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Faith + Values: Christianity is not about wins and losses, but spirit

Paul Graves

For those of us who try to be followers of Jesus to some degree, let’s begin today with some words he addressed to his favorite foils, the “scribes and Pharisees.” In Matthew 23:23, he called them play-actors.

He clearly challenges their legalistic pride, self-sufficiency and resulting hypocrisy when they give their “temple tithes” but “neglect the weightier matters of the law – justice, mercy, and good faith.” They did the light lifting of legalism but forgot those “weightier matters of the law.”

This tendency to embrace legalism came to my mind recently when I read some ironic twists that involve religion and legal rulings. The irony began for me in my home state, Idaho. The state Legislature considered a law that could effectively let persons discriminate against other persons (particularly homosexuals) on grounds of “religious freedom.”

Then I read that Kansas, Utah and Tennessee legislatures are also considering bills that would allow persons to refuse services of any kind to homosexual persons on religious grounds. Religious people want the legal “right” to exclude persons? I really don’t get that.

In my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, we are using “church trials” to attempt to deal with pastors who choose to disobey our church law by performing weddings and blessings for same-sex couples. How will this turn out? It’s anybody’s guess.

I am heartsick that “religious freedom” and legalism are being used as rallying cries in civil courts, state legislative sessions and in church trials. The irony of these actions? That persons and religious institutions that supposedly believe in the grace of God are using law to “win.”

I don’t see how these efforts are different from the legalism Jesus consistently challenged in religious people. Focus on the “weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and good faith.” I despair of Christianity’s future in America when “good Christians” hide behind the country’s legal system to get their way.

Earlier I spoke of the scribes and Pharisees as Jesus’ foils. St. Paul suggests in Romans 7:7-13 that “the law” is also a foil. The irony in this passage is that Paul “will actually say that God gave us the law to show us that we can’t obey the law,” Richard Rohr wrote in “Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality.”

The law is good when it provides a positive structure on which we can base our personal and societal lives. But misusing laws to gain advantage over others is unhealthy. For religious people to use the law in this way is hypocritical.

We who claim to follow Jesus are called to live beyond the letter of the law. So many religious groups are sadly turning to the civil or church legal systems for protection. Don’t they remember we are called to go beyond the letter of the law and live instead in the spirit that God lived in Jesus? His God includes all people. His God does not exclude them!

If human beings were fully capable of living healthy lives according to obedience to whatever laws govern their families, communities, churches, counties, states or nation, we would not have needed God to become a person, whom we call Jesus.

That person has shown us a better way, a different way to live. Sadly, we egocentric people haven’t seriously tried it over a long period of time.

Even when we try – in another ironic twist – we too often settle for a legalistic way to adhere only to the words of Jesus, not to the deepest spirit-meanings in those words. Let’s try again! And again!

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is the founder of Elder Advocates. He can be contacted at
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