Turn away the disgrace that I dread, for your ordinances are good.
See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life.

Gratitude and fulfillment can found in the law, can be found in a shall not posture. The Psalmist seeks to internalize (see reference to his heart above) the law, so that he may better himself, his community, and his relationship with God.

You shall. On the other hand, the shall posture is faith empowered within us from God through the death and resurrection of the Jesus Christ. While the shall not posture (the Law) provides us with a strong foundation, the shall posture provides us freedom in our choices on how to better our communities, our relationship with God, and ourselves. Paul writes, “Like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it” (1st Cor. 3:10). The shall posture allows us to “choose with care” how to build.

The shall posture is built not upon the law but upon the foundation that is Jesus Christ (1st Cor. 3:11). The foundation dwells in us; we continue to exist within God’s temple and the Spirit exists within us (3:16). Destroying that foundation will only destroy our holiness. Holiness is thus found within us and not found within external rules or structures like the shall not posture (3:17). All holiness belongs to us through Christ; and we belong to Christ not any human leader or the Law (3:21-23). Though we may debate back and forth any operations of this holiness (see 3:18-20), it is through the wisdom of Christ, not only ourselves and our factions, that we discover what we shall do together.

The shall posture is described today in Matthew 5:38-48. Christ, the Word made flesh (see John 1) has internalized the Law and proclaims to us the Gospel. He frees us from total reliance on external rules and structures calling us to responses of love instead of vengeance.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? – Matthew 5:43-46a

The shall posture is autocatalytic. Love leads to more love; and this is naturally going to be chaotic. The shall not posture leads to more rules and revisions of those rules; this comes with its own chaos, but it is much more oriented towards some sort of equilibrium or equal footing for all. It is more focused on (the Law) existing for the sake of itself; while the shall posture challenges us to understand the Spirit of the Law and the remember the freedom we experience in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Yin and Yang. Thus, the shall and shall not postures reflect opposite and contrary forces in faithful living; however, they are very much interconnected and interdependent in the physical world in which we live in community with others. They give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.* Luther spoke and wrote of Law and Gospel when reading and interpreting scripture. Scripture elucidates an occurrence where we experience both the demands (Law) and promises (Gospel) of God.** What we shall or shall not do is encountered in Scripture and what God is doing with, within, around, and through us is also expressed; this framework helps us ask questions that get at the heart of Scripture.

Karl Barth emphasized that in all readings of scripture we must first look to discover Christ in the message. The heart of Scripture is the phenomenon that is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; for Christ is perfection. In Matthew 5:48 we hear proclaimed, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Thus, faithful living, our strive – though it may seem futile – towards perfection, is a fusion of Law and Gospel. We observe Christ’s exemplary perfection throughout the Gospels, which we see described this week in Matthew.

This yin and yang can be observed in This American Life Episode 408 – The One Thing You’re Not Supposed to Do. The first act – Breaking the ICE – describes stories of immigration activists who are illegal immigrants themselves. These activists had found a mechanism, the Morton Memos, that could help low-risk undocumented immigrants (those who had not committed serious crimes) be released from detention and avoid deportation. These persons ignored prime shall nots. First, they tried to be arrested because of their statuses, but many law enforcement officers tried their best to avoid detaining them. Second, they turned themselves in to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers in order to inform and connect those detained with options for possible release. Instead of shall not they chose a shall posture shirking their own concerns for their own well-beings.

However, this application of shall and shall not is in itself too limiting of the nature of both postures when looking to understand this story. Semantics gets in the way. What truly is shall; what truly is shall not? Are they not the same thing or could be interpreted and applied similarly? For this reason, I find use in framing these seemingly dichotomous concepts as postures, and I contend that they actually make up one dynamic system of two complementary parts; two parts that build a whole that is greater than its parts.* Faithful living is more that just shalls and shall nots. It is a unified, messy, glued together system that is only held together in Christ. For it is only through Christ not the Law, we are made righteous.

*Thank you Wikipedia for help with Yin and Yang.
**Thank you Book of Faith Initiative for your concise summary of Law and Gospel (bookoffaith.org)

It is for Christ’s sake that we believe in the Scriptures, but it is not for the Scriptures’ sake that we believe in Christ. — Martin Luther (1483-1546)

The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me… A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a cardinal without it. — Martin Luther, quoted in “Martin Luther–The Early Years,” Christian History, no. 34.

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