January 9, 2012

Jesus and the Law

It is sometimes said — I think I’ve said it myself in the past — that Jesus extends the scope of the Law in his moral teaching. An early morning train of thought leads me to want to revisit this concept. Jesus does not expand on the Law, in the manner of the Rabbis; he deepens it by finding the moral foundational spirit behind and under the letter.

To contrast the two: the Rabbis, in the interest of “putting a fence around the Torah,” enacted protective measures that helped ensure that the Law would not be broken. For example, though the Law requires that a kid not be boiled in its mother’s milk, the Rabbis, in order to prevent that possibility, ordained that no meat or milk should be prepared or eaten together; this later came to mean separate sets of cooking and serving ware for meat and dairy, and rules about the amount of time that had to pass before an item from the other food group could be consumed.

Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t deal with such fine points of corollary laws and regulations, but literally cuts to the heart of the matter. In response to the law that says “Do not kill,” Jesus advises, “Do not hate.” In response to the law that says, “Do not commit adultery,” Jesus advises men not to look with lust at another’s wife, committing adultery in the heart.

Ultimately Jesus doesn’t just amplify the Law, he reorients it inwardly, moving it from legality to morality. He declares to be immoral things that are strictly legal (such as hatred or lust), and holds as moral things that are technically illegal (such as breaking the Sabbath to do good).

The irony is that many in our own time take the path of refined and insistent literal legality rather than looking to the heart of a generous and self-giving and spirit-filled morality.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Jesse said...

A lovely reflection, Tobias. Thank you. There must have been a stirring of the waters on this subject today, because I attended a lecture this afternoon that touched on the same theme (with reference to Jesus' treatment of the commandments). The lecturer was offering an interpretation of what we mean by calling the Church a "divine mystery". He observed that the surface meaning of divine revelation will tend to be clear at the time it is revealed in a particular time and place. What makes it a "mystery" is that, because of its divine source, it will be applicable beyond that time and place -- indeed, for all times and all places -- but not in a way confined to the initial, contextually conditioned understanding. Over the course of individual lives and over the course of human history, our unfolding experience will bring out more and more depth in the single "truth" (e.g. understanding Jesus as "Son" in the light of our developing filial and parental relationships). No human being can hope ever to embrace the totality of the revelation's meaning, because we -- unlike God -- have an "expiry date". But we must always seek to bring out revelation's universal applicability.

I think you may also be channeling Papa Ratzinger, whose exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (in Jesus of Nazareth, Part I), reaches a similar conclusion, making brilliant use of Rabbi Jacob Neusner's A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, including Neusner's startling declaration that Jesus takes nothing away from the Law and adds nothing to it but "Himself" (p. 105).

There's a great passage on biblical revelation as a "complementary teaching", a corrective to the "flame" of human conscience that beneath the cloud of sin now only dimly illuminates us with an innate understanding of God's will:

The heart of this historically situated "complementary teaching" contained in biblical Revelation is the Decalogue given on Mount Sinai. As we have seen, this is by no means abolished by the Sermon on the Mount, nor is it reduced to an "old law," but it is simply developed further in a way that allows its full depth and grandeur to shine forth in all its purity. The Decalogue is not, as we have seen, some burden imposed upon man from the outside. It is a revelation of the essence of God himself -- to the extent that we are capable of receiving it -- and hence it is an exegesis of the truth of our being. The notes of our existence are deciphered for us so that we can read them and translate them into life. God's will flows from his being and therefore guides us into the truth of our being, liberating us from self-destruction through falsehood. (pp. 148-9)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Jesse. This not the first time I've found myself in the same boat as Papa R, but it still comes as a surprise!