The Heart of the Matter

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. -Jesus

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.– Moses

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the proclamation of God’s upside-down kingdom in the Beatitudes, followed by the commissioning of Jesus’s followers to be the light that shows others the way into it. Then it really gets interesting. Jesus says that “not a jot or a tittle” should be expunged from the Pentateuch, and that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That sounds an awful lot like “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” But right after that, he proceeds to repeatedly say “You have heard it said of old (Scripture quote) but I say to you (different spin on the Scripture he just quoted)

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

What’s going on here? How can the Law of Moses both be timeless and open to such dramatic reinterpretation? I think Jesus is saying it is the principles underlying the Law which are timeless, not the rules themselves. Rules are always incomplete; they can’t prescribe what the most appropriate behavior is in every possible circumstance, and they can be twisted and misused. Any good lawyer knows that even the most carefully written rules are subject to misuse and exploitation. “Don’t lie” is a good example. A person can literally “not lie” but be quite untruthful by the skilful use of misdirection and omission. The rule may be followed, but the principle is violated. As Bill Clinton rather infamously noted, “it depends on what you mean by the word “is”.

The Law is fulfilled when its principles are followed and not just its rules. It is the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that matters.  Obviously, murder is a bad thing and therefore “thou shalt not kill” is a good rule. But Jesus, like Yoda, reminds us that bad actions often have their genesis in the heart and mind. It is only through understanding and applying the principles behind the Law that it can be internalized, as Moses exhorted the Israelites through the use of colorful metaphor. The Bible is pretty consistent about what the two great principles of  the Law are: love of God and love of neighbor.

I was never a great fan of the “Because I said so” approach to parenting. I wanted my children to understand the “why” behind any rules I imposed, because I wanted them to develop internalized behavioral controls. Externalized controls are temporary, dependent on whether the authority figure is watching, and easily manipulated. Internalized controls are more permanent, function independently of supervision, and are can be generalized to apply to novel circumstances.  I think Jesus was saying that’s how God thinks, too. That’s what it means when Moses commands the Israelites to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart“, or when Jeremiah says that God  “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”, or when Paul tells the Corinthians they are living letters “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” 

Jesus came not to destroy, but to fulfill the law; that is to complete its purpose and to lead us to internalize its principles. It is not a static thing written in stone, but a living thing written in receptive hearts. That living principle is love, and as Hillel is reported to have said, “That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.”

 

Corinthians: The Greatest of These is Love

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The church at Corinth was Paul’s problem child, as his two letters to the Corinthians will attest. The Corinthians seemed to have been an enthusiastic, but immature group of people.  Paul’s letters to them deal less with theological than practical matters, primarily how to deal with cliques and one-upmanship, but also with “anything goes” behaviors that went beyond what was considered normal by even the fairly lax standards of a cosmopolitan city in the pagan world. He spends most of 1 Corinthians telling them everything they are doing wrong, and a fair amount of 2 Corinthians apologizing for his earlier harshness

The good news of the gospel- that God loves and accepts everyone- was perverted by some as justification for licentious and harmful behavior. Paul emphasized the difference between liberty and license. Yes, you are free from following arbitrary rules in order to be accepted by God, but no, you are not free to do things that hurt other people. For Paul, the key to moral behavior was love.”Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”  “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” When it comes to moral choices, don’t just think of yourself. Don’t do things that hurt other people. Do do things that help other people. Paul gives several examples that most people would consider universally relevant: don’t murder, don’t steal, be faithful to your spouse. He also gives some examples that most people do not consider universally relevant: women should wear head coverings in church and remain silent.

I think the thing to remember about Paul’s letters is that they were just that: letters to specific churches, dealing with specific problems those churches were facing. I don’t agree with my more traditional and conservative friends who think every word Paul wrote was straight from the mouth of God and therefore literally and universally applicable for all cultures and all times. I don’t agree with my more progressive and liberal friends who think Paul’s letters are irrelevant and have nothing to say to us today. Some of his advice to first-century churches may no longer be applicable in the twenty-first century, but the principles which lie behind his advice are still valid. If Paul were writing today, he might give different examples of bad behavior- maybe he’d rail against spreading gossip on the internet instead of women with bare heads.

The devil is in the details, but God is in the principles, so it’s the underlying principles I look for when reading Paul. And the greatest principle of all is love. As Peter later writes, “love covers a multitude of sins“. If we put the principle of love first, in everything we say and do, we will be headed in the right direction.  It’s that easy, and difficult.

And that’s good news to me!