The prophet Jeremiah speaks of the old law – the external law that accuses, judges, condemns, and punishes. It serves to keep order and that, surely, is no small thing in the chaos of our world. The old law is religion as a form of social control. Its authority stands over and against us. It changes nothing.
The new law is within us, written on our hearts. It subverts us from within, makes us new from the inside out. The new law is religion as a path of transformation. It unites the giver and the receiver of the law. It changes everything.
The difference between these laws is best illustrated by a story; a true story, told by Lutheran Pastor Walter Wangerin about his son, Matthew.
Three times I tried to get my son Matthew not to steal comic books! This is the truth! I'm not sure why, but my son started this comic book collection. And when he couldn't get them fast enough by buying them, well, he then began stealing them. I tried three different efforts to get Matthew to stop stealing comic books. Matthew! My dear son! My hungry son! Who collects whatever he collects ... in the thousands! I tried my best to change him. Three times I used the old law; three times I was the fool.
The first time I found out that Matthew was stealing he had stolen from a public library. So I figured: shame the kid! I called up the librarian and said, ‘Look, I'm bringing the kid back, and he's going to return the comic books which he stole from you. Would you please kind of -- chastise him?’ I thought that the Lord would look down upon Matthew and that he would feel very uncomfortable when the librarian chastised him. So Matthew came in, put the comics in front of her, and said his piece. And she said, ‘Matthew, Matthew.’ (She was very good. She's an excellent librarian!) ‘Do you know what you have done,’ she said, steel-eyeing him. ‘You'll never do that again, right?’
The second time I caught him stealing comic books, I tried a different tact. I used the Word of God, the seventh commandment. I didn't know if he knew it well enough, so I shook my head and sighed a whole lot, and repeated all the commandments for him. And then for good measure I burned all of his comic books ... one at a time. I thought that this disciplinary action was sure to change Matthew. ‘He'll never steal comic books again,’ I thought. ‘Look at this conflagration, doesn't it remind you of hell?'
The third time Matthew stole comic books was while I was teaching at [the seminary] in St. Louis. While we were staying there, Matthew went around the corner and stole some comic books from a store. Well, that seemed more desperate then ever to me, because I was teaching the Word of God, and my son was stealing comic books!
So this is what I finally decided to do. I took Matthew into my study, and I spanked him. I laid him over my knees, as you do. I decided I should feel what he felt and use my bare hands right on Matthew's bottom. I told him why I was doing it: that in this position he really left me no other choice. I had to spank him.
The first swat that came down on his bottom came hard. And when it did, I felt his entire body stiffen. And I don't know why, People, but it was that stiffening that pierced me to the heart. It was that stiffening that made me breakdown on the inside. And I think I gave him maybe four or five good, solid swacks on his butt after that. 'Cause he was so stiff. He was a board. My son was a board on my knees. And as soon as I was done, I left the room. I went out to where our piano is ... in the hall, and I burst into tears. And blessed Thanne, my wife, she came over to comfort me, with her arms around me. Well, I cried at the thing I had done, and then I went back into the room.
Now, this is fortuitous, because I tell you the truth: A number of months later, while the family was driving in the car: out of nowhere, Matthew says to me, ‘Dad, do you know why I stopped stealing comic books?’ (And he had stopped!) I said, ‘Yea, I finally spanked you.’ He said, ‘What!’ And he looked at me. He said, ‘No.... It's because you cried....’
Here after, let every accuser of my son reckon with the mercy of God, and fall into a heap, and fail. For love accomplished what the law could not, and tears more powerful than Sinai. Even the Prince of Accusers shall bring no charge against my son that the Final Judge shall not dismiss. Satan, you are defeated! My God has loved my Matthew.
You see, the new law was already written on the inside wall of Matthew’s heart. He had only to see his father’s grief, his desperation, his fear of what would become of his thief-son, for Matthew’s heart to be broken open to this new law that was already there. He realized then who he was all along; not a thief-son, but a bearer of divine compassion, a child made in the very image and likeness of God.
We are never so much like God as when we are vulnerable to the wellspring of compassion that can overflow us at any moment. It is when we touch into the Source of this compassion that we know as we are known by God, defined not by the worst thing we’ve ever done or failed to do, but by a measureless love that is more than equal to the depths of our need. No comic book, however rare, could ever come close to satisfying the desire awakened, and fulfilled, by this love.
It is not the condemnation of God that awakens the new law within us, but rather the pathos of God. Only a God who suffers can save us. Here we come close to the mystery of the Cross: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.” The accuser is revealed to be Satan, not God. The law that condemns is revealed to be a purely human construct, not a divine commandment.
It is Christ the Innocent Victim, the One who demonstrates absolute solidarity with our suffering world, whose self-giving love draws all things into a compassionate embrace. It is the God in tears who cries out to God, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” who awakens that same compassion in us. Here lies the glory of the Cross: love is stronger than death, and subverts our distorted desire by drawing us into imitation of Christ the Forgiving Victim. When we are willing to give ourselves away in love, then we are free indeed.
We all have our equivalent of Matthew’s greedy accumulation of comic books, our distorted forms of desire that grasp at life and try to make it our possession. The old law, with its condemnation and punishment, only reinforces the grip of distorted desire as it seeks an escape from the cycle of transgression, judgment, and shame. Only the law of love, in the form of forgiveness, can release us from this death dealing cycle and restore our true nature as children of God. His father’s tears accomplished in Matthew what his repeated punishments could never do. They set him free to love by awakening the compassion that was already there in the depths of his heart.
As we near the end of our Lenten journey and draw near to the foot of the Cross, we are invited to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnate God, who infiltrates the world and our hearts, transforming our distorted desires from within and opening up the way for us to claim the law of love written on our hearts. The Christ lifted up on the Cross is glorified, not in condemning us, but rather in uniting us with Him in His compassionate embrace of the whole world. Our meeting Him there is no punishment. It is a surrender to love that changes everything. Amen.