Hunger never threatens my life or the lives of my immediate family. When one of us says we’re starving, it’s just a figure of speech. Maybe meal time has been delayed or we’ve been to the gym or it’s just one of those bottomless-pit days. We could eat a horse. Not literally, of course.
But what if my children were suffering from a chronic lack of nutrition? In fact, they were slowly dying. Despite all our honest efforts, we could not afford sufficient food to stay alive and, even in a land of plenty, no one offered to feed us.
Would I steal food to save my children? And more to the point I want us to consider, would stealing food under these circumstances be wrong? After all, the Ten Commandments prohibit stealing.
I ask these questions as a way to help us reflect on the relationship between love and the moral law. Jesus himself wanted us to make the connection between love and the moral law.
Someone once asked Jesus to identify the highest law. Jesus responded with what we call the Summary of the Law: love God like God is the air you breath and love your neighbor like one of your vital organs.
Every other law derives its meaning from the Summary of the Law. Laws are meant to show us the pattern of what a life will look like when that life is devoted to loving God. And a life devoted to loving God loves what God loves. And love is more than a mere feeling. Love is action directed toward the nurture and the well-being of another.
Sometimes a lesser law violates this higher law of love. In cases like that, we set aside the lower law in order to love. In other words, we fulfill the highest law by suspending a lower law. Frederick Buechner puts it like this:
Jesus said that the one supreme law is that we are to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and our neighbors as ourselves. “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” is the way he put it (Matthew 22:40), meaning that all lesser laws are to be judged on the basis of that supreme one. In any given situation, the lesser law is to be obeyed if it is consistent with the law of love and superseded if it isn’t. (from Whistling in the Dark)
So, on a Sabbath, Jesus and his disciples picked some grain because they were hungry. Sure, Torah experts would tell you that harvesting crops violated the Sabbath prohibition against working. But they were feeding the hungry. Feeding the hungry is what love looks like.
Again, on another Sabbath, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand. Healing the sick is what love looks like.
If the Bible gives us a set of inviolable rules that must be followed under all circumstances, then it’s difficult to see how Jesus fulfilled the law. But that’s not how the Bible works or how the law works.
At its core, the law is about love. It provides a sort of map for navigating a world of tender hearts and fragile lives. But maps never capture the granular detail of the real terrain over which we must travel.
The law is not most essentially a set of rules that can be simply followed as if we were playing a game of Monopoly. In this messy thing that is our lives we must sort out as best we can what it will mean to love what God loves.
Sometimes we’ll help get friends or our kids out of a jam. At other times, we have to let them stew in their own juices or demand that they go to rehab. Sometimes we’ll go without until payday. At other times, we’ll steal a loaf of bread.