Legislating Morality

James 1:17-27

17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. 18 He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.

Welcoming and doing the word

19 Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.20 This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you.

22 You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. 23 Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. 24 They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. 25 But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.

26 If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless.27 True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.


Mark 7:1-8

What contaminates a life?

7 The Pharisees and some legal experts from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus. 2 They saw some of his disciples eating food with unclean hands. (They were eating without first ritually purifying their hands through washing. 3 The Pharisees and all the Jews don’t eat without first washing their hands carefully. This is a way of observing the rules handed down by the elders. 4 Upon returning from the marketplace, they don’t eat without first immersing themselves. They observe many other rules that have been handed down, such as the washing of cups, jugs, pans, and sleeping mats.) 5 So the Pharisees and legal experts asked Jesus, “Why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders but instead eat food with ritually unclean hands?”

6 He replied, “Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he prophesied about you hypocrites. He wrote,

This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far away from me.
7 Their worship of me is empty
    since they teach instructions that are human words.

8  You ignore God’s commandment while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you.”

Mark 7:14-15

14 Then Jesus called the crowd again and said, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand. 15  Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person.”

Mark 7:21-23

21 “It’s from the inside, from the human heart, that evil thoughts come: sexual sins, thefts, murders, 22  adultery, greed, evil actions, deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, insults, arrogance, and foolishness. 23  All these evil things come from the inside and contaminate a person in God’s sight.”


Thoughts on the passage:

What is the reason for speed limits? When it comes down to it, what is the reason for any traffic laws at all? The intention of all traffic laws is to keep people safe. Speed limits are defined based on how fast they think it is safe for a car to drive without being too great a danger to others. On small narrow roads, with poor sightlines or lots of pedestrians that might be 30 MPH but on a straight, wide open space, with all the cars moving in one direction and few changes like a freeway that might be 65 or even 75 MPH. Traffic laws all have one aim, to try and keep everyone safe.

In many ways, traffic laws are easy to understand because their goal is easy to understand. When it comes to the laws that govern our country, the reasons can be far less clear. Some laws have existed that enshrined evil practices, like slavery and others that permitted racism and sexism, like voting laws and segregation laws. The value behind these laws might be different than laws prohibiting theft and murder that are trying to create a safe and orderly society.

Understanding our laws can be difficult and the process of interpreting them can be lengthy and expensive. In the end, we are left to trust that the laws of our country are trying to live up to the values that our nation was founded upon. They exist to help form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. If those words sound familiar it is because they come from the preamble of our Constitution which provides the defining purpose for our laws.

Our passages today talk about the laws as well, but these laws do not come from a government but instead come from God. At the same time, there is similar confusion for some people as to the purpose of those laws. Laws are not meant to be an end in themselves, but rather to do something greater. The laws that were given to us by God are not meant just to frustrate or challenge us, rather they are a part of what it means to be in covenant with God and to help us to love God and to love our neighbor.

The Pharisees in our story are struggling to remember the reason for the laws. Instead of caring about why we have these laws, they have become obsessed with making sure that the laws are properly followed. Those of us who like to follow the rules can probably feel some affinity to the Pharisees. I will be the first person to acknowledge that it frustrates me no end when I see people who seem to be flagrantly ignoring traffic laws. To be perfectly honest however, I am not perfect in my own driving and probably far more likely to extend myself grace than the drivers around me. Just like me, the Pharisees are struggling to extend grace when they see the disciples are not following some of the cleanliness laws of the Old Testament.

Jesus takes offense at the criticisms that are directed at him and his followers. He refers to the Prophet Isaiah and a passage that points out the hypocrisy of people who profess to follow God with their lips but fail to do it with their hearts. When people are more passionate about attending to the exact details of the law than they are to the meaning of the law, they have lost their way. The point of our spiritual laws is to help us to love God and our neighbor. The laws are not meant to be the sole measure of our faith.

In a different way, the Letter of James makes a similar point. It is a command to be doers rather than merely hearers of the word it reminds us that there is a purpose behind things like religion and the law. Rituals and practices do not exist in a vacuum but rather are meant to drive us towards something. James defines it as: “to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The point of religion is to help us in our relationship with God, to be “first fruits of creation.”

So why is it important that we know the reason behind the laws rather than just following the laws? One of the things we tend to do in our society is what I call legislating morality. We create laws that try and keep us doing things that are good and prohibit us from doing evil. The temperance movement of the early twentieth century did this. By focusing on making alcohol illegal rather than on helping people not want to drink, it was an attempt to force people to be good.

When we try and legislate morality without educating people as to the reasons, we create a false idol. Instead of helping people to want to be good, we just want them to be lawful. Lawful and good are not the same thing. After all, Thomas Jefferson was lawful to own slaves, but we would hardly call him good for doing so. When we place too much focus on following the rules, we can lose sight of the real reason behind the laws.

Since cellphones became ubiquitous, there as been a struggle to figure out how to handle them when it comes to driving. States have created different laws to govern their use and enforcement of those laws have been a challenge. Part of the problem is that we as drivers are often not focused on the real goal, keeping our roads safe. If this was our value, then we never would have seen the wave of distracted drivers that has prompted so many laws in the last few years. Even still, people like me struggle to remember that what is most important is not can I legally do this but is it safe for me to do this. You can get arrested for speeding while going slower than the speed limit if the conditions warrant a much slower speed.

The Letter of James is famous for its argument that faith without works is dead. Simply going through the actions without believing in what you are doing is equally meaningless. We need to get back to the heart of our faith, that is our relationship with God. The laws we follow are meant to help us to love God and each other. Our actions, worship, Bible study, fasting, communion, and so forth are all there to help us grow deeper in that relationship.

It is easy to get caught on the literal meaning of things. It is easy to become obsessed with following the rules and forget their real intent. The challenge we have in our faith is to remain focused always on God and let that focus define our words, our actions, and fill our hearts. Amen

Questions to Ponder:

Are you someone who likes to adhere to rules or do you find them annoying and cumbersome?

What are some rules when it comes to the church that you have found helpful and what are some that you have found to be a hinderance to your faith?

What do we need to do to remind us more often of the reason behind the rules?

How do we help people have the tools to make decisions rather than letting our laws make those decisions for them?


O God, you have given us laws and commandments to follow, but most importantly you have given us your son. In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, help us to see you. Help us to faithful follow Christ that through our actions we might draw closer to you. Bless us as we seek to love you and to love our neighbors. Amen