Give Yourself to Others …

Posts Tagged ‘rules

The story of the Rich Young Ruler appears in Luke 18.  This very well to do young man asks Jesus what he needs to do deserve eternal life.

It turns out the young man has kept the rules.  But inspite of that, Jesus replies  it’s still not enough, and tells him to give away all his money.

Is Jesus’ response to the young man a command?  another rule to be followed?

If it is another command, then most of us have failed to keep that command.  And thus, are condemned.  After all, even the poorest American is richer than 90+ percent of the world.

Or, was Jesus saying this:  You’ve pretty much kept the rules as you know them, but your heart is still captured by your wealth.  You’ve not really given your heart to God.  And given this fact, here’s what you need to do …

I think it’s that later.  Because keeping the rules is only an exterior measure, and the real point — the only point that’s important to God — is who has your heart.

It’s possible that when the rich young man asked his question, Jesus might have replied, “Yes, you’ve followed the rules, but you really missed the point.  Let me explain what you’ve missed.”

There are two basic approaches to view, understand and interpret the Text of the Bible, and even more specifically, the New Testament:  Legally and Spiritually.

Many people see the New Testament Text as first, the story of Jesus (which primarily encompasses the core gospel message), following by a brief history the movement of Christianity across the Roman empire and finally an lengthy exposition of the gospel into a set of commands, which we must follow literally, if we are to succeed in living a Christian life.

I have always believed that the message of the Text, as God would have us hear it, at the very least must be consistent.  That is, there is somewhere a principle, which, when applied properly, allow us to read what sometimes appears to be conflicts within the written text of the New Testament.

For example, Paul and others write that the law has been done away with.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love. And yet, we can also delineate within the NT Text, numerous examples of where Paul or other epistle writers give what seem to be very specific instructions on what we should or should not do.  Many see these instructions as commands, or laws, to be followed. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

So, is the New Testament a rule book?  Or, not?

Here’s my answer:  If all you do is keep the rules, you may miss the point of Jesus’ message.

I provide two points to support this conclusion:

First is a combination of Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 10.  Hebrews 10:16 actually quotes Jeremiah 31:33.  Here is the critical piece of text:

Hebrews 10:16 (New International Version)

16 This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord.  I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.

Hebrews 10:16 (The Message)

This new plan I’m making with Israel isn’t going to be written on paper, isn’t going to be chiseled in stone; This time “I’m writing out the plan in them, carving it on the lining of their hearts.

Hebrews 10:16 (English Standard Version)

16 This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,

Under the law, which God gave to Moses, it was in writing.  You didn’t have to doubt it, interpret it, it was written.  And if you have any doubt, just read Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers, where you will find pages of explicit instructions, often followed by a “thus saith the Lord” in the KJV.

But now, Jeremiah comes along and quote God as saying he will eventually make a new deal with us.  And in contrast with the tablets of stone, he says he will write it on our hearts and minds.

Maybe my reading of this passage is too simplistic, but it says to me there is a major contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant.  The implications of this contrast are laid out most simply in Paul’s quote above: But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

Seems pretty clear.

Second is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, taken in full text, especially as presented in Luke 10:25-37.

Luke 10:25-37 (English Standard Version)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man(I) was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’

36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

The first part of this passage presents the well known Q and A about the Greatest Commands, which Matthew also reported.  Equally known is that the first command is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:5 and the second a quote from Leviticus 19:18.

Let’s examine the fuller context of Leviticus.  Almost the entire chapter 19 is a litany of individual commands of the law.  And verse 18 reads as follows:

Leviticus 19:18 (New International Version)

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.

Leviticus 19:18 (The Message)

Don’t seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people.  Love your neighbor as yourself. I am God.

Leviticus 19:18 (English Standard Version)

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

What jumps out to me is that in this context, it is clear, that God was telling the Jews that the definition of neighbor is limited by the scope of the Jewish people.  That is, Samaritans (and other Gentiles) are not our neighbors.

How does this affect our view of the parable Jesus then relates?

Could it be that Jesus is not trying to condemn the Levite and the Priest?  After all, might it be that the Levite and the Priest were actually following the law?  I think they were.

No, the point Jesus was making was that the definition of neighbor is much broader than the law said it was.  If you just keep the rules, you miss the larger point and the more important command.

When the Jews heard the parable of the Good Samaritan, they did not hear a condemnation of the Priest and Levite — they heard a completely new view of God’s message.  We are not bound to love just other Jews, but to love anyone and everyone.

That’s a much more important message, than the message of condemnation.

It is the contrast of law verses spirit.  The spirit takes us farther than the law.  The law limits our responsibilities to just keeping the rules (although, I grant that we can’t even do that).  The spirit requires that we remove those limits, and follow Jesus to the unlimited scope of unconditional love — which goes way beyond anything the law would ever demand.

Does the law demand that we give up our lives?  No.

Does the law demand that we forgive all the bad things people do to us and treat them with love?  No.

Does the law demand that we ignore our heritage and the differences between us and treat others better than ourselves?  No.

That is the central flaw of turning the New Testament into a rule book.  It places limits on our obligation to God — and there are none.  It places limits on what we must do on God’s behalf — and there are none.

If all I must do is keep the rules, then I don’t have to think.  I don’t have to struggle with the hard questions of how I give my life to the people around me.

If all I have to do is keep the rules, I miss the point Jesus was trying to make.

As a result of some conversations I’ve had recently, I’ve reached a conclusion about debates over this doctrine or that, this rule or that.

My conclusion is that the more we talk about which doctrine is right, which rule we must follow, the more we emphasize that being a disciple of Jesus is about rules and doctrine.  I’m not arguing that doctrine is irrelevant, but I am saying that Jesus emphasized something different.

And the New Testament text even chastises us saying, “why do you follow rules as if they can save you.”  In another place, Paul writes, that “everything is permissible, but not everything is useful.”  So, it’s not about rules, it’s about grace and godliness.

From where I sit, you can make rules for yourself, because you know your own heart.

But you can’t make rules for me, because you don’t know my heart.  And as the Text says, “only God can judge.”

So, I encourage you talk less about rules and talk more about how to love the way Jesus loved — after all, that was his “new command”.  And it really seems to cover everything … if I could only figure out how to do that ….

There are two reasons principles are not convenient.

First, it’s more difficult to follow principles than it is to follow rules. With a rule, the thought process typically focuses on the question of whether the rule applies. If the rule applies, you follow the rule. If the rule does not apply, you can ignore it. Pretty black and white.

Then, of course the opposite is true for principles. Principles must be applied, not followed. You must learn to evaluate a situation and assess how the principle would apply to that situation. The next situation may be different or similar. But even if similar, there may be sufficient differences to warrant a different application of the same principle.

As any observer of government would acknowledge, if you’re out to make rules to apply to everything, the task is never ending. And as a result, legislatures continue to make new rules, throw out some old ones, change some others. But they always focus on rules.

At the federal level, then the Supreme Court gets to decide whether the rules Congress makes are appropriate applications of the principles of the Constitution.

Well, according to Jesus and later affirmed my numerous New Testament writers, the one principle of the new covenant between God and mankind is: Love your neighbor as yourself. In the Gospel of John, John quotes Jesus as saying, “Love one another as I have loved you and give my life for you.” Certainly, the intent of the language seems similar.

But there is not court to decide whether we apply this principle properly — only God is the Judge. He judges me and he judges you, as we try to apply this principle. And it’s important to note that he says I should not judge you and you should not judge me.

And then, he goes even farther and tells us that it’s our hearts he judges, our intent, what we want to do — not what we actually succeed in doing.

Because of that, I’m going to keep trying to apply this principle, regardless of how difficult or how inconvenient.

By someone’s count, the Jewish law, delineated by rabbis from the Torah, included 600+ specific commands which must be followed. (Don’t hold me to that number, the point is only that the Law of the Old Covenant between God and man focused on following specific instructions.)

In the New Testament gospels, it’s reported that Jesus was asked, What are the greatest commands? To which Jesus replies with a quote from the Torah, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I think its important to note the last comment — all of the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments. That is to say that everything about the law is somehow an elaboration on these two commands. And everything the prophets wrote build on these two commands.

In my view, it becomes imperative to our understanding of the New Testament and to our understanding of Jesus’ message to us, that we understand the implications of everything coming from these two commands.

But then a little later, Jesus seems to simplify things a little, when he’s quoted as saying, A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

Now, to make it a little more perplexing, note this verse from Galatians, The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.

These quotes do not conflict with each other. If you read 1 John 4, you’ll find that the way to show your love for God is to love one another.

One more quote from Galatians: The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself thru love.

Now rewrite this with the translation of agape defined in my first post: The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself by giving yourself to others for their good, expecting nothing in return.

That’s a pretty clear message!

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