Law and Gospel is a beloved Lutheran theological slogan. For my money though it has moved from being something that is life changing to being a doctrinal formulation that is barely understood. And part of the problem is how it has been preached and used for the past 50 years or so. It has been used not as law AND gospel, but law and gospel have been set contrary to each other. That is both an abuse of the law, expecting from it what it can’t do, and a misreading of the gospel.
This sermon is my attempt to move law and gospel from a dead doctrine to a life changing reality.
But the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that, in 2010, the year ObamaCare passed, full-time employment grew at an average monthly rate of 114,000 while part-time employment dropped an average of 6,000 a month. So far this year, as ObamaCare is being implemented, full-time employment has grown at an average monthly rate of 21,700 while part-time employment has increased an average of 93,000 a month.
Now one can fairly ask why a church website would point something like this out. It could be: 1) I’m just a religious right nutjob that has confused the GOP for the gospel, 2) I hate poor people and don’t understand the prophetic call to the poor, the fatherless, the widow and the alien in our midst, 3) I’m a religious masochist pining for the days when nobody had healthcare and we all faced death and babies without any caring professions help because suffering focuses the mind on things eternal. Or, it could be none of those things (hint, hint).
Let me explain.
1) Occam’s razor. There is a place for the federal government. That place is according to the preamble (half sung to the Schoolhouse rock tune in my gen-x head) is: “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty”. The government’s purpose is to rule fairly applying the same law to the poor and the great (Leviticus 19:15). The government provides the framework that citizens agree to live within. And for a nation of 300 million of various peoples, languages, tribes and nations, that framework should be remarkably simple. Otherwise you get into the position where we are now that rent seeking (gaming rules and loopholes) is more profitable than actually working. The quote above highlights the reaction of businesses logically gaming a complex system, and it will get worse.
2) The law (not this specific law but the law in general) has three uses: civil or curb, moral or mirror and spiritual or rule(r). None of those purposes is salvation. When the preamble says establish justice or promote the general welfare or ensure the blessings of liberty it is poetically talking about placing a legal curb. You can jump the curb if you insist, but only heartbreak lies beyond it. The story that the American founders understood is that the curb is best placed at a minimum level allowing the maximum amount of liberty. Calvin’s Geneva and every established religion has attempted to use the government as a teaching tool erecting mirrors to show sin and often enforcing the rule(r) which is only available to those who have the Holy Spirit. That is a mistake of the tool. That is attempting to use an instrument of law (government) as an instrument of the gospel. At least Calvin and company had the correct gospel. Today we are attempting to enforce a material salvation/a material gospel through tools of the law. That can’t help but come to grief.
3) One of the greatest blessings of the modern world had been the full-time 40 hour work week. The teacher in Ecclesiastes, in the midst of all the vanity, recognizes the gift of work. “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24) He echoes it three times: Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 and Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 being the other two. There is an old german phrase: kinder, kuche, kirche – kids, kitchen, church. The 40 hour week had secured a balance for those most important things, Ecclesiastes’ eat, drink, toil and blessing from God. All of our misuse of the law making it easier to game the system than actually work has killed that gift. This law will enshrine a divide amongst our people that will teach a bad lesson. Notice that the teacher doesn’t distinguish work from work. Work, what is given, is a gift. The law as constructed will teach that there is good work, that which will hire you full time, and bad work, that which will only hire you for 20 hours. It will teach contrary to the truth and move the very people it wants to protect (the poor) away from the blessings of labor.
So in summary: This law increases our biggest problem that the incentives to gaming the system are currently greater than the incentives to work, especially for the smart and already rich. Going to Washington and lobbying is more profitable than producing a new product or service. This law confuses the proper role of the government creating a confusion of law and gospel. This law hurts the very people it is suppose to serve and puts us on a path to teaching very dangerous lies.
Now to hit the other side, the formal GOP has not proposed a real alternative. It should. It is possible to do this simply and with an eye to those currently excluded. Here is Dr. Ben Carson, Johns Hopkins Brain Surgeon, from earlier this year giving the outline in about 2 minutes.
David Brooks gets it, at least from a secular point, and in a way (especially if you look at the comments from the clueless multitude of Times readers) that is terribly sad. In this essay, he preaches half of my sermon this week much better than I could. The problem, as Babel told us, is not the system. The problem is the individual human heart. As Brooks talks about, the individual no longer resonated to words like fortitude and courage. Aquinas and virtue theologians would put those as the cornerstone of the virtues. If you don’t have fortitude, the others will fall as well. When you no longer build virtue, you resort to the law to force something like virtue. Hence,
Meanwhile, usage of words associated with the ability to deliver, like “discipline” and “dependability” rose over the century, as did the usage of words associated with fairness. The Kesebirs point out that these sorts of virtues are most relevant to economic production and exchange.
The law is always quid pro quo; it is a market. And it is always inadequate to the task. If the law can’t convict you of sin (second use, mirror) and move you toward virtue in the gospel (3rd use, rule) the best it can do is be a curb (first use or civil use). Hence,
The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.
That is the result of turning away from the call of the Holy Spirit. The only solution is the recovery of the vocabulary of the Spirit. A re-moralization is not about the law, although it has a role. It starts with repentance. And repentance doesn’t come about until the old Adam is dead, until we no longer want to keep our life but are willing to lose it for the gospel. And that might be why David Brooks can be so melancholy. Walking that necessary path is going to hurt. Our Polis, our politics, is not about virtue but about mere technique. Which technique do you want – delay and deny (liberal) or time to pay the piper (conservative)? A more wise Polis would be talking about prudence, patience, fortitude and temperance along with faith, hope and charity. But those require belief in something beyond the market. A belief we no longer have the Spirit for. “Take not you Holy Spirit from me (Psalm 51:11)…”
The call to be a disciple of Jesus is a call to failure. But it is in that very failure that we find our Hope. The disciple is called to keep the law. We are called to do and teach it. To strive with it. But the disciple knows that is an impossible task. It is a striving against the wind. We are not able to keep the law. That doesn’t mean we get to neglect it or cast aspersions against it. What the law does is instruct us. It points us to the better way. Blessed are the poor in Spirit. God raises up the lowly. The law is not the final word. It points us to God’s final word, Jesus Christ.
As one congregant said – “reading a little Plato were you?” The presenting question was what do I do to inherit eternal life. In our culture today I don’t think that is even a question people ask. Eternal and the man’s address of Jesus as Good Teacher imply something that our culture denies. That concept of the good which is the intuitive way we are drawn to things that are true or that are beautiful and not in our culture’s highest goods of utility or aesthetic pleasingness, is what is denied. There are no eternal or good things in our culture. We have so much and settle for so little.
In a Lutheran law and gospel structure the man’s question is one of a second use of the law. It shows us our sin or a mirror to our soul. But it also implies a first use of the law – a simple description of the way things were made. We were made with eternity in mind. There are things that are beautiful – even though they may not be aesthetically pleasing or pass the culture poobah’s 5 star ratings. There are things that are true, even if you don’t believe them. In many ways talking to our culture is more like talking to the Sadducees than the Pharisees. The pharisees inhabited the same mental world as Jesus. When Jesus talked to the Sadducees he would say things like “you are badly mistaken.” (Mark 12:27) With Pharisees Jesus called them to see that they couldn’t carry the law. He was so visibly upset with them because they were close to the kingdom. He looked at them and loved them. With the Sadducees it was a call to something more fundamental, a call to examine presuppositions about the world.
Don’t settle for happiness – or the things that wealth can buy temporarily. Seek the Kingdom, the good things, the things eternal. Then you will have treasure in heaven.