“When Legal is Wrong”
August 27, 2017
By John Partridge*
Exodus 1:8 – 2:10 Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16:13-20
Have you ever watched your local, state, or federal government, your employer, or some big business, do something that just didn’t seem right? Of course they assured the public that everything they were doing was perfectly legal, but regardless of its legality, it just smelled bad and people grumbled because what they were doing seemed wrong.
Just because something is legal, doesn’t mean that it’s right. It is fairly common for us to open the newspaper or turn on the news and find a story about a district court, or appellate court, or even the Supreme Court overturning a law because it is unconstitutional. But sometimes, even laws that are constitutional are still wrong. In 1793, the federal government passed the Fugitive Slave Act as an enforcement tool of Article 4 Section 2 of the United States Constitution which required the return of runaway slaves.
Did you hear that?
The US Constitution required that fugitive slaves, even if they were found in free states, be returned to their masters. The thing is, a great many people in northern states completely ignored this provision as well as the requirements of the Fugitive Slave Act. Some state and local governments passed laws that prohibited their law enforcement agencies from enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act. However, by the mid 1800’s this defiance of the law on the part of many in the north caused so many slaves in border states to attempt escape, that the entire institution of slavery was close to collapse and southern slave holding states were angered at their northern neighbors’ failure to uphold the law.
And so, the southern states went to Congress and attempted to fix their problem. In their eyes, the problem was that the northern states were acting in defiance of the United States Constitution and if their compliance could not be enforced, then secession would become a serious possibility. As such, a new Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850 that would penalize government or law enforcement officials who refused to arrest runaway slaves, even those who were accused, without proof of being runaway slaves. Further, any person who aided a runaway slave “by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.” And, although a $1,000 fine doesn’t sound too bad, if we adjust for inflation, this becomes almost $30,000 in 2017 dollars. Accused slaves had no right to speak for themselves in court, no proof or documentation was required, and only the word of the accuser was needed to take someone into slavery. In fact, in this way, a great many free blacks were taken illegally into slavery simply by a slave holder, or fugitive slave hunter, claiming that they belonged to them.
But still, many people, even at the risk of losing their homes, their businesses, and all that they owned, refused to comply with the law. It was not only the Underground Railroad, but many people who harbored, protected, and transported fugitive slaves, as well as free blacks, in defiance of the law because they knew that the law was unjust and wrong.
We have similar discussions today about a number of subjects, but this is the core of the story that we hear in Exodus 1:8 – 2:10. We rejoin the story of the people of Israel several generations after Joseph has died, and now, no one remembers, or cares, who he was or what he did for Egypt.
8 Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. 9 “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13 and worked them ruthlessly.14 They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”
19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”
20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.
22 Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”
2:1 Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, 2 and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. 3 But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. 4 His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.
5 Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. 6 She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said.
7 Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?”
8 “Yes, go,” she answered. So the girl went and got the baby’s mother.9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So the woman took the baby and nursed him. 10 When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”
The Egyptians are worried that there are now so many of them, the Israelites might rise up and attack. And so, the solution that the Pharaoh decided upon was to kill every Israelite male child at the moment of his birth. But since there wasn’t a soldier in the household of every pregnant woman, they instead commanded the midwives to do their dirty work for them.
And here is the heart of the story for today. The midwives are faced with this moral and ethical dilemma: Do you obey the law, murder an innocent newborn, or disobey the law, and risk imprisonment, beating, and death? The midwives knew that the law was unjust and wrong, and they knew that obeying the law would be immoral, unethical, and evil. Despite the risk of significant physical and emotional harm to themselves, they lied, and disobeyed the law in order to honor God.
Moses’ mother was forced to make the same moral judgement because although the midwives could lie and refuse to murder newborn baby boys, eventually those baby boys would be discovered by, or be reported to, soldiers who had no moral or ethical problems with obeying the commands of the Pharaoh of Egypt. Moses’ mother hid him for three months, but at that point it became too difficult to keep his existence a secret. Babies make noises, and they create smells, and other evidence that people will eventually notice. And so, Moses’ mother made a deliberate choice to disobey the law and trust God rather than take the risk of him being discovered and murdered by an Egyptian soldier. Instead of keeping him at home, she built Moses a basket made of papyrus reeds that was waterproof enough to act like a boat (interestingly, in ancient times, it was common for boats to be built with bundles of papyrus reeds tied together and we also find that the original language for “basket” might also be translated as “ark”). For her, risking that Moses might be carried out to sea, or drown, or eaten by wild animals, was better than the almost certain death that he faced if she kept him at home.
But all of that brings us to Romans 12:1-8, where the Apostle Paul describes what living the life of a follower of God looks like.
12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Paul says that we should live as if we were daily sacrificing ourselves to God. Paul understood that most of us will, thankfully, never be called upon to die for the sake of God, so instead of giving our lives in one dramatic moment, we called instead to give and to live each moment that we have as a gift to God. Instead of living our lives in the way that others in our culture do, instead of living in order to gratify our desires, we are called to be transformed by studying and learning about God, and becoming the kind of people that God wants us to be.
In the end, the message for today leaves us with two difficult lessons. First, although it might be unlikely, it is possible, that we might one day be faced with the choice of obeying the law and thereby doing something that we feel is morally and ethically wrong, or disobeying that law and facing whatever consequences might befall us because of that choice. The midwives fully understood that they might be imprisoned or killed because of the choice that they made and our disobedience will likewise force us to risk whatever punishment there is for breaking that particular law. We don’t have the time to discuss the specifics of the various people in our modern times that have done so, but the seriousness of this matter adds compellingly to Paul’s encouragement for us to be in regular study because when it happens to you, you had better be very sure of what it is that God wants.
The second lesson is even harder than the first. Whether or not we are not asked to disobey the law in some dramatic fashion, every morning we are called to sacrifice that day to God. We are called to live that day in a way that honors God. The old saying, “What would Jesus do?” is just a start. Every day we should live as Jesus would ask us to live. At the end of every day we should ask ourselves if we have represented God, as ambassadors of his kingdom, in ways that would please God.
This is what it means when we say that we are called to be a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.
This is what it means for us to worship God daily.
Are you prepared to do the will of God… every day?
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U 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.