You hypocrites! How right Isaiah was when he prophesied about you! ‘These people, says God, honor me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me. It is no use for them to worship me, because they teach human rules as though they were my laws!’
[Jesus continues to chastise the Pharisees for inquiring about why his disciples don’t wash their hands properly before they eat.]
Yesterday on Day 136 Jesus talked to the Pharisees about how they faithfully obey the laws of men while they ignore the Laws of God. The main problem is that while the Pharisees were certainly willing to obey God’s Laws, they confused their own interpretations of the Law with God’s actual Laws, which embody truth (See Days 21-23). Jesus repeatedly accused them of being legalistic. Instead of teaching people to use their own judgment and obey the spirit of the Law, they created more and more rules in an attempt to get people to conform to their own interpretations of the Law.
For example, Jesus and the Pharisees often argue about the Sabbath. On Days 113 and 115 I discussed Sabbath Law and the concept of “work,” which is prohibited on the Sabbath. Here is a list of ALL of the scriptures in the Law of Moses regarding the Sabbath (feel free to skim over these; I’ve highlighted the actual rules):
Remember that I, the LORD, have given you a day of rest, and that is why on the sixth day I will always give you enough food for two days. Everyone is to stay where he is on the seventh day and not leave his home.” So the people did no work on the seventh day. (Exodus 16:29-30).
“Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. You have six days in which to do your work, 10 but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work—neither you, your children, your slaves, your animals, nor the foreigners who live in your country. In six days I, the LORD, made the earth, the sky, the seas, and everything in them, but on the seventh day I rested. That is why I, the LORD, blessed the Sabbath and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-10).
“Work six days a week, but do no work on the seventh day, so that your slaves and the foreigners who work for you and even your animals can rest. (Exodus 23:12).
The LORD commanded Moses to tell the people of Israel, “Keep the Sabbath, my day of rest, because it is a sign between you and me for all time to come, to show that I, the LORD, have made you my own people. You must keep the day of rest, because it is sacred. Whoever does not keep it, but works on that day, is to be put to death. You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is a solemn day of rest dedicated to me. Whoever does any work on that day is to be put to death. The people of Israel are to keep this day as a sign of the covenant. It is a permanent sign between the people of Israel and me, because I, the LORD, made heaven and earth in six days, and on the seventh day I stopped working and rested.” (Exodus 31:12-17).
“You have six days in which to do your work, but do not work on the seventh day, not even during plowing time or harvest. (Exodus 34:21).
Moses called together the whole community of the people of Israel and said to them, “This is what the LORD has commanded you to do: You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is to be sacred, a solemn day of rest dedicated to me, the LORD. Anyone who does any work on that day is to be put to death. Do not even light a fire in your homes on the Sabbath.” (Exodus 35:1-3).
Keep the Sabbath, and honor the place where I am worshiped. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:30)
You have six days in which to do your work, but remember that the seventh day, the Sabbath, is a day of rest. On that day do not work, but gather for worship. The Sabbath belongs to the LORD, no matter where you live. (Leviticus 23:3)
“‘Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy, as I, the LORD your God, have commanded you. You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work—neither you, your children, your slaves, your animals, nor the foreigners who live in your country. Your slaves must rest just as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and that I, the LORD your God, rescued you by my great power and strength. That is why I command you to observe the Sabbath. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).
The only other laws are the lists of sacrifices that are to be performed by the temple priests. So there you have it. If you condense these scriptures down, these are the only Laws specifically stated that apply to the ordinary people:
- Do not work
- Do not travel
- Do not harvest
- Do not light a fire
God left it up to his people to figure out the specifics of what rest and work should look like. But rather than letting people figure it out for themselves, the Jewish religious authorities made up a whole lot of specific rules. Most of the rules that they made up had to do with the nature of “work.” They decided that because God rested the seventh day after he created the world, that there should be a ban on creativity on the Sabbath. As a result of that questionable decision, even today not only work but creativity are banned. All of the following activities are prohibited according to the jewfaq.org website:
- Binding sheaves
- Shearing wool
- Washing wool
- Beating wool
- Dyeing wool
- Making two loops
- Weaving two threads
- Separating two threads
- Sewing two stitches
- Salting meat
- Curing hide
- Scraping hide
- Cutting hide up
- Writing two letters
- Erasing two letters
- Tearing a building down
- Extinguishing a fire
- Kindling a fire
- Hitting with a hammer
- Taking an object from the private domain to the public, or transporting an object in the public domain.
So, in an effort to establish uniformity and support enforcement, 6 of God’s laws turned into 39 men’s laws. Over the years they made up even more laws – like banning automobiles, buying and selling, writing, and electricity. So there are actually many more than those listed. Oh, and there is another law – you can break any of these laws to save a life. Thank goodness for that. I think they adopted that exception based on the teachings of Jesus.
While the Pharisees were busy debating the Sabbath issue and compiling these lists, Jesus kept reminding them that it wasn’t adherence to specific Sabbath rules that made God happy. The important thing was rest, relaxation, and spiritual refreshment for his people so they would be happy, healthy, and well-rested.
Jesus tells the Pharisees, “The scripture says, ‘It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.’ If you really knew what this means, you would not condemn people who are not guilty; for the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:7-8).
Sabbath was supposed to be a gift. God left it open for people to figure out what works for them. After all, one man’s rest is another man’s work. The Sabbath was created for the refreshment of the mind and body, but the means of achieving this is different for everyone. Gardening may be work for me and rest for you. While helping someone might be the thing that give someone peace, refusing to help them might be a strain. An afternoon drive may be extremely restful for one person and stressful for another. Jesus said repeatedly that the specific rules are very often a burden to the people. They do not necessarily facilitate the kind of Sabbath that God intended. That’s the problem with the rules of men. That’s why Jesus says it’s important to know the difference.
So let’s talk about something that’s more relevant to Christians today – abortion. There are a lot of people who think that one’s position on induced abortion is the definitive test of whether or not a person is a true Christian. However, there is nothing in the Law of Moses, the teachings of the prophets, or the teachings of Jesus about abortion or the intent to terminate pregnancy. Prohibition of abortion by the church is presumably based on Exodus 20:13 – “Do not commit murder” translated in the King James version of the Bible as “Thou shalt not kill.” The church asserts that abortion is murder.
I did a little research on the Hebrew word for “murder.” I’m not going to bore you with the details because it’s complicated, but the “ratasach,” is a very specific Hebrew word and it refers to “illegal killing” or “manslaughter.” According to this definition, the intent of “Do not commit murder” is two-fold:
- Don’t take the law into your own hands. Allow the legal system to take its course.” In other words, no vigilante justice. No killing people who are awaiting trial. Of course the question here is – whose laws are we talking about? The laws of the religious community or the laws of the state? Back in the time of Moses they were the same thing. In the time of Jesus, as well as our current time, they are different.
- Don’t kill innocent people. Do not kill anyone unless they are intending to harm you. The word is also used when referring to manslaughter (accidental death). Any time you harm an innocent person it is considered to be “ratsach”.
Jesus, however, greatly expands the definition of “ratasach.” Remember the words of Jesus on Day 24:
You have heard that people were told in the past, ‘Do not commit murder; anyone who does will be brought to trial.’ But now I tell you: if you are angry[a] with your brother you will be brought to trial, if you call your brother ‘You good-for-nothing!’ you will be brought before the Council, and if you call your brother a worthless fool you will be in danger of going to the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:21-22).
Jesus’ expanded the definition of murder to include simple name-calling underscores his commitment to nonviolence and pacifism. He also demonstrates this with his own behavior. He never physically defended himself against those who intended to harm him. He had a completely different interpretation of “ratsach” (murder). He tried to teach us that any time we fight in any way – even with an unkind word – it’s against God’s Law (See Day 24). He wanted us to know that God wants us to live peacefully together and that we should never do anything antagonistic, let alone kill people. Under any circumstances whatsoever. For example, killing a home invader or a military enemy.
So back to the topic of abortion – many people think you are not a Christian if you believe that abortion might be appropriate or even necessary under certain circumstances. They spend a lot of time debating when “life begins,” as though they can come up with a definitive law. While almost everyone that I’ve ever talked to agree that abortion is a terrible thing, the real debate seems to be whether or not there may be exceptions. Like rape or incest or if the mother’s health is endangered. But in the final analysis all anyone can ever come up with their own rules, which are rules of men and not of God. And Jesus seems to indicate again and again that there may be exceptions to any rule of men.
What Jesus wants the Pharisees to remember is that God’s real interest isn’t in creating and enforcing specific laws. God’s laws are truth, like the laws of physics of law of gravity (See Day 24). Man’s laws are only “best guesses” about what God really wants. We always need to keep that in mind so that we don’t feel justified in punishing people or casting aspersions against those who don’t conform to our own personal or collective standards of holiness. We never have a right to do that, even when God’s Law is violated. Remember Day 54 – no judgments allowed.
Ultimately all laws (religious or secular) are irrelevant because people tend to treat them as guidelines. We all have free will decide for ourselves whether or not to obey any law. We all make our own decisions about Sabbath observance and abortion and washing our hands and all of the other things we do. We all have our own beliefs and we all do the best we can with what we’ve been given.
The uniformity that religious authorities and secular leaders want to establish through a proliferation of moral laws is ultimately unachievable because people are not uniform. People are unique, and so are the circumstances they find themselves in. The prophet Jeremiah predicted a day when laws wouldn’t be necessary: “The new covenant that I will make with the people of Israel will be this: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33). Jeremiah looked ahead to a day when people would intuitively know right from wrong in any given situation. They would not “obey the law.” Instead they would know how to “do the right thing.” Then we could ditch all these laws and live in peace and harmony as God intended. Laws can point you in the right direction, but they are a poor excuse for true kind of goodness that comes from the heart.
All of this is why Jesus says laws aren’t that important. He says that what God wants is for us to make every decision based on the “Great Commandment” to love God and love one another. He says repeatedly that everything we do should demonstrate kindness. Jesus says that if we can do this we will be in full obedience to every Law of God.
What does this scripture say to you?