Sometimes the only way to keep the law is to break it (or, how then should we interpret?).

I’ve learned something over the past few years that I had not always realized but it’s of vital importance and it’s totally unavoidable because we all do it. Everyday. Intentionally or not. What I’m talking about here is interpretation. We can’t escape it. For our purposes here I’m particularly interested in the interpretation of scripture. “The Bible says so!” Perhaps you’ve heard someone say this (or perhaps you’ve said it yourself, I know I have). Nowadays when I hear Christians say this I kind of chuckle to myself, partly because I know what it’s like to be there and partly because I think it would be more accurate to say “my interpretation of the Bible says so!” Because, I mean, if we’re honest with ourselves nobody just reads the scriptures (or any text for that matter). We all interpret. In fact, it could be said that reading is interpreting and the two cannot be separated.

As a result there’s really no limit to the sorts of interpretations we can come up with. One of the things that we’ve learned from postmodern philosophers and psychologists is that there are no autonomous people. Rather, we are all shaped. Therefore, the ways in which one is shaped can/will influence the ways in which we hear and understand a particular text. Now in saying that there are a plethora of possible interpretations of a given text I’m not saying that all interpretations are of equal value. In fact, plain and simple, some interpretations are better interpretations. Again, I’m primarily concerned here with how we interpret the scriptures so perhaps looking at the scriptures will help us see this in a fresh light.

It’s no secret that Jesus subverted much Roman and Jewish thought. Here’s an example from the gospel of Matthew:

“At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’
He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him,” (Matthew 12:1-14, NRSV).
I don’t think there’s much debate as to what Jesus was doing here. It’s clear that he broke the law by working on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10; Deut. 5:14). But did Jesus sin by breaking the law? I don’t think anyone reading this will agree to that. This being the case how is it that Jesus could have broken the law without sinning? Better yet, is it possible that by breaking the law Jesus actually fulfilled the law? I think it’s an issue of interpretation. The Pharisees were the law keepers. They interpreted the law one way, literally. Therefore, when the scriptures say that we are forbidden to do any work on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10; Deut. 5:14) God literally means that we should not work on the Sabbath and for the Pharisees this included any acts of healing. Then Jesus comes along and heals on the Sabbath. The Pharisees, because of their interpretation of the law, considered Jesus to be a law breaker and the scriptures say that they “went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.” Yet Jesus was without sin (2 Cor. 5:21). The only way then that Jesus could have broken the law and been without sin is if he interpreted the law differently than the Pharisees did.

In the scriptures Jesus proclaims that he came to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17). How do we then understand this in light of Jesus’ antics in Matthew 12? I think it must be said that Jesus fulfilled the law by breaking it. Again, this comes back to how Jesus interprets the law. If the Pharisees interpret the law by the book then how does Jesus interpret differently? A man once approached Jesus and asked him a tricky question, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus responded, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” (Matt. 22:37-40). According to Jesus all of the law hangs on love. Love. Do this and you’ve fulfilled the entire law. At least according to Jesus. Oh, and Paul also: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’” (Gal. 5:14; see also Rom. 13:8).

And so the story goes, Jesus enters the synagogue where there is a crippled man. Now the law says that work is forbidden on the Sabbath. So what does Jesus do? He goes to work. According to Jesus the law is to love. Did Jesus break the law? Yes. But in breaking it he perfectly fulfilled it because love was the correct interpretation.

As Christians there are many ways we interpret the scriptures. Sometimes we do a terrible job while other times we get a glimpse of what it looks like to fulfill the law. Sadly, we often are guilty of interpreting the scriptures in a manner that allows us to treat ‘others’ as less-than-human, as less worthy of dignity and respect. In other words, sometimes we are so adamant that we keep the law that we lose sight of love. In seeking to keep the law we actually end up breaking the law. In these cases may we break the law in order to fulfill it. May we go out into the world as lawbreakers because sometimes that is the only way we can keep the law and thus remain faithful to Jesus. Perhaps it is only then that we will find ourselves close to the kingdom (Mark 12:34).

How ought we interpret then? Love. Sometimes it really is that simple.

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5 comments
  1. societyvs said:

    Did Jesus break the ‘law’ in Matthew 12:1-14 (in 2 instances shown there)? He did eat grain from a field that was not his and healed a man on the sabbath. I don’t think he did…based on Judaic interpretation.

    I read a book by Amy Jilles Levine called ‘The Misunderstood Jew’ (about Jesus) in which this very scripture is tackled.

    Amy uses a Jewish interpretation on that passage – very similar to your deductions about love. The Jewish law permits people to go over and above the law when the action taken will secure someone’s life/save their life. The bottom line is that a person’s life is the only time the law can be abridged because it meets a higher code of the law – in this case love.

    So Jesus feeding his disciples is not a problem – if they were truly ‘hungry’ as the passage relates. They had to eat – and if they didn’t – who knows what might have happened?

    With the healing of the man, the question is ‘work’. In Jewish law it is not known whether healing is considered ‘work’ (highly doubtful) – but it is for sure ‘saving someone’s life’. In this case, Jesus might never see that man again and healing him made his life that much better and productive…and if Jesus never saw him again he may not get that chance to heal him (time was of the essence in that scenario).

    I don’t see Jesus as breaking the law in the sense – he went against the ideas and then taught others the same ideals. He seemed to understand the ‘higher law’ which will always be love for one’s neighbor…which trumps any law and is meant to be the intent of the laws.

  2. jt* said:

    Hey society,

    Thanks for the insight. Here’s a few initial responses:

    “Did Jesus break the ‘law’ in Matthew 12:1-14…I don’t think he did.”

    I think it’s significant that Matthew chose to tell us it was the sabbath. I mean, I don’t think that was a detail just thrown in there. Everyone knew what the sabbath meant. Everyone knew the laws regarding the sabbath. I think he was indeed breaking the law. At the very least he was breaking the law as interpreted by the Pharisees (“Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath”; “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” to which the obvious answer was “no”).

    “I read a book by Amy Jilles Levine called ‘The Misunderstood Jew’ (about Jesus) in which this very scripture is tackled.”

    Personally, I’m uncomfortable with the language of “tackling” passages of scripture. This makes it sound as if we’ve nailed this particular interpretation down and can move on to the next one. I think the scriptures are meant to be wrestled with as a community and this would negate any “tackling” of scripture.

    Also, whether or not the Jewish law “permits people to go over and above the law when the action taken will secure someone’s life/save their life” I’m not sure how this would apply to the scripture we’re talking about. I think it would be a big leap to suggest that the disciples lives, or the life of the cripple, would have been in danger without food or healing. In fact, as far as I can tell their lives weren’t in danger at all (temporary hunger and a withered hand are not life-threatening, are they?). So this doesn’t seem to be a good argument for Jesus being “allowed” to go over and above the law to save a life.

    Again, I would point out that at the very least Jesus broke the law in the eyes of the Pharisees (who were partially responsible for *interpreting* the law).

    Essentially what I’m trying to get at here has to do with interpretation. I’m not particularly concerned whether or not Jesus broke some objective law (which he didn’t, of course) but that he broke a particular interpretation of the law.

    In the same way, Christians are often guilty of breaking the very law they try and obey, in fact, they often break the law they are trying to keep by keeping the law they don’t want to break. My point is more-or-less that as we struggle to interpret the scriptures in our setting we need to take love into consideration because that is what Jesus seemed to do.

  3. societyvs said:

    “Everyone knew the laws regarding the sabbath.” (JT)

    Not neccesarily, or at least not the interpretations of the pharisee rabbi’s. Jesus is from a countryside area that likely had little contact with Pharisee rabbi’s (since they mainly were in city arenas).

    Top that off, the rulers of the day were the Sadducee’s (who ran the temple) and not the Pharisee’s (so who’s interpretation trumps who’s) – and this makes those convo’s Jesus is having a little more intriguing. They are interpretive battles over the ‘law’.

    “Also, whether or not the Jewish law “permits people to go over and above the law when the action taken will secure someone’s life/save their life” I’m not sure how this would apply to the scripture we’re talking about” (JT)

    They are debating the aspects and meaning of the laws – in this case sabbath laws and ‘work’ and ‘stealing’.

    “I think it would be a big leap to suggest that the disciples lives, or the life of the cripple, would have been in danger without food or healing” (JT)

    Well we can call it a ‘leap’ if we want – and maybe it is – nonethless the word used in matthew is ‘hungry’. How do we know when these people last ate? They are eating pieces of grain, not bread, for Pete’s sake…there must be some hunger there? Maybe they had no money and actually we’re starving? It’s a leap of sorts – but not so much a leap it’s not possible for a wandering rabbi figure (travelled by foot quite a bit) and his 12 disicples (which is quite a crew to be taking around).

    As for the crippled man – there is a few questions about interpretation there. Is healing to be considered work? Also, Jesus had that sole opportunity to use this gift of healing, as evidenced by the sheep story…it just happened to be the lost sheep was in front of him today. Should he ignore him?

    “Again, I would point out that at the very least Jesus broke the law in the eyes of the Pharisees” (JT)

    I agree, in their interpretive wisdom, according to this story, Jesus seems to be going against their interpretations of the law.

    However, I would contend with the eating of the grain from someone’s field, this is stealing. If the disciples were not in dire need of food and Jesus did not advise them to take the food for sake of health – then I am not sure Jesus is justified in what he did. It looks a lot like raiding a garden.

    “My point is more-or-less that as we struggle to interpret the scriptures in our setting we need to take love into consideration because that is what Jesus seemed to do.” (JT)

    I agree, we need to take into mind grace/mercy/love with regards to people breaking the law/morality code. So we should have mercy on Jesus then more or less?

  4. jt* said:

    I’m not sure we could consider the eating of grain stealing here. It was regular practice (at least it was supposed to be regular practice according to the Torah) to leave the edges of ones field unharvested for those who had less. So really, as poor travelers, they were only taking what was theirs in the first place (according to YHWH via the Torah).

    Should we have mercy on Jesus?

    What do you mean?

  5. societyvs said:

    “So really, as poor travelers, they were only taking what was theirs in the first place (according to YHWH via the Torah).” (JT)

    Good point…makes more sense of that story (intent wise).

    “Should we have mercy on Jesus? What do you mean?” (JT)

    I am basing my answer on this quote:

    “In the same way, Christians are often guilty of breaking the very law they try and obey, in fact, they often break the law they are trying to keep by keeping the law they don’t want to break. My point is more-or-less that as we struggle to interpret the scriptures in our setting we need to take love into consideration because that is what Jesus seemed to do.” (JT)

    Jesus seemed to do this with his interpretation of the day – and we are basically doing the same thing in our era – and you are asking us to show love/grace towards one another with this process (I agree BTW). Well, in some way are we not also showing grace/love to Jesus’ interpretations – since he did the same thing in his day and we are still using them?

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