What do we do with religious law?
That’s a tricky question for Christians. Jewish devotion to the Law (Torah) is much more straightforward. Jesus was a Jew all his life, and treasured his heritage. But Jesus also questioned – sometimes quite pointedly – a slavish adherence to the letter of the law, especially if the spirit of the law was not being followed. By “spirit of the law” I think of the great commandments to love God and love our neighbors.
Jesus regularly chastised the Pharisees for worrying about small details in the law, yet neglecting the main thrust of the law: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me….” The issue this Sunday is whether Jesus’ disciples washed their hands before eating. Of course, hand-washing is an excellent practice to maintain; we know now that it prevents the spread of disease. But the Pharisees seemed to be more concerned about ritual cleanness than, say, about the many people who were going hungry while the Pharisees washed up and ate their abundant meals!
Jesus does not dispense with the Jewish Law, but he always puts it in the context of God’s deeper purpose: to foster love and respect among all people, to lift up the lowly so that all have a share in God’s abundance. Jesus himself – his example and his teaching – becomes the bar by which to measure the many lesser laws in Scripture.
Thus the Epistle of James emphasizes doing God’s word (God’s will), and not just hearing it. How we live with each other is the main thing. True religion is not so much about how we wash our hands, but is this: “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27) JBM