By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
The sermon this morning comes with two disclaimers: One, Labor Day is anything but a religious holiday. Two, the text this morning has nothing to do with labor, per se; as in what you do for a living.
I chose it because it deals with two of the most common mistakes people make when they read the Bible. One is called, literalism – taking words of scripture at face value – literally – without exploring their deeper meaning. The other is called, legalism – taking words of scripture as law and using them to judge others.
My hope is that by avoiding the pitfalls of literalism and legalism you’ll be able to hear God’s Word of grace and truth more clearly.
Let’s begin with literalism. I think I was in the third grade when Jesus’ words first hit home with me:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened,
and I will give you rest.”
I figured Jesus must have had my father in mind when he said this. Dad was an automotive mechanic, and he worked hard for a living. The work was hot in the summer and cold in the winter and filthy dirty all the time. Day after day he’d come home bone weary from a long, hard day at work. It gave me great comfort to know that Jesus was looking after him and would give him the rest he needed from his labor.
That’s literalism. I found out later Jesus wasn’t talking about my dad at all – or people, in general, who work hard for a living – though I’m sure he cares for them. He was talking about how the priests and scribes and rabbis had added so many laws to the Ten Commandments that it was impossible to keep up with them all.
In Jesus’ day the Law of Moses consisted of 613 individual laws. 365 were positive in nature – “do this” – 248 were negative – “don’t do that.”
So, how did Ten Commandments become 613 separate rules and regulations? That’s the second point: Legalism. Here’s just one example: The 4th Commandment reads,
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
You shall labor six days, and do all your work,
but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God.”
Not only are you not suppose to work, neither are those around you: “… neither your son, your daughter, your male servant, your female servant, your livestock, nor the stranger who is within your gates …” (Exodus 20:9-11)
Applying this legalistically opens a can of worms. Can you eat an egg that’s laid on the Sabbath? It takes a lot of work to lay an egg. Can you write a letter to a friend or loved one? Let’s see, would that be work or pleasure? Can you have a productive thought? How can you keep from thinking?
The rabbis parsed the Commandment until it turned into any number of laws. Here’s just one of them: How far are you allowed to walk on the Sabbath in order to get to synagogue before it becomes work? Answer: 2,000 cubits. Don’t ask me how they came up with this number. 2,000 cubits – a little less than half a mile. Any more than that, and it’s work; therefore, a sin. It became known as a “Sabbath’s Journey.”
In case you’re wondering, legalism is still alive and well in our world today.
My first job out of college was as a band director in Winnie, Texas, just east of Houston. For a place to live, I rented a room in the home of an elderly woman called, Mamaw. She had two spare bedrooms. I rented one. A history teacher named Harold rented the other.
Over the summer, Mamaw got her brothers to enlarge the bathroom and build a closet in Harold’s room. When I showed up in August for band rehearsals, everything was finished except Harold’s closet. They’d hung the sheetrock, but it still needed to be taped and bedded.
I pulled in on a Saturday afternoon and found Mamaw in a stir. She wanted to get the closet ready for Harold before he arrived the next week. She asked me if I knew anything about taping and bedding. I told her I did and said I’d be glad to help.
I got started just after suppertime, and I was doing a pretty good job, but I was slow. I estimated that, at the rate I was going, I wouldn’t be able to finish until after midnight.
Now, you need to know that Mamaw was a strict Southern Baptist. She described herself as “a hard shell Baptist and proud of it.” I knew how much Mamaw wanted to get the sheetrock taped and bedded. I also knew that she would not want me working after midnight, which, of course, would be Sunday morning.
I took advantage of the situation. I stopped work around 11:30 and came to the living room where she was quilting. I told her I could be finished in another hour or so, but it was going to run into Sunday morning.
You should’ve seen the look on her face. It was what we call an “approach/avoidance conflict.” Luckily, she had a sense of humor. She looked up at me with a twinkle in her eye and said, “You work, I’ll pray!” Turns out, she wasn’t as legalistic as I thought.
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To cut to the chase, first, Jesus was anything but a literalist. For example, he said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and I’m known by my own …” (John 10:14). This is metaphorical language. Jesus is not literally a shepherd; rather, he is to his followers as a good shepherd is to his sheep.
When it came to the Law of Moses, he took great liberties. In the Sermon on the Mount he said, not once, but six times: “You have heard it said … but I tell you ..,” then went on to interpret the Law by the Spirit, rather than by the letter of the Law.
Jesus was anything but a literalist. Neither was he a legalist.
He healed a man’s withered hand, gave sight to the blind, and told a man who’d been paralyzed from birth to take up his mat and walk … all this, he did on the Sabbath.
Not only that, he and his disciples plucked grain to eat on a Sabbath because they were hungry. When charged by the legalists of his day of breaking the Sabbath, he referred them to the time when King David not only ate the bread of the presence in the temple, but shared it with the priests! Then he said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
Once a woman was brought to him caught in the act of adultery. He was asked if she should be stoned to death. Why? Because that’s what the Law of Moses demanded. He doodled in the sand and said, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone at her.” (John 8:7)
When her accusers heard this, they slipped away in shame. After they were gone, Jesus asked,
“‘Woman, where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?’
She said, ‘No one, Lord.’
Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you.
Go your way. From now on, sin no more.’”
Jesus was not a legalist, nor would he have us to be.
What’s interesting is that he said he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets, and that not even the smallest letter or tiny pen stroke would be taken away until all was accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18) Yet, in the same breath he took liberty to interpret the Law according to the higher standard of God’s forgiveness, grace and love.
So, how does this speak to us today? Here’s an experience I’ll never forget. A young professional moved to the community where I was serving and joined a neighboring church. In time, she started going out with a young businessman. It seemed like a good match. She was pert and pretty and quite ladylike; he was handsome and debonair and the consummate gentleman. They courted for months until he proposed, she accepted, and they celebrated their union with a storybook wedding.
What follows is not “… and they lived happily ever after.”
When they got back from their honeymoon and settled in to establish their new life together, he turned into a control freak. He insisted on making all the major decisions and managing the money – including her income. If she’d let him, he would’ve controlled every aspect of her life. She tried to reason with him. She said they needed counseling. He wouldn’t hear of it. Finally, she did what any reasonable woman would have done: She filed for divorce and went on with her life.
But what about scripture? Specifically, what about where Jesus said,
“I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality,
and marries another, commits adultery;
and he who marries her when she is divorced commits adultery.”
Legalists have a field day with this. But look deeper. In Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife for no other reason than that she displeased him. “Displeased him?” That could mean anything. Jesus’ words were meant to curb the rampant incidences of divorce and protect women from the whims of their capricious husbands.
So, are we to take his words literally – that the only justification for divorce today is adultery? Are we to apply them legalistically – that those who divorce for any other reason are living in sin? No. Infidelity is only one of many reasons why marriages fail. Let’s not use Jesus’ words to stand in judgment of those who divorce.
If you want a verse to hang your hat on, go to Ephesians, where Paul said,
“Husbands, love your wives,
even as Christ also loved the assembly, and gave himself up for it …”
When a husband honors his wife in this way and is willing to do whatever it takes to provide for her and protect her – even if it means giving up his own life for her – she’s free to love him in return and help him become the man of God he was intended to be.
Jesus taught his disciples to live by the spirit of the law, not the letter. Peter once asked,
“‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?
Until seven times?’
Jesus said to him, ‘I don’t tell you until seven times,
but, until seventy times seven.’”
As many times as it takes, in other words.
Jesus’ harshest words were against the legalists of the day who upheld the Law of Moses to the letter and held others in contempt when they didn’t. He told the crowds,
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.
… therefore observe what they tell you …
but don’t do their works; for they say, and don’t do.
For they bind heavy burdens that are grievous to be borne,
and lay them on men’s shoulders;
but they themselves will not lift a finger to help them.”
He went on to say, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin,
and have left undone the weightier matters of the law:
justice, mercy, and faith.”
It’s over against the weight of legalism that Jesus offered his most comforting words:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart;
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Let’s wrap it up with this thought: Laboring for the Lord is not about living by the letter of the Law; it’s about doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God and your fellow man.
Always remember: God’s Word, while contained in scripture, must be inspired by the Spirit and informed by the teachings and example of Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.