“The Reason for Rules”
February 19, 2017
By John Partridge*
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 Matthew 5:38-48 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Have you ever thought that there are just too many rules to remember?
We have rules about etiquette, culture, language, law, and religion. There are rules and laws that govern the maintenance of our automobiles, how we drive, where we drive, what we drive, and who can ride in the car with us. We have rules about what kind of gas we can buy, where we can buy it, and how they are allowed to sell it. We have rules about who is allowed to drive, when they can drive, and what skills they have to have to get permission to drive. We have rules about how the cars that we drive are made, what they look like, what safety features are required, which are allowed but not required, and even which safety features are not allowed. We have rules about who is allowed to sell cars, how they can be sold, and who can’t sell cars and who is not allowed to sell them. There are simply tons of rules about even the simplest things in our lives and we are prone to wonder why we have so many rules, if there is any real necessity for so many rules, and if there is a reason that we have so many of them. But consider for a minute, what would happen if we encountered a stretch of highway where there were no rules.
I can assure you that in a very short amount of time, no one would want to go there.
What if you could drive as fast as you wanted, in any kind of vehicle you could imagine, and no one had to obey any traffic laws at all? You could not have any expectation of road safety or regular maintenance. The people around you might be riding bicycle, driving bulldozers, or drag racing jet powered semi-tractors. People could be driving fast, or be parked in the middle of the highway. Without rules, that stretch of road would be frighteningly dangerous and in a state of continuous chaos.
When you think about what driving would be like with no rules, we quickly realize that although there are some rules that might be questionable, there are generally good reasons that the rules exist.
That just seems to make sense to us, but at the same time, people ask the same sort of questions about our faith, Christianity, Judaism, and the Bible.
Why are there so many rules?
And as we read through scripture today, we discover that the answer is surprisingly simple. We begin in Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, where we hear these words, many of which we remember as a part of the Ten Commandments:
19:1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.
9 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.
11 “‘Do not steal.
“‘Do not lie.
“‘Do not deceive one another.
12 “‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.
13 “‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.
“‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
14 “‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord.
15 “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
“‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.
17 “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.
Please note that this expands on the message that we heard last week. Do not hate a brother or sister in Christ, but if you know that they are doing something wrong, neither should you simply ignore what they are doing nor cover it up. If you knowingly ignore wrongdoing, or help to cover it up, you share the guilt of the people who are doing wrong.
18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
This list offers a slightly different slant than the Ten Commandments, but I think the most important words in this passage are found in the introduction. God commands Moses to gather all of the people of Israel and it isn’t difficult to imagine that everyone’s first reaction, including Moses, would be to ask why. And so God says, “Speak to the entire assembly and say to them, be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
What we almost always forget when we think about the Ten Commandments is this introduction.
Be holy, because God is holy.
God does not say that he is giving his people a list of instructions because he loves rules, or because he enjoys burdening people with lots of restrictions on their behavior. What God says, is that he wants us to be like him, and then he gives us some examples of how we, imperfect and corrupt as we are, can do better. God doesn’t give us rules to follow because he loves bureaucracy, but because he wants to point us in a direction that leads to life and holiness instead of suffering and death.
Imagine God’s frustration in this. Imagine that someone comes to you, tells you that they are very sick, that they need to see a doctor, and asks for directions to the hospital. And when you tell them how to get there, they complain bitterly that you are putting too many restrictions on their freedom and insist that they can go any direction that they want to.
Of course, that seems ridiculous, but that is exactly what it must seem like to God when we complain about there being too many rules restricting our freedom, when the entire purpose of the rules was to give us directions that would save our lives.
Jesus says something similar in Matthew 5:38-48, where we hear these words:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus says, I know that you’ve all heard about “conventional wisdom,” but the conventional wisdom is wrong. The only way to reduce violence is not to participate in it. Be willing to take a loss, be willing to look foolish, be willing to be disturbingly generous, even when it is costly to you. God has done good to you and has poured out his love upon you, even before you ever met him. It doesn’t impress anyone that your love is “just as good” as the tax collectors, or that you are “just as loving” as everyone else. Being “just like everyone else” means that you are no different than everyone else and that your faith is no better than their lack of faith. The followers of Jesus Christ have been called to be different; we are called to a higher standard. Our goal isn’t to be “just like everyone else,” our goal is to be perfect.
Paul emphasizes this difference in 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, where he says…
10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care.11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.
18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 21 So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
Paul says that the foundation of everything that we do is Jesus Christ. Because the Spirit of God has taken up residence inside of us, we are the temple of God. This weekly gathering of fellow believers is sacred because this is God’s temple. It isn’t the building, it’s the people. Paul also echoes Jesus in fighting against the conventional wisdom or “the standards of the age,” and reminds the church that worldly wisdom is not the same as godly wisdom, and what God teaches is often ridiculed by conventional wisdom.
So what does this all mean?
In the end, what this means is that the foundation of everything that we do is Jesus Christ. We are called to be different because we belong to Jesus and through Jesus, we belong to God. We are called to be holy, not because God loves rules, or because God wants to take away your freedom, but because we want to be like God, and God is holy. We want to live, and God has given us a prescription that can lead us to health and wellness. We are moral free agents who are absolutely free to do whatever we choose, but God is abundantly clear that our choices can either lead us to God’s blessing and life, or to suffering and death.
You wouldn’t want to even try to drive on a highway that didn’t have any rules. It is the rules that maintain order and keep us safe. And so whenever we hear people complaining that God has too many rules, or that the church just wants to control your life, the question that you should ask is probably similar to the one you might ask someone who criticizes you for giving them directions to the hospital.
You can do whatever you want.
Do you want to get better?
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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646. These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at email@example.com. To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.