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Jesus and the Law

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

Following is a somewhat lengthy quote from David Bosch’s book “Transforming Mission”. I appreciate his treatment of Jesus’ mission, his approach, and how that might relate to how the church might go about her mission to the world.

It is important to first understand how Jesus related to the culture and religion of his day. It is not enough to simply say “Jesus said” or “Jesus did”, and make an immediate inference for our approach to ministry. Rather, we need to understand how Jesus related to the particular set of practices and attitudes of first century Judaism and their history. Only when we have isolated such principles can we make an eventual comparison to the unique set of practices and attitudes of our society. Only then can we begin to understand what Jesus means by “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”.

This approach is both demanding and liberating. It requires a lot of work; it requires us to make good use of the best exegetical insights of all the ages, including modern scholarship. It means we cannot be content with a shoot-from-the-hip approach to missions that simply applies Bible verses to modern questions.

Yet it is liberating–and I mean that in a gospel way; it is life-giving to learn to understand how Jesus gave life to the people he met, each in a unique way, each according to a transcendent set of principles that he referred to as “the Kingdom of Heaven.” The first of these principles is, of course, love for one’s neighbor, inseparable from love for God.

Towards such an approach, here is what Bosch observes concerning Jesus’ relationship to the Law:

According to the gospels, particularly Matthew, Jesus seems to view the Torah in a way that is not essentially different from that of his contemporaries, including the Pharisees. At closer look, however, there are some fundamental dissimilarities. For on thing, Jesus attacks the hypocrisy of allowing a discrepancy between accepting the Law as authoritative and yet not acting according to it. For another, he radicalizes the Law in an unparalleled manner (cf. Mt 5:17-48). Third, in supreme self-confidence he takes it upon himself simply to abrogate the law, or at least certain elements in it.

Why does he do that? This, of course, is the question his contemporaries also ask, either in utter amazement or in bitter anger. The answer lies in several mutually related elements, all of which involve Jesus’ understanding of his mission.

First, the reign of God and not the Torah is for Jesus the decisive principle of action. This does not imply the annulment of the Law or antinomianism, as though there could be a basic discrepancy between God’s reign and God’s Law. What happens, rather, is that the Law is pushed back in relation to God’s reign. And this reign of God manifests itself as love to all. The Old Testament knows of God’s unfathomable and tender love to Israel–dramatized inter alia, in the enacted parable of the prophet Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute. Now, however, God’s love begins to reach out beyond the boundaries of Israel. This, says William Manson, was an absolutely new thing in the religious history of humankind.

Particularly enlightening in this quote is the fact that Jesus reversed the rapport between Torah and Kingdom. Where the people of his day understood the Kingdom as an institution governed by the Torah, Jesus understood the Torah as a particular application of his Father’s Kingdom principles. This explains why he both radicalizes and abrogates the law, each in their respectively appropriate context to the respectively appropriate audience.

Applying the Torah in this way gives rise to the seemingly paradoxical situation where Jesus assumes, epitomizes and radicalizes the values of his day, all while subverting them in favor of the novelty that is his advent–a reality that, incredibly, supersedes the Torah and religion itself.

Jesus’ Contextual Ministry Approach

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

Reading “The Shape of the Liturgy” by Dom Gregory Dix, I have been astounded by the following realization: liturgically speaking, Jesus did not institute any new rite for his followers. He left them with his teachings, with a new paradigm for understanding the kingdom of God, but he really did not create any new religious practice.

He told his disciples to baptize, which is what John the Baptist and others were already doing. But he told them to do it in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. He invested a fuller theology into a repentance ritual already in use and presumably well understood in his day. Essentially, by attaching God’s Name to it, he made it finally efficacious in what it had always been designed to do: bring people back to God.

In the Last Supper he was eating a meal with his disciples as many Jewish religious “associations” did on a weekly basis. The blessing over the bread at the beginning of the meal is one he would have pronounced hundreds of times over during his life according to Jewish custom. The cup at the end of the meal that he took and blessed was the normal conclusion to any weekly meal of a Jewish religious association. What he did differently that night was to give them a new way of looking at these customary practices: the cup of blessing he referred to as a new covenant in his blood. The bread that he blessed according to Jewish custom he now referred to as his body. Just as they had been having this sort of meal all throughout his ministry (presumably), he assumed they would continue to do so even after he had gone. So he told them that they should henceforth do it in memory of him, making him forever present among them by their partaking in faith.

What may be seem even more surprising is that neither of these rituals—baptism or the Lord’s Supper—are customs prescribed in the Law of Moses or anywhere else in Jewish scripture. They were just pious traditions. They were rituals that Second Temple Judaism had developed in order to live out their lives in the presence of God. They took Temple activities, like ritual washing and ritual eating, and made it part of everyday life, extending, as it were, the presence of God in the temple into everyday life. In a sense, Jesus assumed the logic of those “extra-biblical” practices and realized them fully: he invested those customs with his promises, with himself, and through them made God truly present among his disciples.

The implications for contextual ministry are overwhelming. Where are those practices in our world that express a yearning for God’s presence? We can’t fight them, ignore them, or replace them. We can let Jesus fulfill them.