The Google Maps app offers recommendations on best routes to get you from your current location to your desired destination in the best possible way. It takes into consideration topography, rush-hour and weekend traffic patterns, road construction, weather conditions and accidents. It is far more reliable to help you determine your time of arrival than looking at a two-dimensional paper map that takes none of the variables into consideration. You might easily detect the closest route with a conventional map, but it might not be the best or quickest way. In other words, a conventional map is helpful. With few exceptions, Google provides a better way.
In Jesus’ day, the people of Israel had laws (contained mostly in Exodus through Numbers) they had been observing for more than a millennium. They laid out graphically and with specificity how to live out these laws down to the most minute details. They wrote down their best understanding how to observe the laws most effectively. They memorized and recited the laws, the interpretations of the laws and the acceptable applications of them.
The laws were given in love and expected to be lived out from a heart of love. The love part was at times lost along the way. Often the laws were lived out more from the posture of familiarity and social convention than from any intimate yearning to please or know God better. The ways many followed the laws, like our paper maps, were two-dimensional. The expressions were written laws with somewhat rigid understandings of how to apply them. There was not only a desired destination, but a singular way to get there. They had the starting point and the desired destination clearly marked out with a straight line between beginning and end with all the turns and pitfalls clearly marked out on the singular, best route to take. It was a flat map devoid of the mess of sin, emotion, intention, disruption and failure along the way.
When Jesus came along, He chose to address the law and the conventional way of regarding it in a Google sort of way. He flipped the clear behavioral lines on their heads and brought sin, love, sacrifice, motive, failure, success and a number of less physical elements into the equation. The Sermon on the Mount was a unique starting point to a three-year ministry of challenging how the law should be read and lived. As a result, Jesus noted that the first are last, the lost are found, the humble are great, childlikeness surpasses adultlikeness, servants become the greatest of all, washing feet is better than having them washed, doing the will of another is better than living out one’s own will, and a host of things like that.
Jesus broke with convention but did not break the law. He just saw a better way. His way took into account the potential sin lurking in people’s heart and also the inestimable good that love does to keep law-keeping fresh instead of stale. He accounted for our tendency to elevate ourselves and harm others in the process. He knew the secret sauce, love, could not be unaccounted for in the route of observing the law.
The Apostle Paul said something similar. He noted that even among spiritually minded people, we can get caught up in our strength. At the end of an entire chapter (1 Corinthians 12) dedicated to address the exercise of spiritual gifts, he let people know that there are greater and lesser gifts and that we should seek the greater ones (verse 31). That makes perfect sense. Even in the gifts of the Spirit, there are greater and lesser gifts. But he knew that if left to our devices, we would inevitably create rigid hierarchies based upon the self-perceived value of our own contributions. So the end of verse 31 eclipses the beginning of it. The verse in its entirety reads, “Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.” From there, Paul launched into perhaps the most clear and wonderful description of and rationale for love that has ever been given (1 Corinthians 13).
Gifts, like the law, are good, given by God and are intended to be used for great impact. But, when speaking of the good law and good gifts, there is still a more excellent way to live it out. It is part of this upside-down kingdom, where good things abound and there are many ways to do the good things. But, some of them are clearly better. Love is always that way. Love is alert to pain, despair, brokenness, need and every other pitfall. It, like Google Maps, is aware of the quickest and safest way, unlike a two-dimensional process. Love will help us live out the law, exercise our gifts and carry out our responsibilities in ways that prescribed, flat, rigid, two-dimensional methods never will. It will show us a better way.
Bishop Matthew Thomas is the author of “Completing Project Me” (fmchr.ch/bmtcpm) and “Living and Telling the Good News” (fmchr.ch/bmtgoodnews). He has been an active part of the Free Methodist Church since 1979. His ministry roles have included serving as a pastor, church planter, missionary and superintendent.0