Friday, 4 January 2008

Jesus and the Law (1)

After a bit of a break, I'm going to start a series of blog entries continuing to think about the Law. The next few posts will all think about the relationship of Jesus to the Law.

An important text on Jesus' relationship is Mark 7:1-13, where it is often presumed that Jesus repeals the food laws. I blogged on this passage in the summer and I'd commend readers take a look here. I don't think the food laws are repealed in this passage.

On other occasions, Jesus seems to imply breaking the Law. All of these passages are related to the Sabbath:

  • Matthew 12:5. Jesus’ point here is that there must be exceptions to not working on the Sabbath, because otherwise priests could not work in the Temple of the Sabbath, which work, of course, is required by the Law. It seems that Jesus is saying this: when the Sabbath leads to unnecessary hardship, then the minimum work in order to prevent that hardship should be allowed.
  • Mark 2:23-27. Jesus' disciples pluck grain and eat it, but, according to the Pharisaic view, this is work (harvesting) and should not be done on the Sabbath. Jesus replies by citing the example of David's breaking the Law in time of need, in order to make the point that the intention of the Law is not to lead to hardship (see 1 Sam 21:1-9). Jesus would probably have argued that out of love for his hungry disciples, the Pharisees should allow them to pick what grain they need to satisfy their hunger. After all, the Sabbath was not intended to be a burden. If Jesus' accusers say that they would like to do this, but cannot, since the Law forbids it, they will find themselves holding the absurd position that they love human beings more than God does! Some commentators have suggested that the phrase, ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’ probably means that the Sabbath exists for the benefit of human beings [i.e. ‘sons of men’] and should not for that reason cause unnecessary suffering. In other words, the phrase ‘son of man’ may not refer to Jesus, but to humanity in general (See Mark 2:27.)
  • Healing on the Sabbath. There are several examples of Jesus' healing people on the Sabbath in conscious opposition to the interpretation of the Sabbath law as prohibiting such activity. In each case, it is Jesus' compassion for the sick person that motivates his actions. Jesus is criticized as working on the Sabbath for healing people, even though he did not do any work according to the Law. To love one’s neighbour always takes precedent. Any interpretation of the Sabbath law that would prevent good from being done must be wrong. See Mark 3:1-6, Luke 13:10-17, Luke 14:1-6, John 5:1-15, John 7:16-24, John 9:1-34 and equivalent passages.

All of this goes to show, I think, that Jesus is not against keeping the Sabbath law per se, but against the harsh and rigid interpretation of Sabbath observance that the Pharisees had (which often included extra-biblical laws).


Dave K said...

I'll look forward to your next posts on this. There is plenty of material to think about. Jesus talked about the law even more than Paul did and yet we always seem to go there and rarely to Jesus (I'm guilty of this too).

An interesting question throughout would be is Jesus against a 'against the harsh and rigid interpretation of [the Law]' or is he against a narrow and restrictive view of the Law which leads to whitewashed tombs?

peterdray said...

Dave, I think you're right to pick me up as you have. Jesus is, I think, against the latter rather than the former.