Since last Sunday and a sermon I heard about Ezra reading “the law” to the people for hours, I’ve been thinking about Jesus and the law. Chief among my reflections is the one that sees Jesus as anything but the stickler for the law that Christians have made him out to be. Neither is God primarily concerned with “keeping the commandments.” Rather, as God’s Symbol, Jesus revealed a God of compassion, not the angry punisher we’ve been schooled to believe in. Let me explain.
To begin with, we often confuse the Jewish meaning of The Law with laws. “The Law” refers to the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Jewish Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Those books tell the story of Israel’s foundation with the focus on the account of the liberation from Egypt under the leadership of the rebel hero, Moses. Those readings reveal a God whose main interest is in liberating an enslaved people from oppression by the rich and powerful.
So when the priest-scribe, Ezra, read the Law to the people in last Sunday’s selection from Nehemiah (8:2-6, 8-10), he was telling them the basic story of Israel’s foundation – something they had apparently become foggy about during their more than fifty years of exile in Babylon (586-531 BCE). He was reminding them that they had been enslaved much more cruelly in Egypt than they had in Babylon.
Their oppression in both instances should have reminded them of The Law’s basic thrust – viz. Do not forget where you came from! As a result of such memory, the inheritors of the Mosaic tradition were to take care of slaves, widows, orphans, resident aliens, and “the poor” in general – people like themselves. “The Law” was a call to freedom and compassion – not to guilt, shame and judgment of others.
Over the years, however, especially under the tutelage of the priestly classes, understanding of “The Law” shifted from the myth of Israel’s origins to strict rules and regulations. These were also contained in the first five books of the Jewish Testament, but were not as central as the Exodus story. The regulations had multiplied over the more than a thousand years between their supposed formulation and the life of Jesus.
And by Jesus’ time the professional religious classes of priests, scribes, and lawyers had virtually identified being a good Jew with observance of the legal codes of the lawyers and priests. If you kept the laws, you were a good Jew and “clean.” If you did not (or could not) you were “unclean” and excommunicated. People were considered unclean because of their occupations (e.g. tax collectors, shepherds, and prostitutes). They could also become “unclean” for touching a corpse or, in the case of women, by simply experiencing their menstrual periods.
What I’m saying is that by Jesus’ time, Jewish laws had become burdensome and oppressive. They had assumed disproportionate importance over the story of Israel’s beginnings. They were interpreted as calling community members to invidious judgments rather than to compassion.
This is where “the Prophets” came in. Together “The Law and the Prophets” comprised the Jewish Testament I’ve been referring to. The prophets were people like Elias, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, John the Baptist – and Jesus. They represented a counterbalance to legalistic interpretations of scripture.
When the prophets spoke of the Law, they were referring more than anything to the story of God’s compassion for oppressed people. That’s what Jesus meant when he said “I have come not to abolish the Law or the prophets but to fulfill them (Mt. 5:17). In fact, the prophetic task by and large was to call Israel back to its origins. The prophets (and Jesus in particular) harshly criticized the priestly classes and their legalist allies for giving too much import to the laws as opposed to Israel’s great Myth of Origin — the The Law.
So Jesus got into great trouble with the lawyers and priests for breaking the laws in the name of The Law. Especially galling to the religious leaders of his day was Jesus’ willingness to put compassion ahead of the Law of Laws, Sabbath observance. He even put that law in its place by giving it a completely humanist interpretation: “The Sabbath was made for human beings; human beings were not made for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2: 27).
That’s what I mean by urging “Be like Jesus: break the Commandments!” I mean we should be humanistic and put compassion above the legalisms we’ve come to identify as Christianity.