9For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.
“The knowledge of God’s will.” My will for my daughters and the rules we had in our household are two different things. My “will” was that they be honest, responsible, compassionate and cooperative. The rules were specific things that seemed appropriate in order to help them be honest, responsible, compassionate and cooperative. But the rules are not the point. I would not be pleased with a child who was home by curfew, cleaned her room, and always had her homework done if she were also manipulative, deceitful or cruel. God’s will is more than rules.
Paul doesn’t pray that the believers in Colossae will know God’s rules; he prays they will understand God’s will. The legal materials in the Old Testament are not simply social mores of a forgotten time, nor are they timeless requirements of the divine will; they are attempts to give insight into the will of God for our existence. It is not enough to observe the rule about only taking the eggs and not the hen from a nest in the field if we do not see in that law the will of God for humanity to respect and preserve the created world. It is not enough to observe the rule that you not cut down fruit trees when laying siege to a city if you have laid waste to the cropland to punish the people with hunger long after the war is over. It is not enough to refrain from adultery if your heart desires what belongs to another – or you fail to desire what belongs to you.
Laws are nice and neat, black and white. And they are also open to sophisticated parsing – just exactly which neighbors do I have to treat as if they were members of my own household or clan? Once you have asked that question, you are no longer seeking God’s will; you are seeking something else.
I appreciate the need for rules and for careful thought about their application. But we cannot use rules as tools to control others, as tools to define “us” from “them” or “good” people from “bad,” as proof of our righteousness or the means of meriting God’s favor. The rules are there to give us examples of what God’s will looks like. It doesn’t mean we are free of the rules; it means we are seeking to understand and live God’s will. We are seeking to understand God’s vision for human life – care for one another, care for the earth, care for ourselves; compassion, justice, peace; love of God and love of neighbor.
“What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
This is Paul’s prayer. He has not come to Colossae to convert them from one system of religious practices to another; he has come to give them understanding of the will of the one who stands at the beginning and end of time and calls us into the fullness of our humanity.
PS The references above to provisions in the Torah are found in Deuteronomy 22:6 and 20:19