The Royal Law
A sermon at Central Presbyterian Church, New York City
January 29 2017
N.T. Wright, University of St Andrews
It’s a great treat to be back here again and to sense that I am among friends both old and new. And it’s good for me, after some years of intensive work on St Paul, suddenly to be plunged into the Letter of James; a bit like the kind of Turkish bath where you get hotter and hotter and then suddenly somebody dumps a bucket of icy water over you. James thinks in a different way to most other New Testament writers; and, equally importantly, he thinks in a different way from most of us. Our challenge again and again, reading this short and sharp letter, is to get not just our minds but our moral imagination around what he’s saying. And that’s what I propose we try to do this morning.
One of the first serious plays I read at school, other than Shakespeare of course, was Robert Bolt’s play about Sir Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons. It’s a rich and complex study of a rich and complex character, as More is faced with one challenge after another – will he support Henry the Eighth in his divorce and remarriage? Will he go with the King in rejecting the Pope and establishing himself as Head of the Church of England? The play is full of insights that echo down the years, insights which keep reappearing in new forms in new situations.
One of my favourite moments comes when More is arguing with his hot-headed would-be son-in-law, William Roper. Roper wants to get straight to the point: he can see what’s wrong in the world, and, in order to go after it and sort it out, he is prepared to act outside the law. Roper, it seems, has been listening to some Lutheran ideas about getting rid of the law. More objects: the law matters even when bad things are happening. Roper responds, ‘So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!’ ‘Yes,’ replies More. ‘What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?’ Roper sees no problem. ‘I’d cut down every law in England to do that!’ he says proudly. Then comes More’s telling response, which looks all the way back to the letter of James and all the way on to the challenges of our own times:
‘Oh?’ he replies. ‘And when the law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.’
If you cut the laws down, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? The question is pointed, to Roper but also to each one of us: do you really think you could stand upright? What, after all, is law for?
A big question for a Sunday morning; but don’t worry, I’m not going to dive into a philosophical lecture. I have a stock answer when my students say disparaging things about ‘law’, or when people in church say that ‘we believe in love, not law’. This is my own cheap and cheerful version of that wonderful line of More’s: there is a law about which side of the road we should drive on, and because of that law I can drive from home to the airport in an hour. The law provides me the freedom to do that. If there were no law, it would take me ten hours; we would all have to drive very slowly, because we’d never know what other people might do. Of course, the word ‘law’ there indicates a convention – there is no moral reason for driving on this or that side of the road, as you’ll know if you’ve come to my country; but it’s backed up by the warnings and penalties of the law of the land. And that law sets us free. That’s the point. That is what James is talking about in our passage this morning.
He’s said it before, in verse 25 of chapter 1, and now he says it again, here in verse 12 of chapter 2: so speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. What a great phrase, ‘the law of liberty’; I was reflecting on that last night as the cab brought me from Newark into the city, in full view of your famous Statue. Liberty turns out to be a more complex thing than we might imagine, just as ‘Law’ itself is more complex; and when you put them together things appear to our modern minds more complex still. Surely liberty means not being ‘under law’? Well, back to Sir Thomas More: it does and it doesn’t. Liberty without law is mere anarchy, and if that phrase ‘mere anarchy’ reminds you of Yeats’s famous poem The Second Coming you might reflect on it – not least in our present context – and shudder.
What James is doing, following exactly and with deep reflection in the footsteps of his brother Jesus himself, is to take the whole notion of law to a new, rich and liberating depth. He is not talking about ‘law’ in the way that Paul, writing to the Galatians and others, warns Gentile converts not to put themselves under the Jewish Law. That is a different set of issues, as I suspect you will be finding out in next week’s sermon. He is talking about ‘the law of liberty’, which in verse 8 he also calls ‘the royal law’, the nomos basilikos. The law given, laid down, by the King, by the Messiah, by Jesus himself.
Jesus, as we know, brought his public career deliberately to its climax at Passover-time. It is at Passover that ancient Israel, and Jews to this day, celebrate those two things which in our culture are so easily played off against one another: freedom and law. Israel is set free from slavery and then given the Torah, the Law which, like the rule of the road, will enable Israel – if only she will obey it! – to drive freely to her destination, to the promised Inheritance. The Torah is the way of life for the people already set free. Passover does not mean anarchy. It means coming under the royal law. And Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, after his strange Passover-like meal with his friends, gave them this new commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you. He had said it many times before, of course: love your neighbour as yourself. But now, in the Passover-context, he was saying clearly and urgently that in the new freedom which he would purchase for them by his death, freedom from the dark powers of the world that enslave and corrupt and kill by dragging us down into the mire of our own sin – in this new freedom, there is a new law, the royal law, the law you need to keep in order to be free and, what’s more, in order that others may be free also. To the William Ropers of the world, James responds that the law still matters: if you cut down the laws against murder, theft, adultery – and the royal law itself, the law of love – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?
Now the wise Christian will of course respond: No, I don’t think that. I realise that God has given me his gracious, life-giving law, the law of liberty, so that I will be free to be a genuine human being, free to live and work to his praise and glory. We know, if we stop to think about it instead of listening to a half-hearted slogan about love not law or about doing your own thing or about the importance of authenticity or spontaneity – we know that actually mere anarchy is not good for any of us, not good for the church, not good for society as a whole. If, having cut down all the trees, we find the winds blowing strongly, the danger then is that one element in society will quickly plant two or three big trees to protect its own interests while ignoring those of others. And at that point we uncover the next layer of what James is saying.
He opens this passage with a famous warning about how we treat different social classes within church. We have no idea how many people would attend a worship service in James’s day; it might have been a dozen or two, or it might have been several hundred, since hundreds of devout Jews came very early on to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. But we can see all too easily how it happens. Class distinctions, often related directly to wealth and poverty, have been a threat to the church from the beginning, and they still are. At its best, one of the wonderful things about the church is that among the followers of Jesus these distinctions are gloriously overcome. But at its worst – and it looks from this letter and also First Corinthians as though the worst was threatening right from the start – the church can easily become a place where the status-games we play in the world outside come inside as well. And the rich man in fine clothes gets a good seat, while the poor man in rags is pushed off to the side.
James has a striking comment on this, which I think reflects that early situation in Jerusalem where the Sadducees, the wealthy high priestly family and entourage, were doing their best to stamp out this Jesus-movement. They were blaspheming, as he says in verse 7, the excellent name that was invoked over them, in other words, the name of Jesus invoked at their baptism. And they are the rich, doing this! As always, they have their vested interests. You can see this in Caiaphas’s cynical comment in John 11: if we let this Jesus go on, we will lose our place, our nation – and, by implication, our own power, prestige and of course wealth. He doesn’t say that but it’s clearly implied. And here, as James knows well, again like Paul in First Corinthians, it is mostly the poor, the nobodies, who have heard and responded to the message of Jesus and the message about Jesus. But as in the sermon on the mount, they are now promised that they – not the rich, not the aristocrats, not the high priests – will inherit the kingdom, will (in other words) be the truly human beings when God’s kingdom comes on earth as in heaven.
Now we assume that James is not saying that all rich people are wicked. But he is rubbing their noses in the fact that if their instinct is to favour someone who comes in dripping with money, jewels and fine clothing they are simply reverting to type, when by following Jesus they are supposed to be modelling the new way of life, the royal law, the law of liberty. And this of course remains a challenge. It remains a challenge within churches; it remains a challenge between churches, since – certainly in my country – the different denominations reflect only too clearly not merely theological but also social and cultural differences. Even the socially revolutionary Methodism, in a previous generation, divided between middle-class Methodists and working-class Methodists, though that is now gone in Britain. But it is also the case between Christians from different countries. Even when we in the affluent West know in our heads that the church is growing so fast in the majority world that we are now in the tiny minority, our assumed cultural superiority, which is the legacy not of the gospel but of the Enlightenment, means that we are still inclined, unless we constantly reflect and repent, to treat Christians from the majority world as the poor relations who come into church and are put to one side. Of course there are many wonderful exceptions, and I think you in the United States are better at getting this right than we in the UK. But I think the point still needs to be made.
And James analyses the whole thing in terms of mercy and judgment. If you discriminate, he says, you are setting yourselves up as judges (verse 4) – judges, moreover, with evil thoughts; in other words, you aren’t even being good judges, impartial as you ought to be! That’s the wrong way round, he says in verse 12: you ought to speak and act ‘as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty’. You yourselves are going to be judged – and the impartial standard that will be used is the royal law, the freedom-law, the law of love which sums up all the other laws and provides the place where you can not only stand upright amid the high winds of moral and cultural confusion but can walk a straight pathway towards the promised new creation, the ultimate inheritance. We are all to be judged by this law, this royal law. Here, at the heart of early Christianity, we see the birth of a new virtue, the virtue of humility. We resist that in a thousand ways, and our social distinctions, especially when we come through the church doors, are ways of resisting humility even while worshipping the God we know in the humiliated and vulnerable Jesus himself. Instead, he says, we need the law of love, the law that keeps us humble and therefore sets us free to love one another without fear of losing our status, our social position.
This analysis comes with a warning, in verse 13: a warning so sharp and sudden that it appears abrupt and even confusing. ‘Judgment will be without mercy’, says James, ‘for those who have shown no mercy’ – and then he adds, ‘mercy triumphs over judgment’. I don’t think we are meant to construct a full systematic doctrine out of these cryptic lines. I think they mean what they mean not least within the scenario at the start of the chapter. Here’s how I think it works.
First, James is saying exactly what Jesus was saying in Matthew 18, the alarming parable about the man who was forgiven a huge debt but couldn’t bring himself to forgive someone else a tiny debt. James is saying that if you close your heart to mercy then you close your heart to mercy. The same door through which the mercy of God will come into your heart and life, rescuing and transforming you and enabling you to live by the royal law, is the door through which that mercy must flow out to others. But if you slam that door shut because you don’t like the others, or don’t trust them, or feel yourself to be socially superior to them, then you have slammed and locked the very door through which God’s mercy was longing to come to you as well. Judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy: a radical application of the Lord’s Prayer, Forgive us our debts and trespasses, as we forgive those who are indebted to us, who trespass against us. Forgiveness is a two-way street, and if we block off that street we block off that street.
But that can never be the last word, and I read the second half of verse 13 as a reminder that God’s grace is always seeking ways to overcome our little prejudices, our small-minded judgments. This relates, you see, to the question of the rich and the poor at the start of the chapter. Verse 4 again: by your discrimination, you are acting as judges with evil thoughts. Now of course the moderately well-off Christians would know perfectly well that sometimes very poor people will, in their desperation, turn to crime, with the better-off a natural target. So there is suspicion built in to the social situation. But in the church mercy triumphs over judgment. This is the message, is it not, of Les Miserables, and indeed of Shakespeare’s glorious but challenging Measure for Measure? Mercy reaches out even to the appalling, to the people who have flouted all God’s laws, to the cynical and bitter, to those who have done their best to get their own way in life . . . in other words, to all of us. Thank God it does or there wouldn’t be many of us left around. Thank God that in God’s kingdom the Law of Love grows as the tree of life in such abundance that when the winds of diabolical accusation blow at their strongest there are places for us to shelter, places where we can stand upright. Places, too, where we can ourselves become life-givers to others.
Because underneath the well-known ‘problem of James’ – that whereas Paul seems to prefer grace to law, James insists on law and on works – there lies a deep misunderstanding at the heart of much Christian culture to this day, not least because of the ways the insights of the sixteenth-century reformers have been subtly filtered through Enlightenment philosophies. This has to do with priorities. If we decide that the question of morality – of whether we have behaved ourselves properly, and if not, then what – is the number one question to ask ourselves as Christians, we are running the risk of doing exactly what Adam and Eve did in the garden, putting the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God. We read Genesis simply in terms of God setting the human race a stiff examination, which we all fail; and then, we say, fortunately Jesus has passed it in our place.
Now don’t misunderstand me. Morality matters enormously. But it matters as the by-product of our primary vocation, which is to be image-bearers: to reflect the praises of creation back to the creator, and to reflect the loving wisdom of the creator into his world. And this is the deep truth of what James is saying here. The royal law – love your neighbour as yourself – is the vocation through which the followers of Jesus are called to reflect into the world the generous love poured out in creation itself, the generous love given up to death on the cross, the powerful love of the Spirit which goes out through the gospel to call rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female alike to live as transformed human beings, as vessels of mercy not simply in the sense of people who have received mercy but in the sense of people who, receiving it, gladly and generously pass it on. That is the royal law, the law of image-bearing. The danger inherent in the way the sixteenth-century Reformers sometimes put things – and the way they are sometimes retrieved – is that by displacing ‘law’ within our understanding of salvation we merely intensify other kinds of law elsewhere, both in our church life and in our public life. That is a reflection you might like to pursue as you make your way through the letter in the coming weeks.
But of course all this, though vital and urgent for us as Christians and churches, also has considerable implications in the public domain. This is not the time, and I am not the person, to give a detailed analysis of the extraordinary political situations we now face, with events moving quickly and confusingly and often, it seems, without much thought for what might happen. We may justly fear that the only law that will be operating on both sides of the Atlantic quite soon will be the law of unintended consequences. And at a time like this, remembering Jesus’ charge to the church that by the Spirit we are to hold the world to account (check it out in John 16), I believe we ought to think through James 2 in relation to what it looks like when the rich nations – yours and mine and others – make knee-jerk reactions to those who come in, or who want to come in, to our worlds, wearing fine clothes or as it may be rags and tatters. Of course things are more complicated than that. Of course we live in a dangerous world where it’s important not to be naïve. But of course we are to be judged by the royal law, the law of love, the law of liberty – the law which, one might think, was celebrated in that remarkable statue of yours. What might it mean in our day that mercy triumphs over judgment? One might say, we have tried judgment, these last fifteen years or so, and it hasn’t worked all that well. Might there be a case for trying mercy instead? Are we not in danger of presenting to the wider world, particularly to those who are eager to see things this way, a vision of the supposedly ‘Christian’ west in which mercy has been left out of the equation – in which, in other words, the very heart of the gospel has been ripped out?
I began with Sir Thomas More, and I end with a very different but equally important character. In the autumn of 1914, the young Karl Barth was pastor in a small Swiss town, and preached a series of sermons as the war began. They have just been translated into English for the first time. He reflects with horror on the way in which the nations of Europe – seen from the nervous vantage-point of a small neutral country in the middle – seem to have decided that law no longer matters, because the situation is urgent and something has to be done. He quotes what the German Chancellor had said in the Reichstag on August 4th, justifying Germany’s invasion of Belgium whose neutrality was supposedly protected by a treaty signed by himself. Yes, said the chancellor, I know this is illegal under international law. But necessity knows no law. Barth ruthlessly analyses and denounces this breathtaking statement, and the way it was being echoed in the other warring nations, much as More responded to Roper: if you cut down all the laws, d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? History gives the answer, in those millions of muddy graves and in the aftershocks of European history throughout the twentieth century.
My friends, James is calling us – God is calling us through this sharp little letter – to figure out what it means that we are to live by the law of liberty, the royal law, the law of loving our neighbours as ourselves, the law in which mercy triumphs over judgment. We are to keep open the door of mercy, because we need that mercy as much as anyone else. Let us not cut down the royal law, or the winds that will blow then may prove fiercer than we think.