Friday, December 26, 2014

Ask Tony: What did Jesus mean by "fulfilling" the Law of Moses?

Last year, I created the meme to your left to counter another meme based on a rant by John Fugelsang (isn't it indicative of how screwed-up our culture has become that people would make an actor/comedian an authority on religion?).

Fugelsang argued that Jesus wasn't anti-gay, based on the fact that the Gospels don't record anything from him on homosexual relations. However, as I've argued on The Other Blog, if Jesus had said anything supporting gay relationships or controverting Leviticus 18:22, "you can be morally certain the disciples and apostles would have made much of such a counter-cultural affirmation. Jesus' silence, in view of what was taught both before and after his mission, must be construed as consent to the Law: Qui tacet consentire videtur" [loosely, "Silence must be seen as consent"].

However, in creating the counter-meme, by reminding that Jesus "did not come to abolish the law ... but to fulfill [it]" (Matthew 5:17), I stepped into some quicksand. And a non-Christian caught me on it:

[Jesus'] "silence" on abortion and homosexuality could be seen as his "going along" with previous Jewish law, but doesn't that leave you with the problem of all the other kinda awkward Jewish laws ... like about eating pork or not touching menstruating women? (Please address this — I'd love to know why homosexuality is different in this regard.)

 I hate to admit it, but I got sloppy. The fact is, Jesus' fulfillment of the Law of Moses did free us of the Law. What Jesus' fulfillment of the Law didn't do, however, was free us of the spiritual need for moral behavior, or make the concept of sin irrelevant.

Not every tenet of the Law of Moses concerns itself with moral behavior; many of the mitzvoth concern themselves with what we should call ritual purity. For example, the rules of kashruth, which determine clean foods, their preparation and serving, are examples of rules concerned with ritual purity rather than moral righteousness.

The relationship between sin and ritual purity in first-century Judaism was unequal: you couldn't sin without making yourself ritually impure, but you could become ritually impure without sinning (e.g., by menstruating, or by touching a dead body). Whether the proximate cause of your impurity was sinful or not, however, there were certain things you could not do until you had cleansed yourself. Every Jewish household that could afford it had access to a mikvah, a bath with a running stream of water to keep it fresh and "living", for ritual ablutions, while the poor made use of public pools, rivers and creeks.

Jesus was not a radical revolutionary, in the proto-Marxist political sense Fugelsang uses the terms. In fact, beyond conceding religious authority to the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:2-3), and indirectly asserting the right of the Roman government to tax Judeans (Mark 12:13-17), Jesus evinced little interest in political or social structures. As G. K. Chesterton put it, "He never used a phrase that made his philosophy depend even upon the very existence of the social order in which he lived. He spoke as one conscious that everything was ephemeral, including the things that Aristotle thought eternal [such as slavery]." (The Everlasting Man, p. 195)

However, Jesus was a social critic whose relationship with the scribes and Pharisees was contentious. In Jesus' view, the Judaism of the first century had become a "cult of purity", emphasizing rote adherence to a Law that had been endlessly parsed, quibbled, and modified by traditions to the detriment of mercy and compassion: 

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!" (Matthew 23:23-24) 

In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), Jesus gave his approbation to the Samaritan, a religious and cultural enemy, as the person who had "loved his neighbor as himself", rather than the priest and Levite who avoided the robbers' victim to remain ritually pure. His dictum, "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath" (cf. Matthew 12:1-13) encapsulated his view that the Law was meant to help guide people towards compassion, and not to become an end in itself.

This brings us to an interesting conflict: At one point, the Pharisees criticized Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands, which isn't strictly enjoined by the Law of Moses. Jesus shot back:

"Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
'This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.' [Isaiah 29:13 LXX]
You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men."
And he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother' [Exoxus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16]; and, 'He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die' [Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9]; but you say, 'If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is qorban' (that is, given to God) — then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do." ...
"Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him. ...
"Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on? ... What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man." (Mark 7:6-15, 18-23; bold type mine)

To say that Jesus is rejecting all oral traditions and purity rituals is not only to err but to miss the point; it's like saying a criticism of 13th-century English farming methods, even a well-founded one, is an indictment of all agriculture. Certainly there's nothing wrong with washing your hands before you eat. And Christianity retains a couple of rituals of purity: the sacrament of Baptism, and the washing of the priest's hands prior to the consecration of the elements in the celebration of the Eucharist.

But while eating with dirty hands may be uncouth (and a little off-putting for others), it's not a sin. Jesus is telling us here that spiritual purity, cleanliness of heart (Matthew 5:8), is more important than ritual purity. In fact, the redactor of Mark interjects at verse 19, "Thus he declared all foods clean;" if St. Mark, the follower of Ss. Paul and Barnabas who later accompanied St. Peter to Rome, did in fact compile the Gospel attributed to him, he may be tying St. Peter's revelation at Joppa (Acts 10:9-16) to Jesus' teaching: "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34-35).

 "Anyone who fears God and does what is right."

So now, let's go back to Jesus' words in Matthew 5:17-20:

"Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished [bold type mine]. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

To fulfill something is to satisfy or carry out an obligation and bring it to completion. By complying with the Law as it was meant to be complied with, Jesus perfectly satisfied the Law's requirements; but he also completed its time and usefulness. All is now accomplished; our salvation is no longer dependent on external compliance with the Law of Moses but rather internal motivation from the law of agapē — caritas, compassionate, mercy-full love:

All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:12-16)

To be dispensed from the rules of ritual purity is not to be dispensed from doing good and avoiding sin. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' [i.e., "who calls me 'Lord'"], shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven." (Matthew 7:21) In the "Judgment of the Nations" passage (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus identifies with the poor, oppressed and outcast, making treatment of them exactly equal to treatment of himself; those who perform cardinal works of mercy for "one of the least of these my brethren" will be accounted righteous and enter heaven, while those who don't will "go away into eternal punishment" (v. 46). And St. Paul writes,

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. ... When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:1-4, 20-23)

Nor must we presume that the sins mentioned in the New Testament are comprehensive, complete lists; the Bible was never intended to be an omnium gatherum of all Judeo-Christian knowledge and beliefs. For instance, while abortion is never directly mentioned, one of the earliest Christian documents, the Didache, which was written in the late first century, specifically says, "... [Y]ou shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten." (Didache 2) And as I pointed out in my original response to the questioner, once you know from Scripture that sex is proper and good only within the marriage bonds, you can confidently infer that child sexual molestation is a sin.

The upshot, then, is that gay sex is a sin, not because the Law of Moses still applies, but because Christ's redemptive sacrifice didn't change the meaning of sin. Because we are free of the Law, though, we're no longer bound in conscience to stone practicing homosexuals, or even to deny them jobs. If anything, the law of love binds us in conscience to treat others with mercy — to treat others as we wish to be treated (cf. Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31) — without regard to their especial sins.

For while we need laws to insure a stable, ordered community, our behavior as Christians isn't contingent on what the laws allow or forbid, on whether our society as a whole is repressive or decadent. The only real counter to the ersatz Christianity of the Fugelsangs of the world is to teach and practice authentic Christianity; we change cultures by changing hearts and minds, not by changing laws.