February 12, 2023
Upholding the Law
Moses puts a stark choice before the people near the end of his life: Stay true to the faith he has taught them, and they, and their children and grandchildren will be blest. Fall away into a religion of their own creation worshiping the things they have made and following a path of least resistance, and disaster awaits. It’s a theme that runs through the Exodus story. Later, of course, the Prophets charged the nation with precisely that failure. Law and Covenant were irrevocably bound together.
Keeping the covenant was never just about going to Temple or offering sacrifices. It was about building a nation and community that made justice and caring a fundamental part of their national fiber.
David Lose, the former president of Lutheran Theological Seminary in one of his commentaries on these passages says, “The law (that is the Torah) is given to strengthen community. The “you” in both Deuteronomy and Matthew is always plural. The law isn’t about meeting our individual needs but about creating and sustaining a community in which all of God’s children can find nurture, health, safety…the law comes as a gift to strengthen community by orienting us to the needs of our neighbor.”
Moses stands before the people in Deuteronomy and sets before them this picture of two divergent roads they may travel after he is gone. One is following God and the commandments God has given, which leads to life and well-being for all, and the other, simply going the way of least resistance and individual desires, which will lead in the end to national failure and disintegration of God’s hope for them. One road involves keeping a covenant with God and each other. The other means going your individual ways wherever the winds blow. The covenant with God was to define their faith and faith practice, as individuals and as a nation. To choose God’s way meant committing to a way of living in community, with justice and caring for each other. That was the focus of the Law, and it was precisely their failure to stay true to it that the prophets decried as the reason for their national troubles.
In a very rational analysis, it’s not too hard to understand how a small nation, squeezed in along the coast, with larger more established nations all around it, would be hard pressed to survive if it became divided or lost its sense of unity and purpose. But I think Moses meant more than that. Perhaps something more like Martin Luther King’s famous quote, “The arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Moses makes clear: if they lose their spiritual footing it will inevitably bring a fall.
Rev. Lose goes on to say, “Jesus intensifies the law in today’s reading precisely because the Law’s main focus and intent is to move us towards a just and caring community.” – Jesus wants “To help us avoid seeing the law as merely drawing moral boundaries and instead alert us to our responsibility to care for those around us. One can too easily discriminate, injure, neglect, or speak poorly of a neighbor all the while saying, ‘I have kept the commandment because I have not murdered.’ And so, Jesus intensifies the law to make us more responsible for our neighbor’s well-being. For by caring for our neighbor we strengthen a community that can best serve as a blessing to the world, which is God’s constant command and expectation of God’s people.”
It is out of that larger understanding of Jesus’ approach to the Law and the scriptures that most scholars suggest that Jesus teaching about divorce was aimed at protecting the rights and livelihood of women since the Law had become interpreted so strongly in the favor of men by the first century that the divorce laws came with a detriment to women.
Jesus makes the scriptures a starting point for thinking about morality and living a Godly life, not an ending point. He engages in the hard work of trying to discern the meaning of the law in an ongoing engagement with the Spirit of God. At no point does Jesus try to set up anything like a Christian Taliban where ridged rules prescribe behavior, and someone might be looking over your shoulder to see how you are doing. Jesus’ vision is of that prophetic hope where the precepts of God are written on the human heart, and everyone treats everyone with respect and dignity.
Some scholars have suggested that Jesus’ hyperbole in sayings like “If your right eye causes you to sin tear it out and throw it away” is a kind of ironic or comedic rejection of the Pharisees legalisms. New Testament scholar William Barclay in his commentary on Matthew’s gospel reminds that the Jewish Talmud, written in the years after Jesus, contained some biting characterizations of Pharisees. It lists seven different kinds of Pharisee, including the “Bruised or Bleeding Pharisee” who got their name because they tried to avoid looking at women to avoid any hint or suspicion that they had any impure thoughts, and so went around in public places either with their eyes closed or looking only down at their own feet. As a result, they were always bumping into things and wore their bumps and bruises as a badge of pride. –There were other classes of Pharisee, like those who tried to wear their good deeds on their shoulder -for all to see, or those who tried to look dramatically humble, and walked bent over in a hunched back position to give that demeanor. Or the Pharisee who was so afraid of breaking the Law that he did little, out of fear of doing something wrong. -Of course, the Talmud also acknowledges the truly Godly Pharisee who truly loved God and tried to live that love in their daily lives. -Not all that different from what Jesus’ approach.
How we interpret scripture depends a lot on how we view God. -Is God that judgmental ogre just waiting to slap us down for any mistakes? -Or is God a loving, redeeming God seeking to loving and caring lives.
Students lodging with Martin Luther once asked him what his picture of God was, he responded, “When I think of God, I think of a man hanging on a tree. Because in the cross of Christ we see God’s love poured out for the whole world and are reminded that God will go to any and all lengths to communicate just how much God loves us so that we, in turn, may better love one another.”
The Law as Matthew projects it in his understanding of Jesus, and Moses as he understands it looking ahead to the future of Israel, is not a burden we must carry but a gift that is to lift us to life more ennobled, more compassionate, and more spiritual, more able to fulfill God’s hope for us.
A few verses earlier in Deuteronomy Moses says: “Certainly this commandment that I am commanding you is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.” (Deut. 30:11) Jesus, in Matthew, only tries to make that clear and more understandable.