Friday, 13 August 2010

Is There a Christian Law? Part 2 - The Sermon on the Mount

In my first post on this subject I looked at what Paul said in his letter to the Galatians on the subject of the Law.  This time I'd like to have a look at what Jesus says on the same subject in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7).

I recently read somewhere that this sermon could be described as "the best of Jesus".  In other words, Jesus probably didn't say all these things at once, he said them seperately and the author of Matthew put them together.  If this is the case, Matthew took a lot of care over it because the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.  I know you're not supposed to have favourite sections of the Bible but I have to confess that this is the place I come back to most often, ever since I first read it in my teens and was blown away by the depth of its moral vision.

The Sermon on the Mount is a sustained critique of the torah as practiced in Jesus' day.  He starts by affirming his respect for the law in the following way.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.  I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Mat 5:17,18)

This passage has caused all sorts of problems for Christians.  Its most obvious interpretation is that the Law still applies to us now - the argument of the Judaisers of Paul's day.  This argument is usually rejected by Christians, and has been since the beginning of the church's history.

A second possible interpretation is that "until everything is accomplished" refers to Jesus death and resurrection - hence, in his day the law still applied, but once his passion was complete it did not anymore.  This is a favourite argument among the dispensationalists among others.  There may be something in this, but it seems that there is still a lot to be accomplished - heaven and earth, after all, are still here.

Personally, I think the main explanation is found in what follows.  Jesus goes on to say

I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:20)

For Jesus' audience this would have been a shocking statement.  The characteristic of the Pharisees was their commitment to keep the whole law.  Every command of the torah was explained, interpreted and put into practice in every situation.  How could you be more thorough in obeying the law than them?  Some Christians like to interpret this as an example of the law revealing our need for grace - the only righteousness that could fulfil Jesus' criteria is his own, and we must appropriate this through faith to enter the kingdom of heaven.  All well and good, but I think the rest of the sermon shows Jesus had something different in mind.  The very next words are as follows.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, "Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement."  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement.  (Mat 5:21, 22)

This is the righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees.  They looked at the concrete action of the law - if you committed muder you would be punished.  Jesus wants us to look within, at our attitude to one another.  Do we harbour anger and bitterness?  Do we speak harshly towards each other?  This, says Jesus, is equivalent to murder - note how he applies the phrase "subject to judgement" to both murder and anger.

What is Jesus saying?  This can't possibly be a new law.  You can't outlaw anger.  Which of us is not angry?  You can only outlaw specific acts, like murder or assault.  Yet these stem from anger - without anger there is no murder.  Jesus is going to the source.  He's saying you have to deal not just with the external act, but the inner motive.  To enter the kingdom of heaven you have to be transformed from the inside out.

To emphasise the point, he applies the same principle to a range of issues.  Lust is equivalent to adultery.  You should keep your word all the time, not just when you take a solemn and binding oath.  True love involves loving your enemies, not just your friends.  Pray from the heart, not just with your mouth.

None of these things break the law, but the law on its own will not get you to this point.  The trouble with law is that it can only deal with externals, with observable, concrete acts.  It is possible to obey every concrete command in the law, yet not be righteous.  As Darcy says in Pride and Prejudice, "I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit." 

This was the problem with the Pharisees and teachers of the law.  Jesus reserves his harshest criticism for these earnest, zealous Jews. 

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypicrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee!  First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will also be clean.  (Mat 23:25,26)

They were obsessed with the details of the law, with ritual purity, with being seen to do the right thing, but their hearts were rotten.  They were full of pride, harsh and unforgiving, driving more people away from God than they drew to him.  When you hear voices from outside the Christian faith criticisng Christians, this is most often what they are criticising - our self-righteousness, our capacity to kill joy in the name of righteousness, our "holier-than-thou" attitude, our desire to impose our favourite rules on those around us.  Interestingly, they are almost never criticising Jesus and what he said or did.

Nothing is more human than to create rules, and then to punish people who fail to keep them.  Rules make us feel secure.  They provide us with an illusion of certainty.  We feel that if the rules are clear and specific, we will be able to follow them and all will be well.  Sure we will sometimes fail, but it will be clear where we failed and we will be able to repent and improve.  A vague principle like "don't be angry" leaves us too uncertain about what we should do.

Jesus wants so much more from us.  He wants our righteousness to be much deeper, much more transforming, much more complete than this.  He wants us to change from the inside out.  Then the law will not pass away, it will be surpassed, and we will truly demonstrate the nature of the kingdom of heaven.

5 comments:

Mark Baddeley said...

Hi Jon,

There’s much to like here, but there’s a few areas of disagreement.

1. ‘You can’t outlaw anger.’ Can you outlaw desiring someone else’s wife or stuff? That too is just a feeling that comes upon us, and we all feel it some degree or other in one area of life or another. But it’s there in the 10 commandments the very heart of the OT Law. If coveting, and not just theft, is addressed in the 10 commandments, then Jesus is bringing out the true meaning of the commands – showing just how far they cut. God’s law is not like human laws. It does address the heart as well. If it didn’t then it couldn’t be summarised as love God and love neighbour. What law legislates that you must love someone? Only God’s.

2. Mat 23:25, 26 needs to be put alongside Mat 15:1-20 and Mat 23:22-24. As the adultery and love commands show, God’s law is also concerned with the heart (indeed, concerned with the heart first and foremost). We are made unclean by what comes out of our heart. So a focus on the external rituals as the substance of the law is an attempt to evade the law and just how radically it demands righteousness from us. That’s why our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees because we must be changed from the heart out. The law can’t change our hearts – we need the Spirit for that. But, as Paul says, I wouldn’t have known what coveting was until the law said, ‘do not covet’ and so would never have realised that I needed God to change me to make me able to do good.

Similarly Mat 23:22-24 indicates that there are weightier matters of the law – mercy, faithfulness, and justice. Again, these aren’t simply actions the way you claim the law can only legislate on. Yet Jesus says the Pharisees’ problem is that they left these matters of the law undone. Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees is based on a much more positive assessment of the law than you’re acknowledging. If they had embraced the law properly they wouldn’t have been Pharisees, but genuinely loving and openhearted people, because that’s what the law is intended to describe.

When you hear voices from outside the Christian faith criticisng Christians, this is most often what they are criticising - our self-righteousness, our capacity to kill joy in the name of righteousness, our "holier-than-thou" attitude, our desire to impose our favourite rules on those around us. Interestingly, they are almost never criticising Jesus and what he said or did.

I used to agree with this strongly. Now, I think that was a problem right back in the first century 1 Peter 4:3-4:

For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you.

When these voices criticising Christians actually read Jesus they often aren’t too happy either. Philip Adams isn’t a fan of Jesus anymore than he’s a fan of Christians, I get the same vibe from the New Atheists as well. The Jesus of the 60s movement is pretty cool. The Jesus of the Gospels is pretty offensive.

At the moment one of the few genuinely sinful things one can do is be self-righteous – to think that someone else is doing something wrong and that you are not doing it. Another thing is to be a hypocrite – to hold up a moral standard that one doesn’t perfectly live up to. You simply can’t be a Christian and not be guilty of those two sins (along with being ‘intolerant’) by modern reckoning. It’s not what Jesus or Scripture recognises as self-righteousness, hypocrisy, or intolerance, so it shouldn’t shake us. It’s a cheap way people who like a certain sin try to justify themselves by writing off those who live differently.

Are there self-righteous, hypocritical and intolerant Christians? Sure. Is that the basic problem? No.

Jon said...

Of course I'm not suggesting that self-rightousness is the basic problem. Lust, anger, selfishness etc are the basic problem and these show themselves in our behaviour. I often think that self-rightousness is the way we defend ourselves from our own feelings of insufficiency.

That's a good thought about the coveting command and its a very interesting thing to be on that list because the other 9 are all much more concrete. I've never studied Hebrew but it would be interesting to know what word that is and if we have understood it right.

Jesus does indeed have a positive view of the law, as Mt 5:17 and 18 make clear. What he's saying, though, is that it's not enough. You have to go beyond it. You have to go deeper.

The problem with the certainty of the law is that it's an illusion. The law is situation-specific - you have to be able to apply it in each concrete situation, and especially over a long time period you can't predict what situations will come up. There are also many situations in which it is best not to apply the law - like the one in John 8:1-11. You can only make these decisions by understanding the basic principles and applying them with the discernment of the Spirit.

Mark Baddeley said...

Hi Jon,

I think (from a quick check on the net, as my Bible software is not on this computer) that the LXX translated the two Hebrew words involved with 'epithumia' - which is very much a word to do with desire, not action. So if a mistake was made, it was made in the intertestemental period by native Hebrew speakers who were also competent in Greek.

We'll possibly start going in circles at this point, but I think we half-agree. I agree that Jesus is saying that we have to go beyond or deeper than the letter of the law.

I also agree that the law isn't a rule-book that you can just appeal to easily. It's mostly 'case law' - specific instructions intended to shed light on a broader principle and how it works.

So when you say:

The law is situation-specific - you have to be able to apply it in each concrete situation, and especially over a long time period you can't predict what situations will come up. There are also many situations in which it is best not to apply the law - like the one in John 8:1-11. You can only make these decisions by understanding the basic principles and applying them with the discernment of the Spirit.

I agree so much I want to cheer.

But I think that's at odds with your statement:

The problem with the certainty of the law is that it's an illusion.

And your first post suggesting that it is not universally binding and is now counsel.

If we have to understand the principles and apply them by the guidance of the Spirit then, I'd suggest, that's a more classicaly orthodox view of Christian ethics, then a view that says that even those principles (other than love) are not binding but are just cousel.

When the law is understood in the way you've spelled out at length in the bit I agree with - then its certainty is no illusion. Because it's not a simple unthinking certainty, nor is it necessarily an easily-won 'plug in and spit out the answer to a difficult problem' approach to all problems. It'll remain certain even when we are unsure - we don't have to collapse it's certainty into us as if knowing the God of Truth means that we'll always be right.

My guess is that you're processing and rejecting a somewhat legalistic dispensational approach to the law. I'm down with that.

I want to suggest that there's a 'third way' that steers between a loveless law, and a love that transcends law - and so reduces law to counsel. The extra element is, seen from God's side, the work of the Spirit, and from our side as the acquisation of wisdom.

The acquisition of wisdom is necessary to be able to take the fixed certainties of the law and see how they can be fulfilled in the complexities of concrete situations. Hence Solomon's wisdom with the surviving child of the prostitutes was necessary for justice to be done - which is 'a weightier matter of the law'.

If you're a reader, I'd suggest having a crack at Graeme Goldsworthy's Gospel and Wisdom. You'd probably find that it opens up some new resources for what you're trying to develop, even if you and I still end with some disagreements.

Jon said...

Thanks for the discussion Mark - I've really enjoyed it and it's helped me start to think through some things. I'll check out the Graeme Goldsworthy book. He used to preach at St Stephen's Anglican when I went there as a teenager (a bit over my head then though) and I remember reading something else of his - Gospel and Kingdom?

Mark Baddeley said...

You're welcome Jon, I enjoyed it too, always good to talk through things with someone who is genuinely working them through. You've got the right Graeme Goldsworthy too :).

grace be with you,
Mark