March 7, 2007

A Snake, the Law, and the Spirit

2007 1507 page13 caphen I was a child, my parents were missionaries in Uganda. We lived in a house on a hill, surrounded by jungle, surrounded by snakes. In our backyard we saw pythons, mambas, cobras, and vipers. Snakes would slither through the grass, hang down from tree branches, sun on the roof.


I grew up with two truths.


Truth One: When you’re outside, make noise. Never creep down a path. Instead, stomp, shout, sing. The last was especially encouraged. My mother led the way down the hill, singing songs in English and in Finnish. She liked hymns: “How Great Thou Art,” “Blessed Assurance,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The snakes, she told us, could hear us a mile away.


Truth Two: If you encounter a snake without an adult present: Stop dead. Don’t run. Don’t walk. Don’t scratch your nose. And maybe you will not get bitten, maybe you will live. I grew up believing this, earnest and without question.


2007 1507 page13When I was 6 I saw my first snake, my snake, one that existed in that moment exclusively for me. Every other snake had been observed from the safety of my parents’ presence. My snake was gray and black and stretched thin against a gray stone.


I stopped and did not move.


It did not leave.


The morning grew warmer, and I could feel the sun against my back, against my shoulders, small and hunched and frightened. My neck ached; my arms and legs were heavy with waiting. What if no one finds me? The snake lifted and lowered its lacquered head, responding to something I could not see.


My father found me. He called my name, and when I didn’t answer, he called again and walked toward me. “What are you looking at?” I didn’t want to risk even the motion of my jaw, so he had to follow my eyes to the gray rock and there to the gray snake.


“The only garden snake in Africa,” my father called it. He held his hands six inches apart. “It was so small,” he told my mother, “it was almost a worm. You should have seen it.” My mother assured me I had done the right thing. She said she was pleased I had followed her instructions. I was a good girl and one she could trust. She told me all this between short smiles and quick glances at my father. When I went to my room I could hear their laughter—my father describing the snake again, my mother nearly shrieking.


My parents loved this story. They told it later with great nostalgia. When I was a teenager, they must have thought: Those were the days. I still obeyed—I’ve always been a Goody Two-shoes—but with my compliance came questions: Why this? Why that?


As irritating as those questions could be, my parents were surely glad I was wiser and more discerning. It was good I knew the difference between a garden snake and a mamba. It was good that I could see nuances and see also that behind an edict there was a principle. In short, I was learning the difference between the law and the spirit of the law.


In the Gospels the two become a source of great discourse. The religious leaders had long followed an exact law. Jesus, however, emphasized the spirit. “Do not murder,” became “do not be angry.”1 “An eye for an eye” became “turn the other cheek.”2 “Love your neighbor” became “love your enemy.”3


The spirit required more. When the young ruler asked Jesus what he might do to be saved, Jesus first referred him to the commandments. The man replied confidently that he kept them all. Jesus then told him to sell his possessions, give them to the poor, and become a disciple. The ruler could not do it.4


So how does this apply to us?


If we merely follow rules, Christianity can become a habit, a routine of dos and don’ts, a unique lifestyle. But if we look behind the law, we will find the searing command to love.

When asked to name the most important commandment, Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”5



1See Matt. 5:21-26.

2See Matt. 5:38-42.

3See Matt. 5:43-48.

4See Matt. 19:16-30.

5Matt. 22:37-40.



Sari Fordham is working on a postgraduate degree at the University of Minnesota.