By this I don't mean that they have a strict morality. The equation of legalism with strictness is a mistake, as is the equation of non-legalistic morality with laxity. What I mean is that people with a legalistic mindset see morality as a set of rules which must be obeyed. Our ethical task is to interpret those rules correctly and then follow them.
I have suggested plenty of times in this blog that this is not Jesus' view of morality nor that of his apostles. Jesus taught that the whole law and the prophets could be summed up in two commandments - love God and love your neighbour. This is often called "golden rule" morality - "do to others as you would like them to do to you".
A few years ago I had a go at summarising this view in two posts entitled "Is there a Christian Law?". Reading them now I think they are clumsy and I thought it would be worth approaching the subject a little differently following a few more years of thought.
Christians tend to be perplexed about aspects of the torah, the law of Moses as encoded in the Pentateuch. Many of these laws are horrific, like stoning adulterers and disobedient children. Some seem to diminish the humanity of certain people, like the ban on people with disabilities or menstruating women in the Tabernacle. Others are just baffling, like the ban on shellfish or mixed fabrics.
Surely, we think, these are not intended for us! We tend, more or less consciously, to operate on the basis that Jesus' death and resurrection have superseded them, so that while they applied to ancient Israelites they don't apply to us. I'm not sure that this is the best way to understand them, because what we often do (like the EA publication I reviewed in my earlier post) is substitute a new Law based on readings of the New Testament. This perpetuates legalism but dresses it in new clothes.
One of the pressing questions floating around in Jesus' day and before is the question of how the ancient Jews were to follow the Law. Among Jesus' most vocal opponents were the Pharisees, a highly influential group within Judaism who may have somewhat resembled the people we call Orthodox Jews. The Pharisees were the ultimate legalists - they believed that every letter of the law had to be followed literally, and that failure to do so was the reason Israel was weak and under foreign domination. Jesus thought they were hypocrites, focused on appearances but neglecting true virtue.
I've been thinking recently that while we know Pharisaism is not Christian, we are less sure about its Jewish credentials. Within its own context, were the Pharisees the true carriers of the Judaic flame, or were they out of step with Jewish tradition? The more I read and think about it, the more I think it's the latter. The ancient Jews did not necessarily use the torah as a rule-book, and such use of it was roundly criticised by the Prophets.
A good starting place for thinking about this is Psalm 119, a long acrostic poem in praise of God's Law. Here's what the author has to say under the letter mem starting at verse 97.
Oh how I love your Law.
I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me,
and make me wiser than my enemies.
I have more insight than my teachers
for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders
for I obey your precepts.
I have kept my feet from every evil path
so that I might obey your word.
I have not departed from your laws,
for you yourself have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
I gain understanding from your precepts;
therefore I hate every wrong path.
So obviously the author is a lover of the torah and sees it as the centre of his or her life. However, he/she doesn't see it legalistically. To understand the difference, try reciting this psalm with the Traffic Act in place of God's Law.
Oh how I love the Traffic Act.
I meditate on it all day long.
Its clauses are always with me....
How sweet are its words to my taste
sweeter than honey in my mouth!
The idea is absurd. We don't love the Traffic Act, or any other piece of legislation. There is no inherent beauty in signaling at intersections or giving way to the right. These are simply conventions which make everyone safer if we all follow them. We hardly give them a moment's thought.
Yet the torah is the object of the Psalmist's devotion, something on which he meditates, the centre of his spiritual life. It makes him ecstatic, it gives him wisdom and power. This deep reflection and meditation is a signal that there is far more depth here than mechanical obedience to a set of rules. This is a transformational life practice.
We can see the results of such meditation in the writings of the prophets. There are lots of examples, but I will just quote a couple to show you what I mean. The first is the oft-quoted passage from Micah 6.
‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah has mediated deeply on the Law with its many regulations and instructions and asks, "what is the essence of this? What is the most important thing here?" His conclusion is that the most important thing is not to do all the rituals correctly, to bring more and more sacrifices. It is to follow three simple (but very difficult!) virtues - justice, kindness, humility.
This is the same thing Jesus and Paul do, although they choose a different summary, one drawn from two verses in Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19 - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind" and "love your neighbour as yourself". This wasn't a particularly radical position in Jesus' day, as we can see by the fact that whereas Mark 12 and Matthew 22 place this quote in Jesus' mouth, in Luke 10 it comes from the mouth of an expert in the law and Jesus merely expresses his agreement. This summary is in no way incompatible with Micah's - they are two ways of expressing the same approach to obeying the law.
The prophet Amos takes this idea even further.
‘I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
God's rejection of Israel's offerings and worship is a persistent theme in the prophetic writings. How is it that God can hate the very things he commanded? They are merely following his instructions, carrying out the rituals and sacrifices that are described in detail in the book of Leviticus. Can obeying God's commandments be wrong?
Yes it can, if it's done in the wrong spirit. The Israelites have failed to understand what Amos, Micah and a host of other prophets knew - that the essence of the law is not following the details but acting justly, showing mercy and remaining humble. They have dug beneath the external details to what lies within, they have seen the personal and social transformation to which the Law is pointing. Without this transformation the observance of the details is worse than worthless, it is an abomination, a stench in God's nostrils and a ringing in his ears.
Jesus once again echoes this teaching. It forms the core of his critique of the Pharisees in Matthew 23.
‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.'
Sure, tithe your spices if you must - but such tithes are worse than worthless if you fail to heed the lesson of Micah.
But there's more, because at times it can be wrong to follow the letter of the Law, like this from Matthew 5.
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
The thing here is that 'eye for eye, tooth for tooth' is a legal principle which appears repeatedly in the torah, yet here is Jesus urging his followers to ignore it and instead forgive those who wrong them and even invite further wrongs. Why is this? Because in 'meditating on God's law day and night' Jesus has come to understand that the purpose of the law is to teach us to love our neighbours as ourselves, to do to others what we would like them to do to us, and here is a much more powerful way to do that. As either Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King may have said, 'an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind'.
Paul, a man thoroughly trained in the interpretation of the torah, provides us with a slightly different approach in 1 Corinthians 9.
For it is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever ploughs and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.
The quote from Deuteronomy is an instruction about how to care for working animals but once again Paul suggests that we misunderstand it if we simply take it literally. Instead, if we understand it in terms of the purpose of the Law - to show us how to love God and one another - we see that its fuller meaning is about the right of people to benefit from their labours - in other words, it is about justice. He then applies this not to oxen but to those like himself who serve and teach in the church and have a right to receive financial support in return. Even then, he does not insist on receiving this - indeed, he is proud of having not claimed his rights even as he asserts them. For Paul, there are more important things than simply following the letter of the law.
This is a powerful antidote to legalism. To summarise, there are two things wrong with legalistic morality.
First, it misses the point. The detailed rules are meant as pathways towards understanding the principles on which they are based, the imperatives of love, justice, kindness, humility and so on. Legalism means we can't see the wood for the trees.
Second, this failure can lead to us doing evil even as we attempt to do good. It is possible to follow the law in a way that is unloving, unjust, unkind or proud. We can obey the letter of the law even as we violate its spirit.
We have been warned, but the warnings are so hard to hear.
(More on legalism here.)
(More on legalism here.)