Spirit and Letter of the Law
The Pharisees made an art and a science out of observing the Law of Moses, cowing many followers into observing the endless minutiae and machinations they had devised. It was indeed a heavy burden – was God really like this?
Or should the commandments of God liberate us from sin, and cut a path to His love and mercy?
Along comes Jesus, who earlier permitted his disciples to pick grain to eat on the Sabbath, and now was healing on the Sabbath. How could he explain this over and above the endless strictures concerning the day of rest? -which strictures certainly appeared to take the command “Keep holy the Sabbath” as seriously as possible.
Jesus’ justification is two-fold: First, a man is more valuable than a sheep (and the Pharisees would certainly rescue their own sheep from harm on the Sabbath).
Second – of course it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. The whole point – of all God’s commands – is that we ought to do good. But we sin, so we require God’s mercy and guidance to do good rather than to sin. The commandment regarding the Sabbath was directed toward being holy – not toward following a rule.
The commandments are not for nothing. They are the pattern of behavior, the focus and discipline of a man’s spirit toward the will of God. If you follow them because you love God, you will do well!
If you follow them because you love power and influence, because you leverage them so that men will grovel at your feet or struggle to be conformed to your image, now that you have sufficiently misshapen the Law…
Right then, it is time to turn back. Immediately. Turn around – you’ve gone far, far off the path.
But take heed… a viper would be found far off the path.
See it again, one more time: If there had been no Fall, there would be no Law. We would be inclined toward the Good, and thus “all things are permissible.”
As it is, there was a Fall – and therefore we are profoundly broken. We see good, and perceive that it is evil. We see evil and imagine it is good. It is an honest mistake, or it would be a diabolical one.
To counter-act this, God established rules-laws-patterns of behavior that would settle all disputes within the will (and the community). My fallen nature urges me toward an illicit act. But it is powerful and feels genuine – why not act on it?
There might not be any reason to avoid doing so, except the Law. Of course, even that was violated, but at least we could then recognize we had sinned, and were in need of a Savior…
Therefore, the Law was good – profoundly good, so that not one iota would be altered until heaven and earth disappear.
And it was this profound good that the Pharisees had appropriated for their own gain. The promise of God, that one would find true peace and prosperity and joy in following the commandments (“Lord, I love your commands!”), became a long chain of shackles hammered together by men too small to let their brothers live free. It became an admixture of their neuroses and scruples, their leverage from a distance of a great weight upon their brothers.
This weight they attempted to foist upon and trap Jesus, the Messiah. As if to anticipate the old atheist riddle, they burdened the Son of God with a weight they imagined he could not handle.
Notice, though: There is a rock so big that God cannot lift it. That is, of despair. And with so many laws, and laws upon laws, and consequences of laws that must be addressed by still more laws, one could easily find, say, lepers and paralytics and tax collectors laden with such an impossible weight.
For love of them – the lost – Jesus flares up with indignation. His Law – an instrument of liberation – bent back upon itself and sharpened into an instrument of condemnation.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”
No – the purpose and the end are God. They always were. It was always – dimly – the Beatific Vision, the “well done, good and faithful servant!” The Fall was a happy fault, because God would not, even then, abandon us. He would find a still more incredible way to point us back to Him, and deliver us.
And we might say – He’ll be damned if His own rules are going to be used against Him. How true.