Team Evening Worship
Jesus and the Law
Two things struck me in preparing this evening’s talk - firstly that I’m not sure how much the idea of Jesus’ attitude towards the law would be considered a gripping issue for us to be going on with in our look at his teachings and life and secondly that I was hoping to hear a talk about this rather than give one! But like many teaching tasks which ministers are called on to deal with, this was an opportunity to think, read, consider and pray through things I might not necessarily have done otherwise, so I hope you’ll enjoy going on this journey with me this evening.
Most of our understanding of Jewish law comes to us via the interpretation and critique of St Paul - I doubt that many of us are avid readers of those parts of scripture that make up the Jewish religious and social legal system - the laws contained within Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. Of course, after Paul those of us who are Gentiles can breathe a sigh of relief that his understanding and interpretation freed us from having to conform to Jewish practice and be proselytised (converted) to Judaism before becoming Christians. I say it was Paul, but from the account in Acts Chapters 10, 11 and 15 and Peter’s vision in Acts 10 of God declaring clean things previously unclean it was the decision of the council of the Apostles that made this decision, guided by the Holy Spirit.
Because of Paul’s teaching though phrases such as ‘no longer under law but under grace’ (some seem to think that this is the summary of my attitude towards speed limits!) and interpretations such as those found in this morning’s readings from Hebrews where the law of the first covenant is superseded by the new law written on the hearts of humankind have meant that we can easily dismiss the reason for the law’s importance in the life of all Jewish people and even in the life of Jesus, for he is the one that said
‘Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets, I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished’
So the law had some importance to Jesus and should therefore have some importance to us, at least understanding it should enhance our understanding of who Jesus is and should therefore influence our faith.
I don’t think I’m overstating anything here - I do believe that in order to have a fuller understanding of our own faith we do need to get to grips with where we come from, ie our Jewish roots. It may seem obvious to us, but Jesus was Jewish! If we want to know more of him we need to consider the background to that, for the Jewish people are still God’s chosen people, and because to forget Jesus place in life, his history, his context, his race, his experience, is to forget the truth of God made human, to forget that in order to be fully human we need to be in a certain place at a certain time and that (to a certain degree) makes us something of what we are…But enough of a digression into incarnational theology (my pet subject, as you probably know). Lets try and leave our post Pauline glasses behind and look at this subject with new eyes.
The purpose of Jewish law was to mark the relationship between God and his chosen people. It marked them out as special. By following these laws and precepts not just in their so-called ‘spiritual life’ but in every area of life - family life, commerce, social action, structures of government, everything the Jewish people were setting themselves out to be distinctive.
The law was meant to be a positive thing, a goal to strive for. It was to show how important God was to the people of Israel. In a religious sense, observance of the law was meant to make people righteous, so those who lived by the law were considered better than others - people such as the Pharisees were elevated because they took upon themselves to observe every letter of the law. Rabbis, religious lawyers and scribes were revered as they sought to help people understand the meaning of the law and to empower them to live the law that all might be righteous.
So we have this law, called Torah, which is foundational to Jewish faith, it is the bedrock of both religious observance and the whole of life. Alongside this we have the prophets who reminded the people - often forcefully - of the importance of the law, and of the principles behind the law. We have the History books, Psalms and wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible - which we call the Old Testament - and alongside this we have a whole culture of considering the interpretation of law and of debating and discussing just how the Torah should be implemented and lived - a culture known as Midrash.
This is the background to Jesus’ own life and the faith in which he was brought up. Much of what he taught echoes the principles of the law, and he was known as a rabbi or teacher of the law by those he met. He was schooled in the law and in order to be bar mitzvah - a son of the commandments, and to be an adult and involved in Jewish worship he would have had to know and read the law (or at least some of it) in Hebrew.
So you see why this is all important to us - it was so much of who Jesus was. And much of what Jesus said was to do with the law, I can’t begin to go into depth with regards to all of the times that Jesus mentions the law, but we see from the very start of his teaching ministry in Matthew - the collection of writings that Matthew puts together under the title ‘the sermon on the mount’ - that once we have been told of the manifesto of the kingdom of God in the beatitudes and he has summoned his hearers, Jesus comes up with this strident denunciation of anyone who thinks he has come to repudiate that which has come before… The words we’ve already heard, the words which were read to us before I started - do not think I have come to destroy the law or the prophets…I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.
William Temple, Archbishop of York and later of Canterbury in the first half of the last century, says this in his book ’Christ’s revelation of God’ - which is so good that I have to quote it and give him credit rather than pretending it was my idea:
‘The Sermon on the Mount is in one real sense a correction of the old Law. But it is a correction by way of completion, not by way of rejection’
He goes on to say
‘Perhaps the clearest illustration of this is found in our Lord’s treatment of the lex talionis - An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That principle looks to us like a sanction for vengeance. But that is a misunderstanding. The essence of the lex talionis is that it sets a limit to the naturally insatiate lust of revenge, which, if left to itself, will take two eyes for an eye and a set of teeth for a tooth. The lex talionis allows only such retribution as exactly equals the injury done, forbidding all satisfaction to the indignation felt against the injurer for beginning it. Our Lord was truly fulfilling or completing that process when he said that there should be no retaliation at all.’
Temple goes on to say that Jesus goes beyond the letter of the law and substitutes the spirit of the law as the guiding principle. No longer do we get to feel satisfied because we have lived up to certain standards - no more ticks in boxes righteousness - instead the demands of God’s way of doing things are never ending. We are to walk in, through and by faith, not by feeling we have reached a certain standard by doing the right things.
And this is the crux of Jesus’ relationship to the law. For Jesus the law was an agent of grace and freedom, it was grace-filled and soaked with grace. It wasn’t something to bind people, to restrict them, but the way in which people could know God and the way in which lives lived under the law could be filled with life and joy. When tackled to expound the most important part of the law he sums it up not with the commandments per se but with the summary of the law, which we call the greatest commandments, which most have you have heard me quote frequently before:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbour as yourself’. Matthew 22.37-40 (paraphrased)This isn’t a simple (or even like many of the laws, complicated) list which when done imparts righteousness. This is a choice of lifestyle - and we realise, one that can only be achieved with the inspiration, guidance and assistance of the Holy Spirit. The law may be very neatly summarised in these few sentences, but the application of such law is almost infinite in practice.
Jesus saw the law as a good thing, or rather he saw the basis of the law as a good thing. The law existed to bring people a degree of closeness to God and to one another, it gave value to even the most vulnerable members of society, it was there to provide a social and religious framework for God’s chosen people in order that all might be seen as equally important, that love for God and love of neighbour and self took primacy. Unfortunately the human propensity to believe that by fulfilling certain criteria one becomes somehow better than others took over. We can see this clearly in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: Luke 18.9-14. (reader) Doubtless the Pharisee kept the law, that’s what Pharisees did, but in keeping of the letter of the law he had become proud and arrogant, and lost the spirit of the law - which as the prophet Micah tells us to ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.’ And in that sense Jesus follows in the line of the prophets who sought again and again to draw the people of Israel back to the principals of the law rather than a narrow, restrictive application.
For these Hebrew prophets, and indeed for Jesus the law was meant to bring freedom, to free people up from worrying about what was the right and wrong and get on with living the way that God longed for people to live - in relationship to him, walking with God, living in loving relationship with one another and realising how God loved us.
It is this radical stance, we could even say this essential stance which takes the very heart of the law and demands a whole new attitude which threatened the religious establishment and brought Jesus into conflict with religious leaders time and time again, I can’t go into detail again, as it would just be saying the same thing over and over again, but Jesus came into conflict over healing on the Sabbath, touching the unclean, doing things which were considered against the law. They were against the letter of the law, though, but not the spirit of inclusion, compassion, love and grace. In doing this Jesus sought to draw people beyond an understanding of the law being a list of demands and help people grasp the principles of love and faithfulness (on the part of God and human beings) which was meant to be the true meaning of the law.
Now of course the question that comes back again and again with these talks is that old favourite ‘application’. To use a rather altered version of the estate agent and prime ministerial cry - what is important? Application, application, application. How does this apply to me? What do I do to apply this?
Well, hopefully you’re thinking about that anyway, but in order to draw out a few things more I want to say something briefly to finish.
This freedom from the letter of the law should remind us firstly of the grace that is our promise, but it should challenge us because the demands of a law without limit, the law of love, are much more difficult. Through prayer, discernment, study and action we should be learning just what that means for us. What does it mean for me, for us as the body of Christ, to love him with all we are, to love our neighbour and to love ourselves? No answers there, just a question we should be considering again and again, together and in our own prayer and study.
Next we should again turn back to the one who in the end is the fulfilment of the law, in his living, dying and rising again Jesus himself fulfilled all the demands of righteousness and set us free from the power of sin and of death. I was tempted to say, in a kind of Sylvester Stallone voice, that jesus could have said in the words of Judge Dredd ‘I am the law’. Through his example and life we see the embodiment of this whole hearted, self-giving love that is the law made perfect. For the one who said that no part of the law would be abolished but fulfilled he was the one who fulfilled it. We are called to live as he lived, to be like Christ, but just as Jesus refused to make things easy, simple and clear cut when he talked of the law, nor can I say ‘this is how you need to live to be a Christian’.
Jesus' relationship with the law of love which God had gracefully given to his chosen people was a complex one, as he observed many of the proper religious formalities, but in the end we keep in mind that he went way beyond the letter of the law to the grace filled spirit of the law, breaking down the barriers which an obsession with rules and regulations creates, and bringing all of us in his final sacrifice for sin into the presence of God and to a place where, guided and inspired by the Spirit, we can live in a state of loving service to God and one another as we celebrate our own redemption and forgiveness. In this way the law was fulfilled, and the demands of the law were placed upon us all, to be loving, righteous and holy, and to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly before our God.