July 2016

The other day I heard a report on NPR about the unforeseen problems that were growing out of a new kind of nuisance ordinance that many city councils had recently adopted.   In essence these ordinances allowed for fining a landlord if the number of times the police were called to his rental properties exceeded a certain limit.  The intent of the law was to enhance the landlord’s awareness and engage the landlord’s participation in the happenings of the neighborhoods.  It was supposed to be a way to discourage slum lords who simply collected their rents and neglected their properties.

However, despite the best intention of the city councils which adopted these ordinances, these laws were inadvertently making life harder for many of the tenants who occupied the apartments of the landlords who were being fined.  Landlords fearful of being fined would evict tenants who were close to exceeding their amount of police calls and that made the tenants reluctant to report crime.  In one situation a single mother was afraid to call police to remove an abusive ex-boyfriend from her apartment because she feared being evicted.  Caught between the rock and hard place of having to choose between making space for her abusive former partner and homelessness, she chose the former.

It is yet another example of how, despite our best intentions, our attempts to legislate good behavior sometimes end up creating an opportunity for more bad behavior.  The law is rarely an effective tool to transform bad behavior, it is primarily a tool to identify and punish it.  It seeks to build a fence around bad behavior to try to contain it, but it cannot change the hearts of people who engage in it.

Jesus made the same point again and again in his conversations with the Pharisees and scribes.  Laws that were supposed to ensure that people would respect the holiness of God (observing the Sabbath, following rules about ritual purity, etc.) often had the effect of isolating and diminishing the people who through no fault of their own were deemed unclean.  In short, obeying the law sometimes led to committing a more egregious wrong against another human being.

Mark 3:1-6 describes one such situation.  A man with a withered hand comes to the synagogue to worship on the Sabbath; Jesus sees him and reaches out to heal him.  Out of the corner of his eye, Jesus sees the “religious police” just waiting to accuse him for violating the laws about not performing a healing on the Sabbath.  So Jesus poses the obvious question to them: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  It’s a good question; but the legalists, caught between their own rock and hard place, refuse to engage the question and meet Jesus’ query with silence.   So Jesus, by Mark’s report, “looked at them with anger. . . , grieved by their hardness of heart.”  And with this fury in his eyes he says to the afflicted man, “Stretch out your hand,” and the man’s hand was restored.

Jesus’ point is pretty clear.  Law that is not informed by the greater law of love and respect, has no power to restore.  It is, as St. Paul points out, a “stern tutor” who identifies  the wrong, but has little to offer when it comes to the work of making things right.  Religious laws are very good at doing the work of pointing out what is wrong.  But transforming hearts to the point that human beings desire to do what is right, is another matter altogether.  And Jesus is about this very thing.  For the Gospel (good news) that Jesus came preaching was that life is about much more than simply avoiding wrong; it is instead a matter of answering the invitation that God has been issuing since the beginning of time, to take up and rejoice in all that is right.

Dave Rohrer, 7/1/2016