The threat of punishment

Many people were raised by parents who believed in “laying down the law” to teach their children to obey. Sometimes, the strategy worked; some kids obeyed out of fear if nothing else. They avoided doing wrong (or worked hard at not getting caught!) in order to avoid the consequences. But that’s not the same thing as wanting to do the right thing out of love for one’s parents and respect for their example. That takes more than parents making and enforcing rules: it takes their patient and faithful love.

So, consider this: what kind of parent is God?

In our study of the Psalms, for example, we’ve seen how the psalmists repeatedly praise God for his steadfast love. That’s the God we want.

But I suspect that the more we were raised to fear punishment, either at home or in the church, the more difficult it is for us to hang onto this vision of God. The God of the Old Testament seems fearsome and legalistic, a marked contrast with the God of the New Testament.

The law can become associated in our minds with God’s wrath against sin. When this happens, texts like Psalm 119 seem decidedly odd. How could anyone go on and on like that, fawning over law?

That psalmist doesn’t sound like someone you’d want to invite to your Bible study.

But again, what we learn from the Psalms is that the essence of the law is God’s instruction pointing us to what life is meant to be, whereas the alternative path leads to death and destruction. The one who studies God’s way, who looks deeply into it and follows it, sees its beauty and wisdom. It’s not an arbitrary set of requirements; it’s a vision of God’s best for humanity.

Our attitude toward God’s law, then, will shape how we read the following passage from James:

You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. The one who said, Don’t commit adultery, also said, Don’t commit murder. So if you don’t commit adultery but do commit murder, you are a lawbreaker. In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment. (James 2:8-13, CEB)

As we’ve seen in a previous post, James has already used the phrase “law of freedom (or liberty),” and this may sound strange to ears accustomed to particular ways of understanding both law and freedom. Here in this passage, “law” is mentioned five times, along with sin, guilt, and judgment.

Fun, fun, fun. It’s not exactly a text for an inspirational poster; it tweaks that notion of a vengeful God who threatens us with punishment.

Is that what James is saying?

. . .

James, as we’ve seen, is addressing the problem of favoritism in the church (or synagogue). The rich were getting preferential treatment, being shown politely to good seats, while the poor were dishonored by being left to stand or to sit on the floor. James gives them two reasons why they shouldn’t do that. First, believers were complaining about being oppressed by the rich, so honoring the rich was oddly hypocritical. But second, and more importantly, in the upside-down kingdom that Jesus preached, it is the poor who are declared blessed. To the extent that believers show favoritism to the rich, they show that they don’t get what the kingdom is really about.

That’s what we need to hear in the passage above: echoes of the teaching of Jesus. When James refers to the “royal law” and the “law of freedom,” he doesn’t mean the understanding of the law taught by the scribes and Pharisees, but the understanding taught by Jesus, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount.

We’ll explore that teaching in upcoming posts. And hopefully, by the time we’re finished, we might see fit to make an inspirational poster out of that last line: Mercy overrules judgment.