There’s a scene in the movie Philadelphia that takes place in a courtroom, where Denzel Washington’s character, Joe, is questioning Tom Hank’s character, Andrew, on the witness stand. Both Joe and Andrew are lawyers, but in this case Andrew has hired Joe to represent him against his own law firm, as he believes he has been wrongfully fired because he has AIDS. Throughout the movie we get to know both of these characters and what has brought them to this point of working together. Andrew is a senior associate of the top law firm in Philadelphia. He lives with his partner Miguel, had contracted AIDS right at the time the disease was coming to be known, and had not told his law firm that he is gay or that he has AIDS. Soon after a colleague sees a lesion on Andrew’s forehead, signaling that he may have AIDS, the law firm made claims that Andrew was incompetent in his work and fired him. Andrew seeks to hire a number of lawyers to represent him in a workplace discrimination case, including Joe Miller, Denzel Washington’s character. Joe is a self-described homophobe, doesn’t know anything about AIDS, and initially refuses to work for Andrew; but he eventually comes around to approaching Andrew and decides to take on the case. Throughout the film, as Joe learns more from the life of his client, he becomes more sympathetic to Andrew. Toward the end of the movie when Andrew is testifying, he and Joe have this exchange:
Joe: Are you a good lawyer?
Andrew: I’m an excellent lawyer.
Joe: What makes you an excellent lawyer?
Andrew: I love the law. I know the law. I excel at practicing it. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.
Joe: What do you love about it?
Andrew: Well….many things. But I think the thing I love the most, is that every once in a while, not that often, but occasionally….you get to be part of justice being done. It’s really quite a thrill when that happens.
When I watched this movie for the first time a number of years ago I remember this dialogue standing out to me. The reason it caught my attention, I think, is because without having given it much thought, I had taken on certain biases about law and rules and judgment as carrying mostly negative connotations. Most of my experience of hearing about law at that point had been through the Protestant Christian lens of law being something that has to do with rigid structures and unnecessary legalism. Law was old school, and something the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther didn’t much care for. This was the era of grace and freedom.
So at that time I was especially drawn into this idea that Tom Hank’s character voices: “I love the law” and I love working with the law because occasionally “you get to be a part of justice being one.” What a thrill.
If anyone carries any of those same lingering kinds of negative biases about the nature of law, then Psalm 19 will stand out with the same kind of unexpected dissonance.
Psalm 19, like Psalm 1 and Psalm 119 is a hymn of praise to the God who creates and gives teachings, precepts, commandments. It is an ode to law. Within the psalm, the poet waxes eloquent about the wonders and life-giving beauty of torah, God’s ways. “The law of the Lord is completely perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart…more desirable are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.” For those who have had the privilege of tasting some of Matt and Jeanne’s Bye’s homespun honey, just imagine some of that sweetness dripping onto your tongue and sliding smoothly into your belly. The commandments of God are like that, the Psalmist says, only sweeter. They are better than much fine gold. Bank on the commandments of God, and you’re sure to get a generous return on your investment, no matter what that state of the market.
Within three verses the Psalmist gives six different synonyms for God’s ways – law, decrees, precepts, commandments, fear of the Lord, ordinances. Each one is coupled with its own descriptor – perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, true and altogether righteous. Reading Psalm 19 gives one the sense that the poet is speaking of something they find to be utterly beautiful, impossible to capture with just one metaphor, needing to paint various images in order to communicate the depth and the richness of that which is being praised. Psalm 119 goes even further. It is the longest chapter in the Bible, focused specifically on the glories of God’s law, using 176 verses to speak of the soul-feast that torah provides.
Looking at the scriptures this week, and remembering that scene from Philadelphia, made me curious about what the lawyers among us see in the law that they work so closely with every day. What was it about the practice of law that attracted them in the first place? What is it that they love about the ways that laws function in society? Joe Luken and Ed Diller were kind enough to do some reflecting on this and write up brief responses to these questions.
To the question: “What was it that most attracted you to being a lawyer?” Joe said, “There has been lots of water under the bridge since those days. I had witnessed dramatic changes in society before entering law school in 1974. The extension of civil rights, economic fairness, the many instead of the few making political decisions. The law seemed to be an important part of those changes. I wanted to be part of the force that was driving those changes. Sounds pretty naïve but that certainly was the attraction.”
Ed said: “I always tell new recruits that some lawyers intellectually “love the law and its intricacies.” I love being a lawyer because it connects me with so many people and a variety of problems. I get to work with them to accomplish specific results. During that time I get to know them and get to know a little about their lives and their business, all the while working on elaborate puzzles. In addition, the type of work I do involves “building for the future” which is right up my alley. That is why I chose the type of law that I practice.”
And to the question “What do you most love about the way that laws function in society?” Joe said: “It turned out that the law was much bigger than social change, which is good because after the mid-70’s the legal community was not the incubator for social change. The law is an essential glue for society. (But not the only one.) If every person is a book then it is a fascinating library. It is still the place where people search for redress, (or try to keep others from seeking redress from them.) Who is right? What is fair? Is there a way to fix this for everyone? It is interesting. But I still love it most when, as it sometimes does, it acts to protect people who without it wouldn’t stand a chance.”
Ed said: Laws function in a variety of ways in society. Fundamentally, they help us try to order complex relationships, some of which deal with right and justice and many of which simply deal with appropriate ways to order relationships. In essence, laws provide the basic infrastructure in which people of very different backgrounds, experience, understanding and intentions can work with one another.
In Exodus 20, the giving of the law, the Ten Commandments, is an occasion of awe and wonder. Smoke poured off of the mountain that the people were gathered around. Thunder and lightning crash and earthquakes rumble. The people are not allowed to get too close to the mountain. We get the sense that what is happening here is a matter of life and death. The untamed, wild responses of the natural world help illustrate just what is happening. The Sinai event, in its own way, is a story of creation. Sinai marks the creation of a people who are called to emerge out of the chaos of injustice, and live according to the just and right teachings of God.
Most of the torah, teachings, of the law book were believed to have come from God to Moses, with Moses then sharing the words with the people. But at the giving of these foundational commandments, the voice of God is heard by everyone. There’s something direct and fundamental about these teachings that is accessible, perhaps even morally intuitive to all who are willing to listen.
One way of understanding the ten commandments is by looking at how they open and how they end. The statements that frame everything in between give a sense of what these teachings are all about.
The opening statement, the headline at the top of the ten commandments press release is one that we often pass over too quickly. It serves to set the tone for all of the words to follow.
“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” The power, the spirit, the energy, that is giving these commandments, is the same power that brought the Israelites out of slavery, out of the house of Egypt. That act of deliverance, and this act of creation, are made for the purpose of freedom. It’s been said that it took one night for God to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but it took much longer to get Egypt out of the Israelites. These commandments are the path by which the Egypt is delivered out of the Israelites. The dominating, controlling, oppressive ways of the empire, are met with the life-giving ways of the one who delivers people from bondage.
Every commandment that follows, then, is an invitation into freedom. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” Don’t create false gods, don’t swear falsely, don’t murder. We’re not used to thinking of observance of a certain kind of code as having to do with freedom. Our notions of freedom are much more aligned with the idea of the ability to do anything we want to do as individuals. The freedom to buy what we want to buy. The freedom to spend our time the way we want to spend our time. Freedom of choice. Joe and Ed’s comments, along with this passage, speak of freedom being something that happens in community. In relationship. We are commanded to shape our behavior in such a way that brings about good conditions for society. Paradoxically, binding ourselves to the wellbeing of others, which can involve a limitation to our own personal freedoms, can bring about the greatest amount of freedom for all.
The final word of these commandments is a strange one to have in a law code. It would be extremely hard to prosecute. Previous statements talk about actions that should or should not be done. Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t swear falsely, don’t commit adultery, remember the Sabbath, honor your parents. The last commandment has to do with an inner state of being, what we do with our desires. Don’t direct your desires toward your neighbor’s house, or spouse, or any of their possessions. Don’t covet. This is the inner law.
One of the books I come back to continually is The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser. He talks about how being human means to be charged with desire. We have all sorts of desires that direct our energies and propel us into the world. We are charged with the desire to discover the world, the desire to have influence in the world, sexual desire, desire for intimacy, passion to be successful in life, to care for our loved ones. The question is not whether or not we have desire, but what we do with those desires. How we channel them, how we discipline them and shape them are focus them. His simple definition of spirituality is what we do with our desires.
The final commandment teaches that misdirected desire is a root of all kinds of problems. Distorted desire is to covet. Our desires become scattered and focused on that which is not ours to have. Rightly directly desire is the love of God. To love God with all our being is the fulfillment and the aim of the law. The torah teaches this. The apostle Paul doesn’t dislike the law, he just emphasizes that the essence of the law is the love of God, which in turn provides us with great freedom.
Lent is sometimes a season where people choose not to eat sweet things, but these scriptures ask us to consider something we may find counter-intuitive. By disciplining our lives, by reigning in our frantic desires scattered here and there, and focusing them on love for God, by freely submitting ourselves to the laws that bring freedom, we will taste sweetness. Sweet like honey.
The delightful obligations, the commands, to follow the right path, are themselves acts of grace, leading us into the way of peace.