Friday, January 02, 2009

The Believer and the Law

A new year has begun. It's winter. It surely is cold outside. All in all, this seems like an excellent time for contemplating the Christian's proper relationship to the Law of Moses. If you think you detect here a non sequitur, I agree completely. Actually, my purpose in writing this post is this: I offered my friend Craig a written discussion on the subject in a comment I left on a post at his blog a couple of weeks ago, and he was kind enough to express a willingness to read such discussion. So, here goes. Craig wrote, in part:
Here's what Jesus Christ (you might have heard of him) had to say about the "the Law", presumably the commandments contained in the Torah:
"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

For verily I say unto you. Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven"

- Matthew: 5: 17-20

Now, I'll admit I had moments of inattention in Sunday school, when I was actually there, but I'm pretty sure that JC ranks a little higher on the whole Christian hierarchy than St. Peter, and it appears to me that JC said that his life in no way cancels out the law. In other words, just because JC walked the earth, you still can't eat shellfish, or blend wool and linen, or mix beef and dairy.
As I read the scriptures, sure you can eat and mix and blend ... and, in fact, you should. Notice what Jesus says in this very passage: that He has not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. He doesn't say that He came to see to it that we fulfill the Law; He came to fulfill it Himself. From there, one can draw a quick chord from near the beginning of the four gospels to near the end of the last one, in John 19:30; there, just before He dies on the cross, Jesus says, "It is finished!" Of course, His fulfillment of the Law may not be what Jesus is talking about there; He may mean His immediate suffering on the cross, or He may mean something altogether different. However, if the Jesus who is also God says that He's come to do something, I take it that the "something" will have been done before He leaves; and so the Law is fulfilled, whatever exactly that means, and jots and tittles may now pass from it. Otherwise, Jesus isn't the God we think He is, and it maybe doesn't matter what He says about the Law (and the Law may not matter itself, as far as that goes).

It's a commonplace among Christians that Jesus was perfect in His obedience to the Law, and that perfect obedience is the basis of both His fulfillment of the Law and the believer's claim to have vicariously obeyed it perfectly also. I think this is true, but Jesus's relationship to the Law is at least a little bit complicated, and we need to be careful about how we understand His obedience. In Matthew 12, for example, Jesus is accused by the Pharisees of allowing His disciples to pick grain from the fields and eat it on the Sabbath when they became hungry; He rebukes them (and declares Himself to be "Lord of the Sabbath"). They then accuse Him directly of breaking the Law when He heals a man's hand, in their synagogue, on the Sabbath, and He gives a brief but pointed exposition of their misunderstanding of the Sabbath. In chapter 15 (Matthew again), Jesus is again called to account by the Pharisees for His disciples' failure to take care of their ceremonial washing before eating. Those pesky disciples -- nothing but trouble! Jesus then (Matthew 15:10-11) tells the onlookers: "Hear, and understand. Not what enters into the mouth defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man." By this, I take it He meant speech; but the whole statement would be wildly difficult for a scholar of Mosaic dietary laws to accept. So it goes. Jesus's approach to the Law is proprietary; it is His Law. He is in authority over it. Jesus spent quite a bit of the Sermon on the Mount explaining how difficult it would be to claim to be righteous, based on obedience to the Law. See Matthew 5:21-48, which I will paraphrase (but by all means, check it directly): So, you haven't actually killed anyone? All right, but if you call someone abusive names, or you're simply angry with them, you're a murderer in your heart. Haven't actually slept with your neighbor's wife? Cool, but you wanted to, didn't you? There's your adultery, and it'll do. Kept your oaths? Fine, but you had no right to make any in the first place. You love your neighbor, and hate your enemy? Not good enough. You must love your enemy, too. So, any claim of righteousness that someone like me makes has to be based on something better than what we've done, or refrained from doing, in terms of obedience to the Law. Because what we do about the Law can't possibly be good enough to satisfy its requirements.

If we can't obey the Mosaic law well enough to demand salvation, based on that obedience, what are we to do about it? Clearly, I'm not here to give others a prescription, which they'd be foolish to accept; this is a question for each believer to wrestle with, in prayer and contemplation and the integration of life experience. I would suggest, though, that Jesus gave a hint, in what He said to a Pharisee lawyer who was out to trap Him (in Matthew 22:34-40).
But when the Pharisees heard that He had put the Sadducees to silence, they gathered themselves together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him: "Teacher, which is the great commandment of the Law?" And He said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets."
About Peter's vision in which the "unclean" foods are declared clean (Acts 10:9-16): this isn't primarily about food, even though food is the immediate subject matter in the vision. What God has declared "cleansed" is people: specifically, Gentiles, and even more specifically, Cornelius the Roman centurion. At least, that's how Peter understood it, as we can see from what he said to Cornelius the next day (Acts 10:28): "And he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean." But although the vision isn't literally "about" its surface subject matter -- food -- I have to think it does include food, in view of Jesus's words from Matthew 15:15-20:
And Peter answered and said to Him, "Explain the parable to us." And He said, "Are you still lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated? But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, and slanders. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man."
This is getting to be far too long a post, and I haven't even come to Paul's letters yet. I would briefly urge the interested reader to go through them. I think you will not find in them a brief for either observance of the Mosaic law, nor for licentious behavior; but I think what is found, consistently and on balance, is the message that no one is saved through the works of the law, and that the believer has full liberty with respect to the law, which liberty he must then be careful not to abuse, but must at the same time be careful not to surrender to any man. That might be worth going into in more detail some other time.

1 comment:

lemming said...

Jesus made it clear that following him would not be simple or easy.

I distrust anyone who think that they have the answers. I trust those who still have questions.