Thursday, January 18, 2018

Jesus choosing people over the Law

I tweeted/made a Facebook post a couple days ago: "Jesus consistently chose people over the Law." Most agreed and at the moment there are 71 either likes or loves of the post on Facebook with 4 shares.

1. Of course there was some push-back, perhaps from three directions. First, there are those who ideologically over-emphasize continuity between the testaments. To me there is some inability to read the biblical texts in context here. For example, someone is so used to Hebrews that they think Leviticus would have had no problem with it. As one colleague once told me: "I think if the author of Leviticus were to read Hebrews, he would say, 'Of course.'" I think this is highly unlikely and reflects some inability to hear Leviticus on its own historical terms. Leviticus itself gives us no reason to think that its system of atonement was inadequate or insufficient in any way as a system. For a thousand years Jews thought the Levitical system was in fact the system God installed for all time.

So a certain degree of contextual unreflectivity is involved when we cannot see how startling a Gospel of John or Ephesians or Hebrews would have been to many Jews when they were hot off the press. This group wishes to say, "The New Testament is simply showing us what was in reality the actual meaning of the Old Testament from the start."

2. A second group are those who are sympathetic with what we might call the "Jewish roots" movement, for lack of a better word. This is a somewhat sectarian Christian movement (one that could become a cult over time), frequently involving Messianic Jews. If the first group says, "The Old Testament meant what the New Testament says," the second group says, "The New Testament means what the Old Testament says." So the discontinuities between the testaments are not fully appreciated again, but in deference to the Old Testament.

The tendency here is to miss the fact that Paul and other New Testament Christians like John did in fact disregard parts of the Jewish Law. Romans 14 and Colossians 2 imply that Gentiles need not keep the Jewish Sabbath (even though it is one of the 10 commandments). Jesus and Paul clearly did not think the food laws were binding on Gentile Christians. Paul in effect did not expect Gentile believers to keep any part of the Jewish Law that was "Jew-specific" or a "boundary" law.

By the way, I heard about another sectarian movement last week in Indiana (another cult waiting to happen). It reminds me of Marcion. It dismisses those parts of the New Testament that it thinks were not written for Gentiles. It is, in effect, a "Paul only" movement. It ignores the Gospels, for example. A contention point is the fact that Colossians 4 seems to indicate that Luke was a Gentile. Basically, it's a rubbish movement.

3. A third group that pushed back perhaps discerned the reason I posted in the first place. A legalistic strand within Christian America, including my own holiness background, has more in common with the mindset of the biblical Pharisees than with Jesus or Paul. I believe Jesus would approve DACA without a moment's hesitation. I believe this is the true Christian position. If Jesus sat loosely to the Jewish Law, imagine how loosely he would sit to the immigration laws of some random country.

I do believe that the rule of law is important in general in that it preserves in structural form the fundamental principle of "loving your neighbor as yourself." However, not all civil laws are created equal. We should obey the laws of our land in general in keeping with Romans 13. But this is not an absolute (cf. Acts 4). And there are various options with regard to the consequences of law-breaking.

4. In any case, I was asked for examples of Jesus putting people over the Law. Here is an annotated list.

Mark was written for Gentiles (sorry, "Paul-only" idiots in Logansport). So we might not be too surprised if it is not worried about Jesus appearing to be a scrupulous Law-keeper.

a. In Mark 2, Jesus does not respond to the Pharisees, "My disciples aren't breaking the Law by plucking grain on the Sabbath." His response is in effect, "Didn't David break the Law when his fighting men were hungry?" (2:26). In other words, he wasn't concerned about showing that he was a Law-keeper and accepted the assumption of law-breaking.

b. Of course he ignored the traditions of the elders several times. Eating with sinners (Mark 2 again) and thus making himself unclean, healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3), and letting his disciples eat without washing their hands (Mark 7). We easily dismiss these as "that's just the tradition of the elders," but it would not have felt so easy to dismiss at the time. This would have been experienced as Jesus sitting very loosely to the Jewish Law.

c. Mark interprets Jesus to declare all foods clean in Mark 7:19. Let's just say that this would have been a surprise to Leviticus. Very shocking at the time! Even many Christians experienced this as a flagrant disregard for the Scriptures. See Galatians 2.

Unlike Mark, Matthew probably was written primarily with Jewish Christians in view. Matthew doesn't mention that Jesus declared all foods clean when telling about the incident in Mark 7 (cf. Matt. 15). So Matthew does seem concerned to show continuity between Jesus and the Law. However, when it comes to individual instruction in the Law, there is discontinuity:

d. Jesus' fulfilled understanding of the Law in Matthew 5 modified and is in tension with parts of the Law. The Law allows divorce for any reason. Jesus prohibits it, possibly because it is a form of legalized adultery and thus is abusive toward wives.

e. The Law says to keep vows (third commandment). Jesus says not to make vows.

f. The Law says to show no pity but "an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth." Jesus countermands this rule for individuals.

g. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, as I understand it, suggest that the Levite and the priest were inappropriate in letting their concerns for purity trump the need to help a person in need.

The Gospel of John is a highly symbolic presentation of Jesus, a Message version, if you would. Its author seems to see in Jesus a deeper reality that supercedes practice of the Jewish Law. It also seems to be for a primarily Gentile audience.

h. In John 10:34, Jesus calls the Law, "your Law," suggesting that the Jewish Law is not "his" Law in some way. This is probably a paraphrase of sorts, but it shows the degree to which John separates Jesus from Judaism.

i. The symbolism of Jesus turning water for purification into wine in John 2 may symbolize that Jesus' blood replaces the Levitical purification system. We might say fulfills. Leviticus probably wouldn't see it that way.

j. Jesus suggests to the woman at the well in John 4 that it is not necessary to worship God in Jerusalem. We might say gets at the true reality. Deuteronomy probably wouldn't see it that way.

k. John 8 probably wasn't in the initial manuscript of John, but in the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus works against enacting the punishment in the Law for a person caught in adultery.

5. My personal sense is that Jesus was not a scrupulous Law-observer. I'm not suggesting that he was a flagrant Jewish-Law breaker. I'm saying that the trajectory we pick up in the Gospels is of someone who was repeatedly criticized for not being careful in his attention to the Law. Such a trajectory would help explain both Paul's initial resistance to the Jesus movement and the character his Christianity took once he became a Jesus-follower.

1 comment:

Don said...

I think that Jesus was a Jew obeying Torah in everything he said, did, or taught; otherwise Jesus would have sinned according to Torah/Tanach. But Jesus was without sin.

I think you are misunderstanding the argument in Mark about plucking grains on the Sabbath, the longer argument is in Matt. so one can easier see what is going on. Jesus's argument is that temple service trumps Sabbath and David shows how human need trumps the temple service, so human need trumps the Sabbath restrictions. That is, the Torah is an interlocking system of laws, some trump other laws when both cannot be done. Yes, the disciples broke the Sabbath law, but they did not break Torah, that is what counts.

There are similar possible discussions on your other points if you want to discuss.