“Is It Legal?”

The following was published in the 14th Avenue Church of Christ bulletin on 11 February 2018.

At the beginning of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Darth Sidious instructs Trade Federation Viceroy Nute Gunray to land his invasion force on the planet Naboo. Gunray asks, “My Lord… is it… legal?” Sidious cynically responds, “I will make it legal.” This exchange, like most of The Phantom Menace, is over-the-top. The Trade Federation is obviously acting in bad faith against Naboo, and Gunray’s question is pragmatic rather than ethical or moral. He is not concerned with doing right but rather with getting away with it.

Our moral failings are usually not so obvious as Nute Gunray’s, but that doesn’t make us immune to his mode of thinking. Rather than thinking of our behavior in terms of “Should I?” we think of it in terms of “Can I?” The Bible teaches us through many examples that this type of thinking is morally disastrous.

In Daniel 6, King Darius’s advisors plot to use Daniel’s faith against him. They convince Darius to require everyone in the Empire to pray through the king. The advisors know that Daniel will disobey, so all they have to do is wait. Sure enough, Daniel refuses to break faith by praying through the king, so the advisors bring their accusation against him. The law forces the king to condemn Daniel to the lions’ den, but God delivers Daniel.

The king’s advisors do not fare so well. It was common in the law codes of the Ancient Near East to punish false witnesses by giving them the sentence of the person they had accused. Such happens to the king’s advisors at the end of Daniel 6. The king casts them into the lions’ den, where they die.

But wait–were the advisors false witnesses? Their accusation against Daniel was true; he was breaking the law. And the law was very clear: any man who did not pray through the king was to be put to death. Here we see Gunrayism on display: the advisors told the truth, but they were not honest; they kept the law, but they were not just.

In Luke 20, the scribes, the chief priests, and the Sadducees are in a bind. They want Jesus dealt with, in the same way that the Mafia deals with people. Unlike the Mafia, the Sadducees and their sycophants are too “scrupulous” to do the dirty work themselves. Rather, they are too cowardly. Luke tells us that “they feared the people” (Luke 20.19). They would also have feared the Romans, who enforced a monopoly on capital punishment. “So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the [Roman] governor,” i.e., to be put to death (Luke 20.20).

The Sadducees take a crack at catching Jesus in His words with a question about levirate marriage and the Resurrection (Luke 20.27-33). The Sadducees, of course, don’t believe in the Resurrection. They claim to follow only the Torah. They ask about the Resurrection because they think that their question may get Jesus hanged (see Dr. David McClister’s lecture, “‘Now there were seven brothers…’: What Was So Dangerous About This Question?” for an explanation). Jesus turns the tables on them in His response: “But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him” (Luke 20.37-38). Whereas the Sadducees thought to catch Jesus in his words, Jesus has now caught the Sadducees in their words: if they say that they follow only the Torah, then they must confess the Resurrection.

Ultimately, though, Jesus gives the chief priests what they want. After searching fruitlessly for false witnesses to accuse Jesus of a punishable crime, the frustrated high priest gets up and says to Jesus, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus Himself utters the words that will get Him hanged: “You have said so” (Mat 26.63-64). The priests then deliver Jesus over to Pilate, and He is hanged, and their hands are clean. Everything is nice and “legal.” But these false witnesses bear the penalty on their own heads, for “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mat 10.33).

Gunrayism is a specific kind of legalism. All legalism seeks to reduce the broad moral character of God’s Law to a narrow set of rules to follow. Legalism makes the Faith into a checklist. If I do this thing and that thing (or five things), and if I don’t do this, that, and the other thing, then that makes me faithful to God. I have done what is legal. So did King Darius’s advisors. So did the scribes, the chief priests, and the Sadducees. But in the end, they all faced the Lion. And so shall we.

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