So some conversation on Facebook yesterday has inspired me to pause and write again, in this case to explain where I’m coming from. The question, as I understood it, was whether I saw the passage from yesterday’s post as a matter of sin or of practicality. In my usual overly wordy explanation I got around to sin. But I think I need to be overly wordy again. Brace yourselves people. Note that this will reference the Bible less than my last. Thus these are just my personal observations and conclusions and should be taken as such. I study the Bible, but I am not a Bible scholar.
Are you buckled in? Good. So once again, in discussing the Bible with non-believers we tend to get a mixture of responses regarding the Law. Most boil down to: the Laws applied to the times but don’t have application today, or the Laws were designed by men and not G_d and don’t have application because they were subject to human bias. The former tends to be an argument of societal evolution: society and morality is constantly evolving. What was once taboo for older cultures is now okay because we’ve changed and advanced enough that we needn’t worry about such things any more. Here we get to the practical aspect of the Law.
Among my many podcasts I listen at work, one of my favorites is from the Rabbi Daniel Lappin. If you’ve ever listened to any of his radio show or podcast, you’ll know his frequent refrain is that as a Rabbi his duty is to explain how the world really works. He leans heavily on the Torah and the Hebrew language to explain how both reveal G_d’s design for us. Again, this demonstrates the practical, but not quite as the practical has been assumed. For example in a recent podcast he explained that forbidding pork had nothing to do health reasons at all, something that secular interpreters like to gravitate towards. In any case, Lappin’s discussions are interesting as they demonstrate that these principles apply today. That these are not things we’ve “grown out of” but are facts of what it means to be humans created by G_d.
However, when it comes down to things, I cannot ignore that I need to understand the Law as showing us sin as Paul discusses in Romans. Through the Law we understand what sin is. Christ in the Gospels presents sin as a spiritual condition of man and that the practicalities of Law do not remedy sin – indeed Christ is that remedy, which is why he came, died, and rose again! Thus there is a spiritual aspect to the Law which cannot be ignored. For example when the Pharisees criticize Christ’s follows for picking wheat to eat on the Sabbath, Jesus replies that the Sabbath is made for man, man was not made for the Sabbath. The Pharisees are bogged down in the practical aspects without realizing that there is a spiritual principle.
This does not mean there is no practicality whatsoever. In fact, one reason I’ve been looking to the Law again is that I’m fascinated by it and how it does have the spiritual and physical to it. In modern times, the argument above frequently boils down to this: the Law runs contrary to how human beings are. In response I would say, yes, it runs contrary to our sinful natures. We are, however, designed by G_d and He understands his creation better than we think we know ourselves. His design has practical benefits that are ancillary to the spiritual benefits.
Another example, look at the book of Daniel. When he and his companions arrive in Babylon, they refuse the rich foods there. In one of the first recorded science experiments, they suggest they be allowed to eat according to Jewish Law (the experimental group), and within a measured amount of time they should be compared to those eating typical Babylon fare (the control group). At the end of the study, indeed Daniel and his friends are doing better. The spiritual had a practical benefit in this case.
I’d like to make a note: I’m not endorsing a Prosperity Gospel here. My study of the Law and its hypothetical practical benefits is not “unlocking the Bible code to be rich” spoiler alert: there is none. We are not guaranteed health, wealth, and happiness. Jesus tends to promise the opposite: “Get rid of your stuff. You’re going to work hard for little Earthly reward. People will hate you because of Me. Don’t worry, because the Eternal Rewards vastly outweigh what you’re losing.” Temporal hardship is guaranteed.
Instead, I look to Jesus’ words when asked about the greatest commandment: Love the Lord, and love your neighbor. I also look at the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, I have not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” There’s been no reset button here. We’re not more evolved spiritually, but rather we live in an era of the Law fulfilled.
Thus I look at the Law as demonstrating two concepts: How to love the Lord, how to love our neighbor. Jesus discusses some of this in the first part of the sermon. In several examples He essentially states, “You’ve been using the Law to find out how far you can go without breaking it, when really you’re supposed to be using it to live in harmony with each other. You’re trying to get closer to the limit when you’re supposed to be closer to each other.”
The commands are for individuals: that’s why in earlier English translations we see the “Thees” and “Thous”. Those were originally second person singular pronouns. When on mount G_d says to the Israelites, “Thou shalt not murder”, He’s not saying, “Y’all don’t murder, y’hear”. He is speaking to each individual in that throng saying, “To each individual I say ‘Don’t murder’”. The benefits, however, are for society as a whole. The nation is better when each individual is looking to his Lord and his neighbor. This is not collectivism mind you, but individuals acting in accordance with the Law and benefiting all as a result.
I suppose I’m threading a lot of needles here. Maybe that’s another way we can look at Christ’s “narrow gate”. We are not called to isolate ourselves as individuals or abandon our individuality in the name of the collective. We are to act as parts to benefit the whole.
So there’s where I’m coming from. As I said, it’s probably overly wordy, but it helps me some to sort this out on paper rather than just in my head where it gets muddled with other things.