As I sat in the police academy as a young almost-a-cop, I heard a lecture from one of the instructors about the difference between the intent and the letter of the law. Every law has both letter and intent. While the letter of the law does have an important place in our lives, it is the intent of the law –its purpose – that has a deeper meaning. As I sat in that lecture a wave of righteous fear swept over me as I realized I would soon go out onto the streets of my city to enforce its laws. It was scary to me because I realized that law without a merciful interpretation of its intent can be a cruel and devastating power to possess.
After the academy, I remember pulling over a kid one afternoon on a traffic stop for a minor violation. The kid was a rookie criminal because he did not know how to hide his baggie of marijuana from the sight of a policeman’s inquiring eye. In those days the possession of marijuana was a serious crime. Your life was subject to jail time and your future employment would be in jeopardy with an arrest on your record. I am thankful the laws have changed in that area.
As the kid stood before me he was shaking and in tears, I asked him to explain what he was thinking. He said it was his first time to buy a baggie of pot. He bought it from a friend thinking it was the cool thing to do. He went on to say he was getting ready to head off to college and had allowed his naivety to override common sense. He told me of his parents and their loving support. He revealed to me his plans for his future. He wasn’t begging to get out of the arrest. He assumed he was toast and was spilling his guts. I told him to give me the baggie of pot. I opened it and tossed the weed into the air. The kid looked up at me with an astonished look on his face. I said, “What you did was stupid. Don’t do it again. Get out of here and get on with your life.” For a moment, I thought he was getting ready to hug me. He got back in his car and drove off.
There are times the intent of the law is not found in the execution of its punishment, but it the merciful release of those held in violation of its statute. This was the heart of God when He sent Jesus to a guilty world and took upon Himself our guilt. It is important to never forget that truth when we have guilty people standing before us who need to receive the merciful intent of the law instead of its judgment.