"Our Answer is God. God's answer is us. Through partnership we make our world better." - Dorian Scott Cole
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The Watering Hole - Conversations on 21st. Century religion.

Daddy, why is there law?


Do we make laws that hurt people? Do state and religious requirements supersede human decency?

Daddy, why is there law?

What if a group brought a lawsuit against the US, alleging that certain laws hurt people, and those law's reason for being was to make companies and individuals wealthy? The attack would certainly be popular in some circles. Some would argue against the suit, saying that benefiting business, helps everyone financially by giving people jobs, and there is certainly no law in the US prohibiting the gathering of wealth.

Some would say that the laws are constitutional, therefore they are beyond reach. The Constitution, after all, is the law of the land, the organizing principle that we have all agreed to and use to govern and protect us all. An attack on these laws would be an attack on the constitution, bring chaos, and could only be won in an activist court that creates law rather than applying existing law.

A farmer named Amos walked into a busy economic and religious center, and said to the people, God said to tell you, I'm going to destroy this place. They probably all laughed and said, Yeah, stand over there with those people praying for rain. Let's see if you get wet in this drought that "God says" were not supposed to have because we're favored. Who are you, some terrorist?

This got the religious leaders' attention. The chief leader went to Amos and probably said something like, look you ignorant farmer. We have important feasts going on that we are religiously required to do, and you're not higher than God, so go back to your farm, where you belong, and talk to your ignorant sheep. You're no Abraham Lincoln?

Amos continued talking to the people in no uncertain terms. God says, I hate and despise your feasts and your 'important' meetings. I refuse your gifts. I don't want to hear your songs about me. I gave to you in difficult times, and never asked anything in return. You want to do something for me, then let social justice become a flood in this land.

But the community leaders just laughed, and said, the poor and abused are always here. If we helped them, we would just become as poor as them. You can't understand, you stupid farmer. You don't have the training in law, or business, religion, economics, government, running a community, or social work. You don't even have a degree. You are disrupting the peace, and we don't want our feast interrupted, so get out of town before we have you removed.

The words of Amos, like many other prophets in Israel, were so profound that the Jews incorporated then into the Hebrew Bible, and those words still resonate today. What is more important? Making an appearance in church or synagogue, to meet a requirement of Law, or perhaps caring for the poor, widows, and making sure merchants aren't stealing from customers? Those are also requirements.

These questions created a major division in Judaism for centuries. Those who returned to rebuild the Temple felt strongly that their nation had been destroyed and the Temple destroyed, because they had failed to follow the Law of God, and they rebuilt the religion with a much stricter adherence to the hundreds of laws. They formed the basis of the Sadducee sect that felt that the primary redeeming quality one must possess to please God, was to strictly follow God's laws, regardless if that hurt someone. God simply came before man's needs. These divisions festered, and by the time of Christ, they had come to a boil.

The world changed over time. The defeat of Josiah's army at the hands of the Egyptians was a rude awakening saying that they might have misjudged their place in the world, and their power. The two Diasporas were further indications that their ideas about their standing weren't without problematic questions.

The lands of Judah and Israel became more populated, had more cities, many foreigners came to the land. The Samaritans, followers of Jewish Law, refused to accept the prophets, and they permitted divorce, creating a huge religious difference and enmity in the population. While there were other places important religious places, and rabbis as teachers, the central Temple and incessant need for sacrifice suppressed religion, and even corrupted it. The purity insisted on by Law, and the Sadducees, kept the religion out of reach of many, except in rudimentary ways.

After the Babylonians had ruled the Jew's territory, the Romans became rulers, bringing with them a culture that was even more unacceptable to many. Despite protection from enemies, nationalism created wars and continuous strife within the nation of people. Religious law was prevented from being exercised, and replaced with the laws of the Roman Empire. The nations geographical boundaries had been shattered by Diasporas and rule by foreign nations. What was the nation of Israel, and what was her purpose?

"Love your neighbor as yourself," was present in thought as early as Leviticus 19. It also contained several other ideas about how we treat others. But the ideas of mercy, forgiveness, and love (caring for others), were things that came from God toward man. They generally weren't cited as a requirement. Yet they were the underpinnings of the Law, and these actions were often cited by the prophets.

As time went by, many groups in the nation, while observing the law, did place more emphasis on these things. We can see it in the Essenes and Pharisees which flourished at this time of great social upheaval. It isn't that the ideas didn't exist, they did. It's just that leadership focuses attention on the more bureaucratic requirements.

By the time of Christ, these boiling differences came to a head. The Sadducees insisted on followING God's Law no matter what, because not doing so might bring destruction. Who will be put first, man's needs, or God's, or the state's, or religion's? Christ helped people understand all that the prophets had said. He walked a very delicate line, and said that the Law is here to serve man, not the other way around. Does God have some need for a house or animal sacrifices or anything of any kind, other than for people to walk in his ways? People are not perfect, but God loves to forgive. All people of all nationalities stand equally before God. Give to the government what is the governments, and give to God what is God's.

This was not what some wanted Christ to be. They wanted protection from foreign militaries, and protection from the environmental disasters while getting the blessing of food from the land. They wanted religious rule. They wanted this condition to be as simple as keeping the religion pure - something priests and laws could accomplish for them. If they just kept their nose clean, they could forget about watching after others in need.

Four BCE was a moment pregnant with new ideas and the desperate need for change, for Judaism to survive. It was the moment Jesus was born for, and he carried a message not just for Judaism, but for the world. He didn't negate laws, but explained that people are not here to serve the law. Law is here to serve people. When they don't serve people, then the law stands aside.

Purity is not the supreme requirement, forgiveness is. God loves to forgive. The Temple doesn't own God, or even provide a house for him, or even just a few people. Religion isn't tied to geographical boundaries. A nation is people, not geography. The people had done the trivial things of the law and forgotten the more important things, like justice and mercy. The important Law is love (in the theological sense of taking care of others). He changed thinking so that religion could work in a new world, a constantly changing world.

Jews acknowledge Christ as a prophet. Christians embrace Christ as The Way, and as a full representation of God (love). Of course, both of these groups, as well as Islam, have their own peculiar ways of interpreting and expressing this in hundreds of different ways.

Amos knew something wasn't right, as did the many other prophets. Despite the high language and endless meetings, nothing really changed. Organized religion tries to present God to people as a list of rules and laws that support their way of life and their culture, thinking that this brings God's favor. Yet all God really cares about is how we treat each other. He demands allegiance, and then says, love each other, and says that over and over again in so many ways.

The question is as old as Amos and Amaziah, and we still have it today. There are natural laws, such as against murder and theft. There are religious ideas. There are cultures. There are governmental laws. But we can never forget what is important. People, justice, mercy, love.

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the booklet Amos VS. Amaziah, from Shalom Spiegel, No. 3 in the Essays in Judaism Series

- Dorian

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- Dorian

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