Two Kinds of Law
Text: I Cor 10: 23-24
23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.
This is another one of those texts that can leave you scratching your head. Of course, not all things are lawful – and yet that is what it says – and the second part of the text says that not all things are beneficial; well, that is certainly true, but there are times when even that becomes a very gray area.
What we have here, I believe, is a text that requires us to look deeper and a text that is challenging in the way we image and comprehend God. What is Paul trying to say when he says that all things are lawful? If you read the entire chapter, you will discover that the majority of the conversation centers around food and what is lawful to eat and what is not. So we could conclude that all food is OK to consume, or all food is now lawful and leave it at that. But what that does is it makes the entire context no longer meaningful or no longer relevant to our lives today. I resist this idea because I happen to think that we can almost always pull something out of a text, even when on the surface it may seem like there isn’t anything more there for us to find.
I happen to think that if we look hard enough we may find something more for us to understand here than just a green light on whatever kinds of food we want to eat. Paul says that all things are lawful, not just food, but all things; and then he seems to temper the statement with another observation that not all things are beneficial. So he makes a distinction between lawful and beneficial, he states there is a difference between what is legal and what is good for us.
Perhaps the place for us to begin looking at this scripture is with the word lawful. What does Paul mean when he uses this word?
In today’s context, lawful means that we stay within the laws of our city or state or federal government; in other words, there are laws we must obey. We drive the speed limit, mostly; we stop at red lights, we file our taxes, we don’t rob banks – we follow the laws. There are those who sometimes do not, and there are consequences for not following the laws. Those consequences range in severity, but they are consequences none the less. I’m wondering how far I would get if the State Police pulled me over for speeding and I tried to explain to the officer that the Apostle Paul says that all things are lawful and therefore I can drive as fast as I please. I’m pretty certain that wouldn’t work too well. Although I did notice last time I went through Boise that the speed limit on the Interstate down there is faster than I want to drive anyway, but I digress…
I don’t think Paul was talking about these kinds of laws. Perhaps you are thinking he was talking about the religious laws of ancient Judaism; that would be a better guess, but I don’t believe that has to be the case for us today either. I believe it is possible that Paul was talking about a higher law, the law of righteousness or the law of salvation.
As I began to ponder this question, it occurred to me that there are really two kinds of law. There are those laws which are designed to control you in some way, and most of those laws you can break if you want to. The speed limit, the stop sign, the filing your taxes, etc – you have a choice if you want to follow those laws, and most of us do most of the time. But there are other laws, laws which cannot be broken because they just are. These laws exist and there isn’t much we can do about them.
The law of gravity is such a law. We might be able to escape gravity and orbit the earth, but the general consensus is that the law of gravity always is followed. If you drop a ball 100 times, it is a certainty that 100 times out of 100 the ball will fall to the earth. The law of gravity simply is, it cannot be broken. Not only that, but the law of gravity is really cool in a lot of other ways as well. For example, you might remember learning in school about the experiment of Galileo, I think it was, who dropped balls if different weight off a tower. Everyone thought the heavier ball would drop much faster than the lighter ball, but in fact, they hit the ground at the same time. The law of gravity has a built-in equality that is really interesting if you think about it in that way. Another interesting example is that the law of gravity works on an object whether or not it is in motion. You might have to think about this one a little, but a good example is a bullet fired from a gun. If the gun is perfectly level, and you drop a bullet straight down at the same time the fired bullet leaves the end of the gun barrel, both bullets will hit the ground at the same time. That may seem unlikely to you, but it is, in fact, the truth.
Taking this idea with the law of gravity for example; does it matter what object we throw into the air to see if gravity works? Does an apple work as well as a bowling ball? I would say yes. So, from a particular point of view, with regard to the law of gravity, all things are lawful, all things, as I said before, are equally impacted by the law of gravity.
There are many laws of nature and physics which fall into this category; Newton’s laws of motion, laws regarding mass or density, laws of heat exchange; there are all kinds of things that just are the way they are. They are always the same, never to be broken, and we call them laws.
Let me see if I can bring this around full circle for us now. Within the Jewish faith tradition, the law had a specific purpose and that purpose was righteousness. The law was to be followed to insure your righteousness before God and to show your diligence and commitment to God. This was the purpose of the law.
I believe what Paul is saying here, is that the relationship of God to humanity is never in question; it is like the second type of law that we talked about, it is like the law of gravity. There are two kinds of law, those that we follow and those that just are.
God falls into the category of law that just is. There isn’t anything you can do to change the way God sees you. There isn’t any law you can follow that will cause God to love you more; there isn’t any law you can break that will cause God to love you less. Your status with God, just is and cannot be enhanced or diminished by anything we do. In that context; all things are lawful.
Does that mean we go out and do anything we please? Of course not, because as I mentioned earlier, Paul tempers the statement with another when he says that not all things are beneficial. The key to a fulfilling life is right there in the text as well – don’t seek your own advantage, but rather the advantage of the other. Don’t put yourself first, but place the needs of others above your own.
A remarkably simple formula; don’t worry about your relationship with God, it is secure, it just is, it’s like gravity. Worry about others and there you will find all you need to know about life. If you think about it, you might discover this simple formula from Paul sounds a lot like the one that Jesus offered when he said to “love God and love your neighbor as yourself” then Jesus said on these two things, hang all the law.
Two kinds of law; but only one response to the law, God is and you are with God.
And that is perhaps food for thought.