Sermon: I am a Lawbreaker
A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Click on the footnote numbers below to get to the full passages (Common English Bible Version).
It turns out that Martin Luther was not a big fan of the book of James. He called it an “epistle of straw.”
I’d venture to say that it wasn’t necessarily that he had anything against St. James or his message. The thing that he had a problem with was what people did with St. James’s message.
In case you don’t know (I had to look it up), the straw man fallacy happens when two people are arguing and person B takes person A’s concept and distorts it. Person B essentially ‘dresses up’ (like a straw man) person A’s argument however he or she wants to.
This is hard not to do with St. James. He brings the heat in a big way. No one can take the full-frontal force of the law (God’s commandments) as St. James delivers it.
The problem is when preachers dress up his message in a way where one can reach salvation (or enoughness) by doing the law (or by doing what God tells us to do). They use it as a bludgeon over their partitioners as if to say, “You’d better get your act together and DO WHAT JAMES SAYS! BE HOLIER!”
Now, this sounds strict or harsh. But what they’re actually doing is dampening the law so as to say that some people can do it while others can’t.
The only way that a preacher can make God’s law accomplishable is if they lower the bar waaaaaaaay down.
So let’s go to verse 8 - the heart of today’s passage from James...
You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself.
Sounds great, right?! I mean, if everyone just simply did this, what would the world look like?
But let me ask... How’s that working out for YOU?
Are you really fulfilling the ‘royal law found in scripture? Are you loving your neighbor as yourself? Not just on your good days, but ALL THE TIME??!!
I mean, I’m right there with you.
Let me go first with a confession...
Hello, my name is Jonas. And I... Am a lawbreaker.
There’s a profound freedom that comes from being able to be honest about how we fall short of the law. Not just a little bit. Not just in some ways. But in a multitude of ways. All the time.
I mean, sure... Your sins and my sins may differ a little. But I guarantee you, not one of us here today comes even close to meeting up to the standards of God’s law.
It would be such a heavy burden as a preacher to stand up here all high and mighty and exhort you to GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER AND START DOING THE LAW AS GOD TELLS YOU TO DO!
We’re talking simple theological physics here.
The law is holy and good, but it does not have the power to produce what it demands.
Any parent knows this. Telling your teenager to stop cussing might work at the dinner table. But I guarantee you... The cussing will only increase the more that you, dear parent, increase the law.
God’s law is not a PRESCRIPTION of holiness.
It’s a DESCRIPTION of holiness.
No human can meet up to the law’s demands on their own. I’m talking about both lowercase-l-law AND uppercase-L-Law. Lowercase law is the voice of the accuser in our heads that won’t stop badgering us. It tells us that if we buy the Peloton, we’ll be happy. So we get the Peloton and what happens?...
When our next-door neighbor buys a new car, sure, we’re happy for them. FOR ABOUT TWO SECONDS. And then the lowercase law tells us how old and janky our car is in comparison to it. We can’t even live up to that form of lowercase law let alone the kind of uppercase Royal Law found in scripture that James hits us with.
So, what do we do? Do we just give up? If we can’t be perfect as our God is perfect, what’s the point?
Well, let me start by telling you what we shouldn’t do (but what we always do first)...
We shouldn’t lower the bar of the law into an accomplishable holy to-do list (even if only moral and spiritual Olympians can accomplish it). When we use the book of James or any law in the Bible this way, we end up turning into the very thing we hate. We end up doing the very thing that St. James is fighting against here. We end up creating a hierarchy of moral, social, and spiritual do-gooders who look down their noses at the misfits, outsiders, and slackers. Mercy leaves the room.
So, the question still begs... What DO we do when faced with the law?
This is where we must look to the Syrophoenician woman in today’s gospel from Mark... She portrays what James intended we do... Instead of trying to pole vault over the bar of the law (impossible), we allow the law to draw us to the cross where our false identity is eliminated and our true identity is restored.
Yes, the Syrophoenician woman. One of the most profound (and polarized) stories in the Bible.
In this scene, we have Jesus and his crew of disciples rolling through the Region of Tyre in Sidon. Jesus is working in gentile (non-Jewish) land. To good Hebrew sensibilities, these gentiles are not the chosen ones.
In v 25, we read that the Syrophoenician woman heard about Jesus. Which is curious because in Mark’s gospel, he’s actively trying to hide from people.
We might say that she was grasped by the Word through the Holy Spirit that drew her closer to Jesus whose feet she ends up falling in front of.
According to the societal norms of Jesus’s day, this woman has multiple counts against her, especially in the eyes of Hebrew people.
She’s a gentile. Strike one. She’s a female. Strike two. And... She’s a Syrophoenician. That alone could be 2 or 3 strikes.
And here she is, begging Jesus to exercise the demons out of her daughter. But the Greek translation reveals the nuance of just what kind of begging we’re dealing with here (this is fascinating)...
In Greek, it is erotao which is ‘an earnest request by someone on special (favored) footing.’
This is SO bold!
This woman, this outcast of outcasts, this person of deeply unequal footing, places herself on the same level of the Lord Jesus.
This... Is faith... God’s faith makes her bold, not her good deeds or her social standing.
Now, we have to address the elephant in the room: that is, Jesus’s response to her. There might be kids in the room, but he basically calls her a bitch.
Just as with the book of James, it does us no good to dampen this or explain it away. We cannot make what Jesus said to her nice. But we do have to look at the setting and the full passage...
Jesus is surrounded by his disciples who are - in their minds - really good Jewish people. They see this gentile Syrophoenician woman and what are they thinking about her? What is the cartoon thought bubbles over their heads saying about her in this situation as she’s lying there in front of their Lord Jesus?
Jesus knows that this woman’s heart has been repented. She’s there. She has been turned to Jesus, physically.
I say that his statement is not addressed to HER.
Rather, it’s addressed to THEM.
He’s holding up the mirror of the law to them in regards to the social pecking order. He’s meeting them head-on - uncensored - right where they are at the proverbial foot of the cross as the proverbial spears are in their hands steadied to pierce this woman’s side. He says this to THEM.
In all good societal reasoning, this woman is nothing. So he says it. “The children (Hebrew people) have to be fed first.” “You, bitch, will come after that. Maybe.”
He echoes the law. What’s fair is fair. Right?
And what does she do?
(This is so good…)
She doesn’t fight back... She doesn’t try to justify or save herself according to any of their ridiculous laws. She doesn’t say, “You know what, Jesus, I’m actually a really good person. I give to the poor. I work in the soup kitchen. I’m CEO. I post against injustice on social media. I taught my kids the pledge of allegiance. My daughter goes to Harvard.”
She knows that her true identity rests not in the law, but in the God who is outside of the law. She allows the law to bring her to the end of the false version of herself. All she has is all that you and I have (and might not know it)... The desperate need to be saved by grace...
And she so boldly confesses... “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Do you see what’s happening here? Jesus - like James - amplifies the law only to deliver the gospel.
She comes to a public confession of her ‘endedness’ in the law. She says it. I don’t deserve it. She has not earned it. (Psssst. No one has.) But rather than putting together a drummed-up counterfeit case against the law... She owns it.
Her faith has told her that she doesn’t need to earn her daughter’s salvation. There’s no way she’s ever going to be able to climb to the top of the sociological ladder in the judging minds of the men who glare at her. Her wholeness can only come as a restorative Word from Jesus Christ, life itself, the mouthpiece of God who creates love and worthiness, in true divine fashion, ex nihilo (out of nothing) where no love existed before. And in verse 29, he immediately gives it to her... No hesitation because he already knew...
“Good answer!” He says... “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.”
Mic drop. Remote exorcism. Done.
This is the entire liberating point of the gospel...
Our wholeness has nothing to do with us. We don’t deserve it. We can’t earn it. And we can’t lose it.
So, as your vicar, I give Christ’s restorative Word to you.
I’m not going to dampen the law for you. You cannot reach the bar. I cannot reach the bar. Not even close.
Your enoughness has nothing to do with the bar. It only has to do with the nature of God, which is love. The false self in you has been brought to death by the law. The part of you that rallies for good standing in the eyes of the accusers within and without has nowhere to go. It is dead.
And right there in this resurrection truth,
God has given you back your true identity of goodness and enoughness - not because of what you’ve done or have left undone, which always fall short. But because of God’s holy creative Word which actually produces what the law demands.
THIS is how your works or your faith are not dead.
In this Word, you are given a new heart that has been softened and turned outward towards your neighbor in loving service and unending joy.
God’s grace, mercy, and steadfast love are yours.
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
1 A good reputation is better than much wealth;
high esteem is better than silver and gold.
2 The rich and the poor have this in common:
the Lord made them both.
8 Those who sow injustice will harvest evil;
the rod of their fury will come to an end.
9 Happy are generous people,
because they give some of their food to the poor.
22 Don’t steal from the poor, because they are poor.
Don’t oppress the needy in the gate.
23 The Lord will take up their case
and press the life out of those who oppress them.
1 My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. 2 Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. 3 Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” 4 Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?
5 My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? 7 Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?
8 You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself.9 But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. 10 Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. 11 The one who said, Don’t commit adultery, also said, Don’t commit murder. So if you don’t commit adultery but do commit murder, you are a lawbreaker. 12 In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. 13 There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment.
14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? 15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? 17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.
24 Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. 25 In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. 27 He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
28 But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
29 “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” 30 When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.
31 After leaving the region of Tyre, Jesus went through Sidon toward the Galilee Sea through the region of the Ten Cities. 32 Some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly speak, and they begged him to place his hand on the man for healing. 33 Jesus took him away from the crowd by himself and put his fingers in the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 Looking into heaven, Jesus sighed deeply and said, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Open up.” 35 At once, his ears opened, his twisted tongue was released, and he began to speak clearly.
36 Jesus gave the people strict orders not to tell anyone. But the more he tried to silence them, the more eagerly they shared the news. 37 People were overcome with wonder, saying, “He does everything well! He even makes the deaf to hear and gives speech to those who can’t speak.”