On several occasions, Jesus seems to imply that the keeping of individual laws is unimportant. However, I think that a closer look at these texts actually suggests that Jesus is making a greater point: that the desire to keep the Law in obedient response to God’s goodness and grace is more important than legalistically keeping individual laws. See, for example:
- Matthew 7:12. As Jesus starts to close the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus ‘sums up’ the Law and the Prophets by saying, ‘do to others what you would have them do to you.’ This interpretation of the essence of the Law robs it of its legalism without completely belittling it.
- Matthew 9:13. In the context of responding to the charge that he ate with sinners, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 in telling the Pharisees: "Go and learn the meaning of this: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice'" (see also Matthew 12:7). He seems to be saying that the place sacrifice is itself pointless if it is not accompanied by a commitment to obediently keeping God’s Law. This will show itself in showing mercy to others.
- Matthew 23:23-24. In accordance with the Law, Pharisees tithed one tenth of their produce as the first tithe, which was to be given to the Levites, who then were to tithe to the priests (see Leviticus 27:30-31 and Numbers 18:21-32). In accordance with their understanding of the Law (I believe in accordance with the oral Torah), Pharisees separated a second tithe, intended for consumption in Jerusalem during the festivals (cf Deuteronomy 14:22-29). In Matthew 23, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for observing the tithing laws with such exactness that they tithe even garden herbs, but neglect "the more important matters of the Law – justice, mercy and faith." Note that Jesus does not counsel the Pharisees to give up tithing; however, but they must not to miss the ‘more important’ issues of the Law – those of loving their neighbours as themselves. They should not 'strain out the gnat but swallow the camel', presumably by which Jesus means to be so concerned with less important commandments that one neglects obedience to the whole thrust of the Law.
- Mark 12:28-34. In this episode, with Jesus is asked what the greatest commandments in the Law are. Jesus replies, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18: “Love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” Any Jew would probably agree up to this point. However, some would presumably have been surprised by the fact that Jesus then endorses the statement that obedience to these two commandments ‘are more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ Jesus’ implication is this: love for God and for other people will express itself in the commitment to sacrifice; not to treat sacrifice as an end in itself.
Jesus seems to make a distinction between legalistic Law-keeping and obedience to the Law as a whole. The whole Law is to be obeyed, but an attitude of commitment is more important than obedience of individual laws. Above all, Jesus stresses purity of heart, out of which naturally flows obedience to the individual laws. When the heart is pure, therefore, little else is necessary.
It is also worth noting that Jesus seems to object to any idea of what it means to obey the Law that might possibly lead to hypocrisy. In Matthew 23:5-7, for instance, Jesus objects to the Pharisees who appear to be righteous, but are not. Because they wear religious clothing (in the light of Numbers 15:38-39 and Deuteronomy 22:12), people assume wrongly that the Pharisees are obedient to God in every other respect. In fact, Jesus says the Pharisees obey the Law primarily in order to receive public acclaim. Jesus’ words on giving, prayer and fasting (Matthew 6:1-18) may also fit in here. These things in themselves are good disciplines – but not if they are done self-righteously.