‘The Law of Mercy’ Deuteronomy 22:1-8; 24:10-22 October 18, 1992

Text Comments:

22: 1  ‘Brother,’ not by blood but by membership in the same spiritual community. This fact and the recognition of it by us is the basis of everything.

22:2        No ‘finders-keepers’ here. Nor ‘possession is nine tenths of the law.’

22:5  Not a statement about fashion so much as it is about real confusion of genders, transvestism. NB in the first phrase it is not specifically ‘men’s clothing’ but ‘men’s things’ and would thus include other things, ornaments or weapons, for example. A verse with bearing on many contemporary questions. In the second phrase it is lit. ‘women’s clothes.’

22:7  A law of conservation. The potential for future supply is not to be destroyed for the sake of immediate gain.

22:8        The roof was flat and was used for sleeping in the summer, for certain chores and for entertaining. 24:16 Must be held in tension with other teaching and laws. This refers primarily to legal responsibility, but even then, there [were] exceptions (Achan’s family).

24:19      As we learn in Ruth 2, the generous farmer might even arrange to ‘forget’ a few extra sheaves.

Last Lord’s Day morning we began our examination of this rather lengthy section of Deuteronomy devoted to various laws touching many different aspects of life. There is no clearly discernible principle of organization in these chapters. The laws are not even grouped together according to theme, as is clear from the English versions which use paragraph titles such as ‘Various Laws’ and ‘Miscellaneous Laws.’ I said that I didn’t plan to cover every law that is here discussed, but rather to take some as representative of the whole. Last Sunday we considered the laws in Deuteronomy 20 exempting certain men from military service and what those laws teach about the Lord who is the author of them.

This morning I have gathered from these chapters several of the laws which govern, in one way or another, our obligation to care for and serve our neighbor. They are wonderful laws, and like those we considered last week, they reveal in the most wonderful way something of the character and the heart of God. They are also quite unique. Other legal codes from the Ancient Near East treat some similar subjects, but not at all in the same way. There is something very distinctive about the Law of God.

Nothing is more distinctive about it than just this, that it requires us really to love others. It requires us to show mercy; no, more than that, it requires us to be merciful people, gracious, kind, charitable. What we have in the various commandments we just read is an exposition of the basic obligation, laid down in Leviticus 19:18, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus said that this was half of the whole duty of man. Here in such laws as these we see something of what he meant when he said that the law is summed up in this: that we love our neighbor as ourselves, that our lives be animated by the care of others and interest in their welfare. It is a dramatic and a comprehensive requirement, but that is exactly what the Lord here requires of his people. How much he is asking for — how much it is really true love and true mercy that he is commanding us to show others, is revealed in two different ways in these laws we have read.

First, love and mercy are revealed in the commandments in the requirement that positive good be sought and done for our neighbor. The natural tendency of all men is to reduce the obligation we owe to others to the doing of them no harm. Most people exonerate themselves of any wrongdoing in just that way: ‘I did them no harm.’ We are here forbidden to harm our neighbors, but, far more than that, we are required actually to do them good. We are not simply to leave them in the condition we find them in, but are to improve their lot and help them. They are to be the better for our encounter with them.

Look at 22:1-4, for example. If you find a lost animal you are to catch it, take it home, care for it — perhaps at some considerable expense to yourself — and then when you locate the owner or he finds you, you are to return the animal to him at no charge! Your neighbor’s need has become your obligation. You didn’t let the animal out, you weren’t responsible for losing it, but once lost, that animal became your responsibility to care for and return, highly inconvenient, even highly expensive as that responsibility might prove to be. You would, of course, be delighted to find that someone else had done that for you! And God says that, therefore, you ought to do nothing less for another.

Or consider verse 8. A person ought to have enough sense not to fall off the roof. It could hardly be your fault if someone was foolish enough to sit right on the edge and lose his balance. But, love and mercy don’t calculate relative responsibility. It wishes to protect, to guard, to save, and so a parapet is built to ensure that no injury comes to those who come to your home.

Or, consider the laws in 24:19-21 requiring farmers to leave part of their harvest behind for the poor to take for themselves. You have taken the risk with those fields and vineyards, you have made the investment, you have done the work. But God’s law of love teaches you to think that the poor are virtually part owners of your fields, vines, and trees, and have a right to some of your crop. No principle of economics teaches you to harvest inefficiently. But God’s law requires it because it is his will that his children show love and mercy to others.

The world is full of people who talk about love toward mankind and toward one’s neighbor. Many are like Leo Tolstoy, the brilliant Russian novelist, who talked so much about serving man and doing good to man but who was himself a dismal friend, selfish and meanspirited, and did no good to any particular individual but himself. He embraced humanity in his books because in that way he gained the admiration of others and because by embracing mankind in its totality he didn’t have to love anybody in particular.

But, God requires of his people a very particular and practical interest in the welfare and happiness of others. He expects us to do things to foster their happiness, even if those things must be done at some cost to ourselves. He expects us to consider someone else’s need our obligation. It is not enough not to do harm, we are to go about doing people good, enriching their lives, helping them in their wants. That is the law of God and half of the whole duty of man.

Second, love and mercy are revealed to be the true requirement of these laws in their reach into the motives and intentions of the heart. God’s law is always distinguished by its going to the bottom of things. Man alone — of all the creatures in the world, being alone made in the image of God — man alone has motives. The law of God rules his motives as it does his actions; these laws we have read are perfect cases in point. Paul says that the law of God is spiritual, that is, it is does not merely require an outward conformity but also the engagement of the heart; these laws are a demonstration of his point in that they both direct and unmask the motives of the heart.

Did you notice that in all of these laws there is nothing ‘in it’ for the one who keeps them. At least, there is no gain in any outward or material sense. The person in 22:1-4 who sees to his neighbor’s lost property is out his time and his money. The man who builds a parapet around his roof is out time and money for security against a very unlikely eventuality. The lender in 24:12 and 17 is without collateral on his loan. The employer in 24:15 has the additional inconvenience of having to pay a few employees every day. And the land owners in 24:19ff. lose not an insubstantial portion of their harvest every year. The people at the other end of these laws get one benefit after another for free, but the one obeying the laws is out time, money, and effort.

Now, why would a man or a woman participate in such exchanges? Why would he or she be willing to give so much in the prospect of no return in kind? Our modern world hasn’t any idea! Today, in our culture, in direct defiance of God’s law, we are being told that there is nothing wrong with being primarily concerned with your own well-being, with being ‘inner-directed’ rather than ‘other-directed’ as the modern jargon has it. Indeed, we are told that the healthy inner-directed person will really care for others too. ‘To which I can only respond,’ writes Allan Bloom, ‘If you can believe that, you can believe anything.’ And he is right, if self-interest is one’s great motive in life, such laws as these will never be kept, not really, not consistently, not over time. They will not even be understood. It is only love, real love for others, that, as the Puritan John Trapp put it, ‘gives honey to a bee without wings.’

No, it is not because we know that somehow, in some other way and at some other time, we will be paid back for these kindnesses expressed to others. It is not because in doing good to others we feel that we are somehow getting good for ourselves. That is not and never has been sufficient motivation to continue to do good to others at our expense. The reason why people really keep such laws lies deeper in the motives than that, as we read in v. 22. The whole secret lies in that short verse. God’s people treat others with generosity and with a real interest in their welfare, because the principle of grace and mercy beats in their hearts. God was gracious and merciful to them, and it has made them not only to love God and want to please him by being merciful themselves, but it has made them to love mercy itself, as being good and right and wonderful.

In other words, people keep these laws, and will ever keep them, always and only because in their hearts, they are convinced that it is right and good and lovely to treat others kindly, because there is that deep within them which loves kindness. They want to be kind people because God has been kind to them and because kindness and mercy has thus become the principle of their lives. The deliverance from Egypt mentioned in v. 22 is, of course, the great OT picture of our redemption in Jesus Christ. And so we would put the point this way: We are to be merciful, kind, and generous to others, because Christ was immeasurably kind and merciful and generous to us. Kindness, mercy, and love are the profile of Jesus Christ in the lives of his disciples. They love him and want to be like him; they admire him and wish to emulate him. They are grateful to him and imitation is the sincerest form of gratitude and appreciation. If he became poor for us, then, suddenly, impoverishing ourselves for others — which would never make sense either as a business calculation or as a means of expressing our inner-directedness — not only makes eminent sense, but is what we most desperately want to do.

These laws, then, are laws which dig down into our motives, and absolutely require us genuinely to love others and to love mercy. Without God’s grace and mercy animating our hearts, these laws will never be kept. On the other hand, as the Bible everywhere says, if God’s grace is alive in our hearts, ifwe love Christ because he first loved us, it is inevitable that the love of others, that generous and kind and merciful acts toward our neighbors will follow in turn. Divine love in the heart is a great fire and its heat will radiate outward by a fixed law of the spiritual world.

Two aspects then of these commandments [are] for our notice. First, that they require that positive good be done our neighbor, that we really serve his or her welfare. It is an active love these laws command. Second, that they require first and foremost a true tenderness of heart and true regard and true affection for our neighbor in the heart. Nothing less than that will avail to cause us to continue to serve our neighbor’s good at continual cost to ourselves.

Christians, real Christians, love these commandments. This is what they want to do. It is what they want to excel at doing. It is what they wish to be known for. However much they stumble, they always want to love their neighbor as themselves. The experience of God’s grace, mercy, and love in their lives has made grace, mercy, and love the greatest thing of all to them, the thing most to admire, the most valuable thing. Christ has made them to be in love with such love. To love God is to love love, because, as we all know, God is love!

Listen to this reminiscence of Malcolm Muggeridge [Chronicles, p. 343]:

‘Kitty was in hospital, on the danger-list, and I was told by the surgeon who had operated on her that she had only a very small chance of surviving. It was a cruelly anxious time from every point of view. Each day, arranging for someone to be with the children, I went and sat with her. She was fighting to live, her face pared down to a skull, her body a yellow skeleton. Whilst I was there, the doctor came in and said that in the night she had lost a lot of blood, and desperately needed a blood-transfusion — it was before the days of bottled plasma. Wouldn’t I do for a donor? I asked, with a sudden access of hope. My blood-count was taken, and to my infinite relief proved satisfactory; and there and then, by a procedure that would seem grotesquely primitive nowadays, I was joined to her by a tube with a pump in the middle, so that I could actually watch the blood being pumped out of me into her. ‘Don’t stint yourself for blood,’ I said to the pathologist, a man named Barlow, perhaps partly to be theatrical, but also feeling it. Never in all our life together, had I so completely and perfectly and joyously experienced love’s fulfilment as on that moment. As my blood, systematically, to the pump’s rhythm, pumped into Kitty’s veins, bringing life visibly into her face, my blood pouring into her to keep her alive, my life reinforcing hers, for the first time I truly understood what love meant.’

That, of course, was the love of a man and woman, a husband for his wife. But God seeks something of that kind of love in our hearts for all our neighbors. Nature may make a man love his wife so deeply, but only grace, God’s grace, can make us love our neighbors in such a way. Why should we be ever unwilling, when the Lord Christ himself, did the same for us, while we were yet his enemies, hooked up himself to us and pumped life into our dead bodies? That same Lord Christ said to us all: as I have loved you, so love one another.

We come now to the Table of the Lord, to have our love for Christ our Savior rekindled and renewed. And may it be to this end: that loving Christ the more, feeling again the depth and the greatness and the majesty of his love, we will want with a purer passion and a deeper desire to love others.

Not many of us have cows, but we all have lost things we need others to help us find. All of us in one way or another need a bit more of what others have plenty of. All of us could use a brother or sister’s thoughtful protection of us from a danger we scarcely see.

Not one of you can begin even to imagine how entirely different this community of believers would be, how much more pure happiness and pleasure we would all enjoy, how much lighter our problems would seem, how much stronger and deeper our devotion to the Lord would be, and how much more powerful and persuasive our witness to the world would be, if only we together would make one single large step forward in loving one another and caring for one another heartily and positively as God commands us here in Deuteronomy to do.