Is legality the highest value?

Pastor Matthew Best
6 min readJun 20, 2018

I have a question for those who believe that fulfilling the law is of utmost importance.

Imagine it is 1861 and you live in Maryland. A fugitive slave family has escaped slavery in the South. They come onto your land and seek safe passage. You encounter them.

What do you do?

Do you fulfill the law of the land that states that a fugitive slave shall be returned to their masters — knowing that this will lead to severe punishment, possibly death, and maybe even the separation of families? Or do you give safe passage to the family on their journey to freedom, thus disobeying the law because you recognize it as immoral and destructive? Or do you do something else?

It’s easy to point out the differences in this situation with the current immigration mess. It’s easy to make excuses and dismiss the example I provided. In fact, it’s easy to decide to see the world in black and white — to separate things into issues and people’s lives and believe that the two are not related — missing the messiness of the impact of this way of thinking on people’s lives. But are you willing to answer the question given your current logical reasoning? Are you willing to be the one who enforces this law? If not, why not? It’s not your job? That’s a cop-out. Are you willing to take a look at how the situations are similar? To be uncomfortable? Are you willing to be consistent in your thinking that the obeying and fulfilling the law is of utmost importance — regardless of the morality of the law?

Or how about this situation — you are Jew in Bethlehem during the reign of King Herod — the ruler of the land you reside in. Herod declares that all male babies two years old or younger shall be killed. The reasoning doesn’t matter. You have a one year old. Would you willingly hand over your child to the soldiers in order to fulfill and obey the law and the governing authorities? What if you didn’t have a child, but you knew a traveling family passing through did? Would you turn them in? Why? Or would you do what you had to do to disobey this decree in order to save the life of your child or any child?

Now imagine you are a refugee, or even just an immigrant from Central America. Seriously, put yourself in their just a small section of their shoes. And don’t give me the nice neat answer of “I would obey the law and follow the rules.” You are still thinking from the safety of your life. Imagine that the situation in your own country is not good. Your family is in danger if they stay — you and your family could end up dead. You decided to leave and make a journey north to America — a land known as a place of opportunity. While so much is unknown, you determine that it has to be better than where you are right now. You make the trip and get to the border. What you do is illegal, but staying within the law means almost certain death. What do you do? What do you hope will happen?

It’s not so easy when we move past black and white thinking is it? It’s rather messy. Life is messy. Law does not equal morality. This isn’t an argument for lawlessness. This is an argument about the morality of certain laws and what we are supposed to obey when those laws are suspect or outright immoral — regardless of who passed them or when. This isn’t an argument about Republicans and Democrats — of who should get the blame. That doesn’t resolve anything and is a distraction.

What we are dealing with is a difference of image — not the skin deep images of celebrity and consumerism. No, deeper images — ones that define and shape who we are.

Is our national image shaped by this and what it stands for:

Or this and the poem which is associated with it:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

(Source: the New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, 1883)

Which image will we embrace?

The first image is an image of the law — cold, heartless, and concerned with security, safety, and control for some.

The second image is an image of risk, welcome, and uncertainty for all.

We can do so many things that try to make us more secure, safer, and give us the false sense of control over our lives.

The disciples in this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage are all on board with that. They are in the sea, in a boat. And there is a great storm brewing. They are scared and they seek safety. They wake Jesus up because they feel insecure and unsafe. They are not in control. They worry about the bad things that will happen to them. And they ask Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38, NRSV).

Jesus doesn’t answer their question. He doesn’t give the answer they want — “of course I don’t want you to perish.” Nope. He doesn’t say anything. Hardly comforting. Later he will call on his disciples to pick up their cross and follow him, to deny themselves. To die.

Yet, death does not have the final say. After Jesus calms the storms around the boat, he asks the disciples these questions — Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?

These are deep questions for us. And they are Gospel too. Why are we afraid? What do we fear? Do we believe that Jesus walks with us — with all of us? Do we believe that Jesus walks with these refugees too? Or is Jesus just reserved for us on this side of the wall?

What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does it mean to love our neighbors? To welcome the stranger? When have we been strangers and been rejected?

What is Jesus calling us to?

Have you still no faith? Guess what — we can’t have enough faith on our own. If it’s about us and our faith, what we know about God, our safety, our security, our control — then we’ll just end up failing and dead.

Faith is a gift from God. It comes to us because we can’t go to it. Faith isn’t just head knowledge, but it moves through us and causes us to respond. To pick up our cross and follow Jesus. Especially in the storms of life. When there is danger all around us. Faith moves us forward — in risk, in welcome, and in uncertainty. Faith means we are not in control and we aren’t going to fool ourselves into believing we are. We are safe, but in a different way — we are in God’s hands. That regardless what happens to us, God will not forget us. And God offers us a promise — resurrection. New life. Transformed life. Changed life. Risky life. Invitational life. Life.

Originally published at on June 20, 2018.



Pastor Matthew Best

My name is Matthew Best. I’m an ELCA (Lutheran) pastor who attempts to translate church and churchy stuff into everyday language.