Always preach the Law, if necessary use words.”

I know this isn’t exactly the Assisi quote, and I’m also aware of a severe distaste for this proverb among some. The idea behind the original quote, “Preach the Gospel, if necessary use words,” goes something like this: When we act graciously towards others, just as God the father has been gracious to us, we give others a glimpse of the love of God. Yet when this becomes a reliance on ourselves to be models of perfect behavior, we run the risk of turning the Gospel into a Law and nullifying the good news of Christ Jesus. We “preach” with our words and actions, but the preaching of the Gospel is a necessarily word-based endeavor about an external reality. On the other hand, we preach the Law daily amongst ourselves in a myriad of ways. The preaching of the Law is necessary and good, but if we confuse it for the Gospel, we risk turning the promises into commands. The Law comes to us naturally while the external word of the Gospel needs to be preached with words into our ears.

We “preach” with our words and actions, but the preaching of the Gospel is a necessarily word-based endeavor about an external reality.

We preach the Law to ourselves daily: when our body or mind betrays us, when we feel the effects of aging, or with the just condemnation of a guilty verdict that might unearth our innermost thoughts. I’ve come face to face with the Law in such quiet moments of desperation. The ruined relationships, missed payments, and other nagging reminders of my frailty and mortality condemn me for what I have done, and what I have failed to do. Preaching the Law to others, whether in friendly conversation or tense moments, we often need little more than a look from another to be struck to the quick. Sometimes, the fewer words, the better. When I’ve messed up, I’ve rarely found that the solution was a long explanation from someone else.

When I handed back papers that were less than A’s to my former students, I was preaching the Law. When I see the disappointed look in my wife’s eyes because a promise I made is undone by the exigencies of life, I am both preacher of the Law, and being preached at. Even on our best days, my wife and I know that while our goal is one hundred percent sacrificial love, even if we succeeded at something like that, the reality looks a lot more like co-dependence. When I stub my toe or my youngest gets his 43rd ear infection of the year, we feel the brush of the Law and the sneaking suspicion that everything is not now ok.

You believe in some kind of law. It might be an exacting law or one that conveniently contours itself to your predilections, but whatever kind of “thou shalt” or “should” you live by, I’m willing to guess you are less than pure as the driven snow when it comes to following the law you believe in. I don’t mean that you, or I, are as bad as we possibly can be, but rather, if there isn’t any wiggle room, I’m probably not going to make the cut. I would like to think the world is ruled by something more beneficent than the bank tends to treat me with regards to my balance or due dates. Ideally, my preferred deity would be more of a cosmic Magic 8-Ball that makes suggestions and ultimately calls it all a wash. The god of my own designs is not a terrible god to serve, I suppose, but things in the real world tend to work more like the bank than they do my imagination. That is, if there is a penalty to pay, I’m likely not going to get to dodge it.

In our own lives, we might find that the Law is not an alien word, whether we call it our conscience or our values, our Holy Writ, or our municipality’s laws and regulations. We have an inner sense of justice that does not correspond on the other side with mercy. Not that we can’t be merciful to each other, but when someone takes something from us, our initial thought is rarely, “I assume they need it more than me.”

In our own lives, we might find that the Law is not an alien word, whether we call it our conscience or our values, our Holy Writ, or our municipality’s laws and regulations

But God’s words of promise to us are indeed alien words. They come from outside of us, and they seem unfair, maybe unnatural. A God who dies on behalf of the wicked, and eschews any of the tribalism that is the calling card of so many religious groups, seems to cut against the grain of what we know of gods and goddesses. This alien, external word tells us that judgment is coming, but it has been paid for in the passion of another.

When I decide to graciously let you cut in line, feed the poor, or donate charitably for a good cause, I am not necessarily doing anything that only the revealed word of God could tell me to do. Illiterate and unlearned people can be as gracious as the most sophisticated theologian. Our collective graciousness, imperfect as it is, only serves to point others to the real thing. And even then, our graciousness pales in comparison to the words of Christ’s grace.

We show the way to Jesus when we let the Law and the conscience do its damning business

Yet this is our calling, to point others to the real thing: the grace of God in the Cross of Christ. We show the way to Jesus when we let the Law and the conscience do its damning business, however it might, and then we proclaim the external Word that became flesh and dwelt among us to save. And to do this, we need to make sure we distinguish the commands from the promises by properly distinguishing Law from Gospel. We must let the Law do its damage albeit through conscience, actions, or spoken words, and then get to the Good Physician and the Gospel as fast as we can.

If you’ve ever been in an ambulance (because you yourself needed the ambulance), you know the fear of staring up at the paramedics as they try to stabilize you on the way to the hospital. While there might be initial fear, and even pain, it is a best practice to follow the instructions, or possibly just get out of the way, of those in charge of getting you to the physician. What if I were to refuse this or that ambulance because I didn’t care for the tone of one siren or the size of its rear cab? You would think that I was insane (funny enough, when I went in my first ambulance it was on account of a kind of insanity, yet I still got in the ambulance). Preaching the Law is like getting in the ambulance. Just as the paramedic takes you to the physician, the Law takes you, like a beggar, to the alien word of righteousness from another.

The Law is necessary, and using words to preach it is often necessary. But without the world-changing, sin-forgiving, chain-breaking external Word of promise, we are left with, at best, a nagging sense of “should,” and we miss the true peace offered by the Gospel. Perhaps, then the best update to St. Assisi’s original words are the following, “Always preach the Law and the Gospel, use words if and when necessary.”