Sunday, March 12, 2017

Didn't Jesus do away with all the rules?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

Why are some people so caught up in the rules? Don’t they understand that Jesus did away with the rules? To be Christian is to live in radical freedom. The Bible says this constantly. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (St. Paul’s letter to the Romans) Jesus said it is not what goes into a man but what comes out of his heart that makes him unclean. St. Paul tells us we are saved by grace, not by works of the law. Why is it that the haters keep talking about rules and regulations when Jesus said that they don’t matter at all? The Gospel has done away with the law. Why do some people say we can’t love whom we please, but we can eat pork? Doesn’t the law condemn both?

Grace Uberlaw

Dear Grace,

So, you would have no objection if I robbed your house and ran off with your daughter? After all the law forbids both, but grace must allow whatever I really believe is appropriate for me. I think you are a little bit confused. Let’s deal with that wonderful biblical truth that we are saved not by works of the law, but by grace received through faith. “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law.” (Romans 3:20) That would seem to be pretty clear, until you look a little more deeply at the phrase “works of the law.” It is mentioned in only two places, the writings of St. Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

There is an interesting scroll called “MiqsatMa’aseh haTorah.” (4QMMT) One of the things discussed therein is the question of whether a stream of water, poured into an unclean clay vessel from a clay picture can allow the ritual uncleanness of the vessel to leap up the stream of water and pollute the clay pitcher, so that not only the vessel but the pitcher also must be destroyed. I am sure that you remember from your reading of Leviticus that clay once made unclean cannot be purified, and I am sure that you regularly ponder the problems of ritual uncleanness. 

The Qumran sectaries insisted that yes, the pitcher would be polluted by the stream of water being poured into the unclean vessel. The scroll ends with the word, “and these are some works of the law.” So, the phrase “works of the law” refers to liturgical and ritual fine points of the Torah and not, I maintain, to the great ethical issue. There are 613 points of the law recorded in Torah. Why is it that we obey 10 of them and scrap the rest? We don’t exactly scrap the rest. Many of the 613 are refinements and applications of the Ten Commandments; still we don’t worry about eating meat and milk together, or about having the occasional cheeseburger. (Definitely not Kosher.) The simple reason is that the Ten Commandments are reflections of the very nature of God. God is faithfulness, so do not commit adultery. God is Father, so honor you mother and father. God is the author of life, so thou shalt not kill.

There are religions that believe God’s absolute sovereignty means even divine law is arbitrary. In other words, God could change his mind about morality if he wanted to. If He woke up on the wrong side of the cloud one morning, murder and adultery would be just fine. We don’t believe this. There is a classic question, “Can God make a stone so big that He himself could not move it?” The answer of Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism is “No.” Well you may say, “I thought God was unlimited and could do whatever He wanted.” I would counter that God is limited by nothing except by his own nature. For God to make a stone so big that he himself would not move it is would be like my standing in front of a mirror, raising my right arm and expecting the mirror image to remain unmoved.

Creation (and particularly humanity) is the mirror of God. They are not arbitrary because God is not arbitrary, as Einstein said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” I would add that neither does He play dice with humanity. There is a law built into the very nature of things. That law is essentially the Ten Commandments. It can be summed up very simply, “What you hate do to no one.” I would rather not be robbed, so I should not steal. I do not like being deceived, so I should not lie. I don’t want my spouse to cheat on me, so I should not cheat on my spouse. It is all summed up in the words of Jesus, “What you hate do to no one.”

The heart of the law is empathy for those around us. Natural law is the ability to see the humanity of others. Natural law is the fulfillment of our humanity, not a limit on our freedom. If we think that law is only a limit on our freedom, then we are like children who think we are the center of the world, and it’s all about me, and it is a very childish generation that wears its baseball caps backward and thinks it can do what it pleases.

Next week: Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.

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