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.”

 

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Leviticus: It’s the Principle of the Thing

 

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.  You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.  You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. -Leviticus 9:13
 
What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it -Rabbi Hillel

Leviticus extends the concept of ethical monotheism begun in Exodus. If there is only one God, and that God is an ethical being, how does he expect humans to behave?

Many people who intend to “read the Bible through” get bogged down in Leviticus, but I think it’s important to read the whole book, especially when prominent religious figures quote verses from it, generally in order to condemn people not of their tribe. At first glance, it’s not as interesting to read as Genesis and Exodus because there aren’t many stories, or at least not stories in the way we generally think of stories. A great deal of attention is given to proper ceremonial worship involving animal and vegetable sacrifices that are seem quite alien to our world today. Although Leviticus describes some rules that lay a good ethical foundation for living in community with other human beings (don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t cheat) there are others that seem quite strange.(don’t wear clothing made of mixed fibers, don’t sow two kinds of grain in the same field, don’t cut the corners of your beard)

The first ten chapters give detailed instructions for different kinds of sacrifices: burnt offerings, meat offerings, sin offerings, and trespass offerings for sins both intentional and accidental. Different  kinds of offerings have different rules regarding what is to be sacrificed and how it is to be done. There’s a disturbing little story in Chapter 10 about what happens when the instructions aren’t followed exactly. God sends down fire from heaven and incinerates two of Aaron’s sons for not observing the correct worship protocol. If that weren’t disturbing enough, Aaron and his surviving family members are forbidden from any outward expression of mourning, lest they befall a similar fate.

The next chapters detail various prohibitions and commandments, mostly regarding “eat this not that” dietary constraints, hygiene practices, and sexual taboos.  Pork and rabbit are merely forbidden foods, while shrimp and lobster are called abominations. It’s okay to eat grasshoppers and crickets, but not worms. Not only must “unclean” foods not be eaten, they must not even be touched, and if they are touched accidentally a complicated cleansing ritual is prescribed. Cleansing rituals are also prescribed for menstruating and childbearing women, and for men following any kind of emission of semen, including but not limited to intercourse. There are two whole chapters on dealing with leprosy, which seems to be a broad term applied not only to various skin diseases, but also to mold and mildew problems in clothing and buildings. Certain sexual practices are forbidden, including “lying with a man as with a woman” and having sex with a menstruating woman. Tattoos and certain kinds of hair and beard styles are forbidden. Blasphemers and children who curse their parents are subject to the death penalty. A fair amount of space is given to economic justice issues, including a prohibition against charging interest on loans and the establishment of the Year of Jubilee, when all loans are forgiven, slaves are freed, and property returned to its original owners.

The last chapters of Leviticus command the observance of various religious observances and festivals, including the Sabbath, Passover, and the Day of Atonement, and gives detailed instructions for how these are to be observed. Leviticus concludes with a list of consequences: good things will come to the people if they obey all God commands, and bad things will happen if they don’t.

So what are we to make of Leviticus? I know some people who would say toss the whole thing out, but I’m not one of them. Although I am not a Biblical inerrantist or literalist, I do have a fairly high view of the Bible in that I believe God inspired the people who wrote it, and God guided the choices of the people who selected which ancient writings should comprise our sacred scriptures. If it’s there, there is a reason, and I will generally emulate Jacob by wrestling with God until I have found an explanation that makes sense to me.  As far as Leviticus is concerned, I try to understand it in its historical context, and to look for the principles behind the rules. I think that’s what Jesus taught. He repeatedly made comments like “you have heard it said…but I say with reference to commandments dealing with murder, adultery, false witness, and lex talionis. I think that’s what he meant when he said “I have come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.

I see the overriding principle of Leviticus as holiness: “For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy.” I understand “holy” to mean “set apart for a purpose”, and that purpose is to demonstrate love: love for God, and love for our fellow human beings.  The principle doesn’t change, but the application of the principle as expressed in rules might differ in different cultures and different times. The Israelite people weren’t to live like the cultures surrounding them, whose practices were often deplorably exploitative and cruel. They were to be different in a good way, so that other people would see that there was a better way to live, and perhaps be drawn to it and to God.

If we think of principles rather than rules, and the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, we will begin to appreciate Leviticus in a new way. Here’s what it says to me:

Sin is whatever separates human beings from God and their fellow human beings in a bad way, one that causes harm.  Sometimes we do hurtful things on purpose and sometimes we don’t mean to cause harm, but get it wrong and hurt people anyway. God takes sin seriously because he wants us to have shalom- peace and harmony and wholeness and connection. God is smart enough and loving enough to figure out ways around our tendency to break things, and fix them.  God wants us to be holy-not  to be different in weird, arbitrary ways, but to be different in positive, practical ways- from all that is wrong in the world around us. By so being, and doing, we show hurting people the way to shalom. And I think that’s good news.