Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Power of the Imaginative Story: Matthew (part 4)

The ancient laws chronicled in the Old Testament often confound people. It’s not just the Ten Commandments, but also the myriad of dietary/social/economic laws that fill the pages of books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy (not most people’s preferences for devotional reading). The laws seem to us to be mostly irrelevant in our time and provide us with clear evidence of the fruitlessness of legalism when it comes to pleasing God.

Or, could it be that something else is going on here?

Imagine the ancient Hebrew people as they suffered through generations of slavery under the yoke of the Pharaoh in Egypt. After their rescue under Moses’s leadership, they wandered in the wilderness for a long time before landing in a place that would become their homeland. What was going on for them in that long sojourn?

They were being reformed.

The lens through which the people saw the world would be colored by their experiences of captivity in Egypt. Their religious views would be as permeated by Egyptian mythology as much as it was by early Semitic worship practices. How would they move from a people oriented around slavery to a people with a destiny crafted and energized by the God of the universe?

They would be reformed by adherence to laws that would reorient every aspect of their lives. They would be required to think in new ways about human relationships and interactions, the nature of life-giving work, the purpose and effects of communal worship, and care for the world around them. It would take a great deal of reorientation to extract the mentality of slavery from the people and to reorient them around the presence of the God who had rescued them from Egypt.

And Jesus sits on the side of the mountain and tells his disciples, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

It appears that, for Jesus, the law and the prophets were not static propositions but rather signs and wonders that continuously directed the people into the living presence of God. Yet the law had become rigid and life-draining in Jesus’ day, framed by the religious elite as measurements of personal righteousness, a righteousness attained by disciplined adherence to the ancient code of Moses.

And Jesus must have startled his followers when, after affirming the authority and purposefulness of the law and the prophets, he warns of a distortion that was evidenced in the Jewish religious leadership of the day:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

And what comes next will shake people’s understanding of righteousness for centuries to come.

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