Letter and the Spirit
When Jesus was questioned by a lawyer about what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus asked him what was written in the law about it. His answer was correct in that he cited the commands about loving God with all of one’s being and loving one’s neighbor as yourself. Then the lawyer revealed his misunderstanding by asking who was his neighbor. Jesus then related the story of the good Samaritan and told him to “Go and do likewise.”
Prior to this, I have often thought that this lawyer was trying to trap Jesus by asking “And who is my neighbor?” I’m not so sure about that now. I believe he was stuck in the trap of mere law-keeping which we would expect from a “lawyer” rather than understanding the spirit of the law. Paul warns (2 Corinthians 3:6) that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
So how would this work? In this case, the lawyer would probably be thinking that his neighbor would be someone who owned an adjacent plot of ground or lived in a house on either side of him. Perhaps he would expand his definition of “neighbor” to anyone in his family or clan, or maybe even a close friend. This is what living by the letter of the law looks like. First, there is an effort to establish boundaries in minimums or maximums (depending on what’s being considered). Then, there is an effort to live by those minimums or maximums. In this way, the individual can justify themselves by keeping within whatever boundaries they have established.