Sunday, 6 February 2011

Jesus' Guide to Reading 'the Law'

As I was sitting down to prepare this evening’s sermon an email popped into my inbox.

Tackling bullying in schools – a governor’s guide. January 2011.

It ran to 20 pages. And made interesting reading. It would be easy to dismiss the production of such materials as wasteful bureaucracy. But actually it contains excellent guidance, good commonsense, and checklists that demonstrate Pittville School where I am a Governor is doing well in that area.

Much of what is included in the guide is covered in ‘the law’.

There’s legislation for most things in life.

And that’s nothing new.

From time immemorial as people have sought to live togehtrer they have recognised the need for legislation.

There’s plenty of it in the Bible.

The first five books of the Bible are known as the Books of ‘the Law’.

They contain law codes like the ten commandments. Laws about personal living, about living together in society. There are laws about the ritual and worship, about sacrifice, and the observation of religious festivals.

But the books of the Law don’t only include lists of laws. There are no such lists in the book of Genesis. There are stories of the beginnings of things, the beginnings of the world, the beginnings of the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There’s the story of Joseph. Exodus introduces us to the story of Moses … and as the title suggests the story of the Exodus from bondage in Egypt to freedom.


In some ways it is unfortunate that those five books have been given the name ‘the Law’ in English.

For they contain much more than a series of ‘laws’.

The Hebrew word for them is the word Torah.

That is a much richer word. Don’t think of it so much as a set of laws and regulations. Think of it as a set of books that through stories, law codes and much more open up for us an understanding of God’s way for God’s world.

The stories come from an ancient world, and we need to enter into that world if we are going to begin to understand what it is they are saying. The law codes come from an ancient world that is very different from our own. We need to enter into that world to begin to sense how God is speaking to us through those stories and all those laws.

You won’t get far before you find things that are not just alien from an ancient world, but things that we simply cannot follow in today’s world. All those instructions on what kind of food to eat. All the instructions on when and how to sacrifice animals. All those instructions on what kind of clothes to wear and what not to wear.

Read through the first five books of the law and you recognise that you have to deal with these books with care.

And as soon as you do that, someone will cry out, ‘You can’t do that.’ If it says it in the Bible, it must mean it for all time. You cannot change one word of the Bible. Change one thing and then you will have to change everything. As soon as you call something in question you have to abandon everything.

That’s where it is interesting to ask how Jesus read the law.

First, he valued it. He didn’t want to change what was in those five books at all. Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, not one jot or tittle of the law is to be removed … until all is accomplished. He honoured those books. And it is because of that that we keep those five books in their entirety in our Christian bible.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets, I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.

Jesus speaks of fulfilling the law. Of it being ‘accomplished’.

And he sees himself as ‘the fulfilment’ of the law and the prophets. On the cross he gets to the point at which he is able to say, ‘It is accomplished’

Jesus stands by the law, but he handles it with a remarkable wisdom. He does not take up a stone against a woman caught in adultery, but instead gives her the opportunity to start her life all over again. He does not condemn and reject Zacchaeus the thief, but goes to eat with him before he has changed. And it is that loving acceptance that prompts him to change.

He does not hold fast to the Sabbath laws on the grounds that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. His sacrifice is the sacrifice to end all animal sacrifice, now we look to him as the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, and the detail of the sacrificial laws is no longer applicable. He eats with sinners, and does not hold fast the laws regarding eating. And he is welcoming of gentiles and his followers realise that the food laws no longer apply as well.

These five books of Torah do give an insight into the way of God in the world, but Jesus invites us to read them through his eyes. Value them for the insights they give, honour them in our Bible, but read them carefully.

Nowhere is that approach more evident than in a passage that has to be one of the most familiar in all the gospels.

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.

Let’s stop there. A ‘lawyer’ in Jesus’ day was not the first century equivalent of a solicitor. He was an expert in ‘the Law’ in the ‘Torah’. We so easily read the Gospels in terms of Goodies and Baddies. And typecast the Lawyer as a baddy. Especially as he set out to ‘test’ Jesus. Let’s give him credit for a moment. Maybe as a teacher of the Law he was intrigued with the approach Jesus had to the law. Maybe he was offended by it. Maybe he thought Jesus was too selective, and so too risky, and so in danger of destroying the law. He wanted to test Jesus out.

* ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

Notice again, the question. We so often imagine the question to be ‘what must I do to get into heaven when I die?’ And then we see the following conversation as the entry qualifications for access to heaven.

But he doesn’t mention heaven at all. He asks, what must I do to inherit eternal life.

You inherit something from someone who has died. The life he speaks of is not just life after death. It is life in all its fullness, life that is not bounded by death, life that starts here and now, is not bounded by death, and links us to all the fullness of life in God.

He is asking, what must I do to inherit from all those have gone before, from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, from Joseph, from Moses, from David and Solomon, from all those prophets … that life that is lived in all its fullness is not bounded by God and is the life God wants for me and for everyone?

What a question!

26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law?

Let’s stop there again. What is written in the Law? What is written in the Torah. The answer to that is everything from the very start of Genesis to the very end of Deuteronomy.

But Jesus is not only concerned with all those words that are written in the law. He asks a second question.

What do you read there?’

Now that to my mind is a very interesting question. Never mind all those words, let’s get to the nub of the matter. What do you read there? How do you put into a few words the whole of the Torah?

27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’

That is a classic Jewish answer.

The point is that the whole of the law is capable of being summarised in two clauses. This is the nub of the matter.

Jesus sees it in exactly that way.

28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

Notice, Jesus does not say. Do this and you will get to heaven. Do this, he says and you will live, you will have life in all its fullness. Life not bounded by death, Life that is one with God.

What’s going on here is I think fascinating. It is something very Jewish. Jesus grew up steeped in the Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible from his mother’s knee. Remember when he was 12 how he got lost and was found in the temple. When he was found he was with the teachers – these very people who were themselves steeped in the law. And he was listening to them and asking them questions. From 12 to 30 he went week by week to the synagogue. That was where you didn’t just hear the Torah read, you heard teachers, rabbis, explaining it. You had the opportunity to listen and to ask questions – to talk through its meaning.

Jesus was more than this man’s equal in his deep and profound understanding of the Torah and more importantly of what is going on there.

What the nub of the matter is.

But this lawyer wants more.

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’

Jesus responds with the best known of all stories. What is not so often appreciated is that this is again a classic way of teaching. To get across the meaning of scripture you don’t just spell out the literal meaning. You tell a story.

The story Jesus tells reaches its climax when he turns to this expert in the law and asks another question.

36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’

Mercy is one of the watchwords of the Scriptures – it is in fact a favourite in the Prophets it crops up time and again in the writings, in the Psalms. The teacher has got the point of the story.

Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

This is not just a challenge to social care. This is not just the great principle of inclusive love that breaks all barriers down. What we have here is an insight into the way Jesus sets about the task of reading the books of the Law in what we regard as the Old Testament.

You cannot simply concentrate on what is written. You have to go to the heart of what you read there. And at the heart of the Torah is Love, Love for God, Love for Neighbour. And neighbour includes all. It is all about ‘doing’ mercy.

Tackling Bullying in Schools – A Governor’s Guide runs to 20 pages of detailed guidance on ways to deal with one of the worst kinds of behaviours that every generation will discover for itself.

I could tell you what’s written there. And you would find it interesting.

Perhaps more valuable is for me to tell you what I read there.

What I read there is simply this.

Do to others what you would have others do to you.

Come to think of it didn’t someone else suggests that that is nothing less than the law and the prophets!

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