We must heed the call of every prophet in each generation.
Day 20: Matthew 5:17-18 – Part 4
Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets. I have not come to do away with them, but to make their teachings come true. Remember that as long as heaven and earth last, not the least point nor the smallest detail of the Law will be done away with—not until the end of all things.
[This is the fourth of 5 reflections on this scripture.]
The Unchangeable Nature of the Law of Moses
For the last couple of days I looked at the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets relative to animal sacrifice. It is required by the Law of Moses, but the prophets uniformly say that this practice should be abandoned because it is not pleasing to God. How can the Law of Moses and the teachings of the various prophets all be true when they disagree on many such matters? How can the Law of Moses be unchanging with it seems that the prophets say that God wants to change it?
My first thought is that the Law was handed down to Moses when the people were preparing to enter the Promised Land. It was given to them for this specific time and place and cannot be changed after the fact. History cannot be re-written. Later, the teachings of the various prophets redefine righteousness for other times and places. Jews would never have a problem with the idea that God might command one thing when addressing a particular group of people in one time and place, but another thing to another group in a different time and place. They would not accuse him of making a “flip-flop.” It’s important to note that not even the strictest Jews believe all of the 613 laws and teachings are appropriate for all times and places. Some laws are universal and others are not…..like animal sacrifices for instance. It’s in the Law, but the prophets all seem to agree that God wanted the people to abandon this practice (and later on Jesus says the same thing). Neither Jews nor Christians continue to worship God by killing animals, even though it’s in the Law.
My second thought is that many of the laws are pretty vague, so obedience to the Law requires a lot of interpretation. Each law, perhaps, represents an unchanging principle. Humans, for example, have an unchanging need to have dietary laws. However, the specific laws need to be adapted to reflect the current dietary options. Also, while the Law that says that humans must rest one day a week reflects an unchanging need, the definition of “rest” has changed and evolved over time. And antisocial behavior like murdering people or committing adultery always causes problems, but the definitions of both of those words is always subject to interpretation. The basic principles are unchanging but the interpretation and application both continue to evolve over time.
My third thought is that Jesus is telling his disciples that discerning God’s will isn’t easy. We should always be seeking the truth rather than simplistic rules because that’s what’s easiest for us to understand. The contradictions between the Law and the prophets should serve as a warning against a simplistic and legalistic determination of God’s will. If the Law of Moses and the teachings of the sixteen prophets are all the will of God, complete with contradictions, then people must rely on their own common sense along with divine revelation to resolve the discrepancies and discern what God wants in each particular situation. Jesus is perhaps trying to teach them to think. And pray.
The Importance of the Teachings of the Prophets
So I think Jesus is saying that while the Law of Moses is foundational and can’t be changed, God continues to tell us what his will is at various times and places by speaking through prophets. I believe that this pattern continues even today, as people like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, NT Wright, Desmond Tutu, and even musicians like Bono, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan gave us new revelations about what’s important to God in the 20th Century and beyond. In fact, one of the Laws of Moses is, “Instead he [God] will send you a prophet like me [Moses] from among your own people, and you are to obey him (Deuteronomy 18:14). That’s one of the 613 Laws, which today’s orthodox Jews interpret as, “To heed the call of every prophet in each generation, provided that he neither adds to, nor takes away from the Torah”. (http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm). I think this is how it’s supposed to work. We need to keep our eyes and ears open for the prophets among us in every generation, and heed their call.
Unfortunately, the teachings of modern day prophets aren’t in the Bible because religious authorities chose to stop appending it. Wouldn’t it be great if they would have continued to add chapters to the Bible reflecting the insights and prophecies of the great Christian minds throughout history? The Book of Julia of Norwich? The Book of Augustine? The Book of Francis of Assisi? The Book of Martin Luther? The Book of John Wesley? Greatest Psalms of the 1960s? How I wish the teachings of these and many others were given the same importance as the ancient reflections of the Apostle Paul! Then it would truly be the “living” word of God!
So Jesus says that it is not his intention to change the Law or critique the prophets. Instead, he says that he intends to fulfill the Law and make all of the teachings of the prophets come true. What does this mean? That will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.
What does this scripture say to you?