Sunday, February 12, 2023 | Trey Comstock
I’m a natural at malicious compliance. For those of y’all blessed to not live at in my strange corner of the Internet, malicious compliance is where you spitefully followed the letter of the law so precisely that it either goes against the spirit of the law or accomplishes the opposite of what your superior wants. For example, your boss has sent out a note that insists that the work day is 8 hours. The boss’s goal was to cut down on those who are working less than 8 hours. You, who used to work slightly more hours, now clocks in and out in precisely 8 hours. Following the rules? You bet. Is the boss happy about it? Absolutely not.
I did this with school uniforms. The High School that I attended had a pretty strict dress code – collared shirt, khaki or navy pants, shorts, or skirts, tucked in shirt, no facial hair for males, black or brown belts, and restrictions on shoe types, outerwear types and colors, and other things that have blessedly fallen out of my brain in the intervening years. The administration desired a student body that looked neat and respectable to express an orderly learning environment and to prepare us for professional life. In 4 years at that school, I failed to earn a single reprimand for dress code infractions, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. In following the dress code to the letter of the law, I deliberately failed to look neat and respectable. Facial hair wasn’t allowed, but the rules said nothing about sideburns. So, I grew out my sideburns down past my ears to my jawline. They allowed sneakers as an acceptable type of shoe, but the rules failed specify the condition of said sneakers. So, I often wore Converse that got covered in marker, drawings, and holes. I always wore my collared shirt, and it consistently remain tucked into my belted pants. However, my waistline in this scenario ended up so poorly defined that I don’t think the met the brief. I never got in trouble. I followed the rules, but they didn’t get the tidy looking student that they wanted out of me. I maliciously complied.
In this chunk of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us not to merely maliciously comply with the Law but actually live out its purpose. The sermon builds, a couple of chapters later, in Matthew 7 to the love commandment as a summation of the Law and the Prophets. Humanity should love God and love neighbor. The Law exists to define for us what loving looks like, and the Prophets exist to call us back to our loving ways. In each of Christ’s proclamations on anger, adultery, divorce, and oaths, he takes something from the Law and extends it. “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mathew 5:27-28 NRSV) The Law, as written, only requires you to not commit adultery. Christ extends it to what goes on in your head. This raises the bar of loving far higher. Don’t just avoid doing the thing, but instead, don’t let the thought of it enter your mind.
This doesn’t reject the original teaching. It gets to the real purpose behind it. Loving someone doesn’t just mean not murdering them. It means not harboring ill will towards them in your inner being. Loving involves wishes the best for someone, so if love sits at the heart of the Law, then, it cannot stop at simply avoiding a violent act. Fidelity works the same way. To love your spouse or partner doesn’t just mean avoiding relations with someone else. That’s certainly part of it, but true love means that your inward desires match your outward expression.
To meet the letter of the Law, you can easily inwardly hate and outwardly comply. You can hold all the grudges that you want, and as long as you don’t act on them, you’ve met the on paper requirement. You can lust after every attractive person you pass, but as long as that doesn’t lead to outward action, you’re theoretically good. You can lie as much as you want as long as it’s not when you’re under oath. This is malicious compliance though. It misses the point of the Law. It doesn’t create a loving world – just a less violent, adultery filled, and dishonest one. You’ve met only the first half of loving another – not doing harm. You missed the more profound step – wishing and doing good.
In a Christian life, we seek to actually become more life Christ rather than technically meet a set of arbitrary requirements. It does little good to maliciously comply with one who knows your innermost thoughts. We cannot face God and simply say, “Well, I didn’t kill him.” God knows what your heart said. Instead, to be like Christ means loving even those who harm you, to repay even the most grievous harm with good. This starts with what we hold in our hearts. It runs far deeper than compliance with a rule set.