To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. - 1 Corinthians 9:21
Law is usually written in words. There are supposedly 613 laws in the Old Testament. Today there are somewhere between 180,000 and 200,000 pages in the Code of Federal Regulations, which contains all the rules and regulations of all federal agencies. The Virginia Reports, the official record of the Supreme Court of Virginia, is somewhere around 225,000 pages long. It contains all of the Virginia common law since the colony began.
Written law is always an approximation. There’s a story that I learned in law school, possibly apocryphal, that Judge Learned Hand, who was one of the greatest judges in the United States, was once riding in a horse-drawn carriage with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., one of the greatest U.S. Supreme Court Justices. When Holmes got out, Hand said, “go do justice!” And Holmes growled, “it’s a court of law, not a court of justice.” What Holmes got is that law is always an approximation of justice, even if you have nearly a half-million pages of it.
I think this is a truth buried in what Paul is saying that probably was actually evident to the Corinthians. The phrase is buried in the heart of every Christian who values the proclamation of the Word: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, in the beginning was the Word. God doesn’t just tell us what justice and righteousness look like, he shows us what they look like by living it out in the person of Jesus.
Paul wasn’t writing to a Virginia lawyer (like so many of us RCPC congregants). He was writing to Corinthians. And if Corinthians knew anything, it was Homer. The Iliad and the Odyssey were, for a Corinthian, a little bit like Pilgrim’s Progress, Lord of the Rings, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural all rolled into one. A little religion, a lot of entertainment, and a big statement of who they were. Every Corinthian, from the lowliest slave to the most powerful city councilor, would have learned it in school, heard it referenced in the marketplace, and heard reproductions in the theater.
The hero of the Odyssey, and arguably also of the Iliad, is Odysseus, whom Homer refers to again and again as polytropos, many-shaped. Our English translation has Paul tell us that he is sometimes like those under “the law”—the Old Testament law—but sometimes he is like those “outside the law.” In Greek, that isn’t exactly what Paul says. He says he becomes like the ἀνόμοι, anomoi, “the lawless.” In a synagogue, the term referred to non-Jews; in a Corinthian courtroom, it referred to criminals. For the Corinthians, he is tying together religious and secular concepts of law: whether he is lawful or lawless under the written law, he can be just if he lives the law in the Word.
Like Jesus, Paul is never a square peg in a round hole, because he doesn’t get caught up in words. He keeps his focus on the law of the Word. He believes that this is something Jesus lived, and that this is “Christ’s law,” to which he is subject. Or, to put it in a way that makes sense to me as a Virginia country lawyer: Don’t go around debating loopholes. Life is so polytropos that if you try to live it that way, you’ll miss the point. That’s for the old men in the synagogue or the hired guns in the Corinthian law-court to debate and write more words about. Real people, trying to accomplish real things, have to live it.