The Foundation of Law: A Reflection for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

There was a law at our house when I was a child.  Gifts were to be acknowledged with thank you notes.  The only exception was if you were there to say “thank you” in person, and even that concession was given reluctantly.  I always had a particular dislike for this rule, and sad to say in retrospect, I’m not sure I did a very good job passing it on to my children. 

Writing thank you notes is no fun.  It is a chore, plain and simple.  The only way to make it bearable at all in my experience is to write a “form” letter and just copy it over and over inserting a description of the gift in the appropriate place.  Sure, it sounds insincere, and it is, but it complied with the law.  You’ve got to be careful about this strategy, though, just in case the givers, often related, compare notes. 

There are deeper reasons this particular law was so difficult to obey that go beyond its chore quality.  Being grateful is a bit of a challenging thing to be, at least for me.  For one thing, it acknowledges dependence on others.  I may be dependent, but I sure don’t like to admit it.  Gratitude necessarily recognizes that we have something we did not provide for ourselves.  And being in the receiving position of a gift makes us feel like we owe someone something, which of course is a way of trying to turn a gift into a purchase.  Facing up to gratitude can get pretty twisted. 

It wasn’t only my mother, though, who made thank yous into a law.  So does God.  It is, in fact, how law begins. 

It’s easier to remember the “thou shalls” and the “thou shall nots” than to remember how the Ten Commandments actually start.  They start with a poignant reminder: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  The foundation of all the law begins not with a command but a reminder, a reminder of what God has done for the people of Israel before there was any law given at all.  God has brought the people out of slavery, and that, I think, is intended to call forth gratitude.  The foundation of the whole law, all the commandments, is gratitude.  Obedience is intended to rest not on fear of power, great though that may be.  It rests on gratitude. 

If power calls forth fear, gratitude calls forth love.  When Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets, he did it in reference to love. 

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.  (Mt. 22:37-40)

Perhaps that is, in the end, what makes love so difficult, at least as difficult as gratitude.  And what’s more, love is to act on gratitude.  Love is not for the faint of heart.  And the reason may be that it, too, is founded on gratitude.  Fear is easier. 


                                                            Bishop Stacy Sauls