Monday, January 18, 2021

Breaking God's Law In Order To Keep Man's Law

Jesus did not answer the question of the Pharisees directly. What he did was to take an example of the operation of the oral and ceremonial law to show how its observance so far from being obedience to the Law of God, could become actual contradiction of that Law.

Jesus says that the Law of God lays it down that a man shall honour his father and his mother; then he goes on to say that if a man says, "It is a gift," he is free from the duty of honouring his father and his mother. If we look at the parallel passage in Mark, we see that the phrase is: "It is Korban." What is the meaning of this obscure passage to us? In point of fact it can have two meanings, because Korban has two meanings.

(i) Korban can mean that which is dedicated to God. Now suppose that a man had a father or mother in poverty and in need; and suppose that his poor parent came to him with a request for help. There was a way in which the man could avoid giving any help. He could, as it were, officially dedicate all his money and all his property to God and to the Temple; his property would then be Korban, God-dedicated; then he could say to his father or mother: "I'm very sorry, I can give you nothing; all my belongings are dedicated to God." He could use a ritual practice to evade the basic duty of helping and honouring his father and mother. He could take a scribal regulation to wipe out one of the Ten Commandments.

(ii) But Korban has another meaning, and it may well be that it is this second meaning which is at issue here. Korban was used as an oath. A man might say to his father or mother: "Korban, if anything I have will ever be used to help you." Now suppose this man to have remorse of conscience; suppose him to have made the refusal in a moment of anger, or temper, or even of irritation; suppose him to have second and kinder and more filial thoughts, and to feel that after all there was a duty to help his parents. In such a case any reasonable person would say that that man had undergone a genuine repentance, and that his change of mind was a good thing; and that since he was now prepared to do the right thing and obey the Law of God he should be encouraged to follow that line.

The strict Scribe said, "No. Our Law says that no oath can ever be broken." He would quote Numbers 30:2 : "When a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth." The Scribe would legalistically argue: "You took an oath; and for no reason can you ever break it." That is to say, the Scribe would hold a man to a reckless oath, taken in a moment of passion, an oath which actually compelled a man to break the higher law of humanity and of God.

That is what Jesus meant. He meant: "You are using your scribal interpretations, your traditions, to compel a man to dishonour his father and mother, even when he himself has repented and has seen the better way."

The strange and tragic thing was that the Scribes and Pharisees of the day were actually going against what the greatest Jewish teachers had said. Rabbi Eliezer said, "The door is opened for a man on account of his father and his mother," and he meant that, if any man had sworn an oath which dishonoured his father and his mother, and had then repented of it, the door was open to him to change his mind and to take a different way, even if an oath had been sworn. As so often, Jesus was not presenting men with unknown truth; he was reminding them of things that God had already told them, and that they had already known but had forgotten, because they had come to prefer their own man-made ingenuities to the great simplicities of the Law of God.

Here is the clash and the collision; here is the contest between two kinds of religion and two kinds of worship. To the Scribes and Pharisees religion was the observance of certain outward rules and regulations and rituals, such as the correct way to wash the hands before eating; it was the strict observance of a legalistic outlook on all life. To Jesus religion was a thing which had its seat in the heart; it was a thing which issued in compassion and kindness, which are above and beyond the law.

To the Scribes and Pharisees worship was ritual, ceremony law; to Jesus worship was the clean heart and the loving life. Here is the clash. And that clash still exists. What is worship? Even today there are many who would say that worship is not worship unless it is carried out by a priest ordained in a certain succession, in a building consecrated in a certain way, and from a liturgy laid down by a certain Church. And all these things are externals.

One of the greatest definitions of worship ever laid down was laid down by William Temple: "To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God." We must have a care lest we stand aghast at the apparent blindness of the Scribes and the Pharisees, lest we are shocked by their insistence on outward ceremonial, and at the same time be ourselves guilty of the same fault in our own way. Religion can never be founded on any ceremonies or ritual; religion must always be founded on personal relationships between man and God.

William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Volume 2), p. 115-117

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