Friday, June 24, 2011
Was Jesus a Rebel? SOTM #14
It was a law in Ancient Israel. You washed your hands before you ate. There were signs above the lavatory in every Israeli restroom reminding all good Jews to do so. Well, there would have been if they had lavatories. And yet Jesus allowed his disciples to eat the grain from the fields they walked through without washing their hands. No wonder his detractors called him a Law-breaker. No wonder he was required to defend himself and his disciples: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
In fact Jesus declared in the Sermon on the Mount that his disciples righteousness had to exceed that of the champion hand-washers, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. Further he declared that not the least accent mark within the Law would pass away until it had been fulfilled. To break the least of the laws and to teach others to do so made one “least” in the kingdom of heaven.
On the surface it might appear to a casual reader that, in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus often contradicted his claim. Over and over he would say, “You have heard it said . . .” and then go on to proclaim a need for his followers to do something different than that which they had been taught the law required.
Murder, adultery, divorce, oath-breaking, retribution, treatment of enemies are the things they had heard should be avoided as good Law-abiding Jews. In each case, though, the standard of righteousness Jesus insists upon “exceeded” that which they had heard from the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.
At first it may seem a relief to hear murder equated to hatred, adultery compared to simple “lustful looking,” retribution replaced with non-resistance. But eventually it dawns on one that the “kinder, gentler” standard not only is no easier to achieve, but failure to live up to it has immediate and eternal consequences as serious as failure to keep the Pharisaic code.
So, why is this “good news?” Why did these people hear Jesus gladly? Why did they travel many days journey to hear his Sermon on the Mount? Hope, undoubtedly. Desperation. Curiosity. Diversion. All the reasons that draw crowds to hear charismatic speakers today.
Was this really good news? In a sense, no. Jesus was not offering an easier way than the kingdom of this world. Almost all of those who followed him early in his ministry faded away by the time he reached the cross. It was too steep a grade for their feeble feet. The standard Jesus offered as the pattern for living in his kingdom was more impossible than the one the Pharisees imposed upon the people.
The good news was that Jesus did not expect them to achieve this righteousness in their own sin-diminished strength. He came to offer something more than a plan for moral living. He came to give himself to break the grip of sin upon the human heart. He told those who came to him, and believed on him, that they would have, flowing from them, “rivers of living water.” The Holy Spirit would be in them, and alongside them, teaching them, and prompting them to live like citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus was no rebel. He was no Law-breaker. He was the faithful Son, revealing the true meaning of the Law and fulfilling the promise of the Prophets. True, he did not insist that his disciples wash their hands before eating grain plucked from the stem; he insisted, instead, that their whole being be cleansed by the blood of his sacrifice. He knew that kingdom living came not from dogged determination to master a set of rules but rather from a heart cleansed of sin and in love with the One who cleansed it.
The “rules” of the kingdom would mark the behavior of those who chose to be a part of the kingdom of heaven, but they would be the product of a life yielded to, and directed by, the Spirit of God.