There is much derision in certain circles about the Jewish law. Pharisaical has become a term of abuse in English.
Let us celebrate the existence of the Law and admire those who adhere to it. It is easy to sneer. The fact is that Judaism, as we see it now, is not quite what existed in the time Christ was on Earth. Temple worship ceased with the destruction of the Temple and the synagogues became the only way to express the Jewish faith in worship. The reality is that the tradition of the Pharisees is the one that survived. There has since then been a steady development of Rabbinical commentary on the Law and its application. The idea of not having milk and meat in the same meal derives from Exodus 23:19 which prohibits boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. It has since been extended to the practice of households having not just two sets of knives, pottery and so forth, but also two dishwashers:- one for dairy utensils and one for meat.
The ramifications of this are complex and need not detain us. What I do suggest is that, however odd it may appear to us, one has to admire the dedication that goes with obeying the Law, the Torah. In fact it goes further, so that the Law itself is protected by an outer fence of regulation such that the Law itself is not easily breached.
When we bear in mind the complexities of the dietary rules and the rules of Sabbath observance one cannot help feeling a certain awe that someone might shape their lives by such a set of practical rules. This has, throughout history, shaped Jewish identity and culture in ways that some of us Gentiles might find almost incomprehensible. It also makes every observant Jewish home and its maintenance a declaration and a demonstration of faithfulness to God. Would that all our homes did the same, albeit in a different way.
However, I do not think we are justified in assuming that the leader of the Synagogue in today’s Gospel was quite the bad guy. He was duty bound to protect and promote the Law. His problem was that he only saw part of the picture.
What is clear though is that Christ does not regard the Law as quite so binding. He points out that the Law in its strictest application may be broken to help animals. The afflicted woman is a daughter of Abraham, He says. Affliction was seen as a punishment for sin. John 9:1-3 illustrates this in the assumption that a man born blind was being punished, perhaps for his parents’ sin, so by this criterion Christ was held to be healing a sinner on the Sabbath as well.
The people were delighted at the wonders Christ was performing and one cannot help feeling that they liked seeing their leader taken down a peg or two. This was an instinctive response to the fact that something powerful was happening. The miraculous power shown here and the genuine character of the healing is not in doubt of course.
So where does this leave the Law?
Christ Himself answered this question. Deuteronomy 6:5 declared:- “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” He then added from Leviticus (19:18):- “This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Love is the basis of the Law. In fact loving God is what obedience to the Law is about, and to those struggling to live under the Old Covenant, I suggest it still is.
Christ continues:- “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. ...... For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17f)
Christ does not abolish the law, He transcends it. Whereas ‘an eye for an eye’ limited damages to simple like-for-like retribution, we are told to love our enemies. It is a refining, deepening extension of the Law. The basic purpose of the Law is still operative, guiding us in our dealings with each other and with God.
The precise ritual and dietary restrictions may have passed away. Circumcision is not demanded of us, and St Peter’s vision and its reception by the Church (in its first Council) may have abolished the unclean animals rule as recorded in the Book of Acts, but what remains is the call to obey and deal with our neighbours with justice and tolerance. We must love God to the utmost of our ability and our neighbours as ourselves, (which means all those with whom we have dealings.) That is demonstrated in a number of ways. Suffice it to say that such a life bears fruit. People about us recognise real love and they will usually respond. It cannot be faked, and it is often hard. Of course we have help available in the Church both on Earth and in Heaven. The congregation here serves to demonstrate this week by week.
As I said earlier, an observant Jewish household demonstrates its adherence to the Law of the Old Covenant by its careful fulfilment of all the myriad restrictions and commandments of the Law. Our calling is simpler on one level, but far more demanding. Our lives, our households, our Church, indeed our very being should demonstrate the very basis of the Law and the Prophets. It is simple. The basis is the command to love.
May our lives truly demonstrate our love of God and our neighbours.