Letter & Spirit: Following the Law

Some stories are what we call archetypal… We tell them again and again in different ways because the meaning, the truth in the story is so important. 

Here’s one such story from the Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare. In that play, the moneylender Shylock has made an agreement with Antonio that if he cannot repay a loan, he will have a pound of flesh from him. When the debt is not repaid in time Portia at first pleads for mercy in a famous speech: 

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” (IV,i,185). 

When Shylock refuses, she finally saves Antonio by pointing out that Shylock’s agreement with him mentioned no blood, and therefore Shylock can have his pound of flesh only if he sheds no blood. 

Following the the law brings us invariably to love, mercy and hope.

That’s the story that we heard in this morning’s Gospel. At first, it seems like a simple healing story, about a crippled woman who needs healing. At its core, though, it grapples with how we navigate the law, both the spirit of it and the letter of it, in ways that adhere to the values of our faith. The two commandments Jesus gave us: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength and love your neighbor as yourelf. Or our Baptismal covenant that calls us seek and serve Christ in all people and respect the dignity of every human being. These are the laws that we measure ourselves against. 

There’s a temptation here to make an either/or comparison: is it the letter of the law or the spirit of the law that we need to follow? However, as Episcopalians we don’t adhere to these false choices: for us, it is a both/and situation. This story that we heard is not saying that the religious leaders were evil or uncaring, but rather that they were adhering to the law with crippling literalness. This reading is an invitation to use the letter of the law to help us understand how to be safe, and the spirit of the law to embrace the freedom that God has given us. 

Let’s look at some of the other corollaries that this reading presents to us: 

  • Bound versus loosed: By comparing the woman to the animals bound and tied away from life-giving water, Jesus helps us understand healing in a new way. Healing frees us to be alive, to be healed, to rejoice. 
  • Power versus compassion: Some see the law as something that forces us to do the right thing and bars us from doing the wrong thing. Instead, let’s think about it as a path that leads us in the right direction. As we move forward in loving obedience to God’s laws, we are presented with opportunities to be compassionate, to encourage healing, to be part of unbinding the world. 
  • Fear versus love: This is perhaps the most important one. It’s tempting to fear the law—because it feels terrible to get in trouble. Am I the only one who have experienced the pit of the stomach dread of seeing flashing lights behind me as I drive my car? Instead, though, we can understand the law as something that helps us to love one another and to care for one another. That cop said to me that night did not berate me for being bad but instead said this: Let’s just slow down and keep everyone safe. 

When we go down this path, choosing to loose rather than bind, to wield compassion rather than power, and to love rather than fear amazing things happen. Look at the women in this mornings story: she went from being an unnamed woman to being called a Daughter of Abraham…she had identity. She went from looking at the ground to looking at the sky…she had perspective. She went from being bowed down to praising God… She had gratitude. 

The entire crowd was reminded that sabbath is just as much about freedom as it is about rest. Jesus invited them into a new understanding of the law—as something that is gift rather than a limitation.  And then everybody rejoiced. Because that is really good news.  

Preached by the Ven. Hailey McKeefry Delmas at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Redwood City on Sunday, August 21, 2022.


Isaiah 58:9b-14
Psalm 103:1-8
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

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