THE SPIRIT OF TORAH
Unlike the other rabbis with s’mikhah (authority) who were permitted to make new interpretations of Torah, but who focused primarily on behaviour and actions, Jesus turned His hearers’ attention to the spirit of Torah, what He called ‘the more important matters of the law.’ (Matt. 23: 23). The Greek word translated “more important” has the connotation of “weight”, i.e., that which is heavy, which carries weight or is profound.
What is this “weight” of which Jesus spoke? To understand its meaning, we must go back to the Torah and look at its use there. Moses used the same word, “weight” (Hebrew kabod), when he asked God to show him His glory – kabod – Ex. 33:18. What was he asking? He was asking God to show him what was heaviest, weightiest or most profound in Him – in His character as God.
This is how God responded:
And the LORD said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass by in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ (Ex. 33:19)
It seems, then, that the weightiest part of God’s character is His goodness (functionality) expressed in His mercy and compassion. This was confirmed by the prophet Micah who asked the question:
With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:6-7)
All the things that Micah has mentioned were requirements within the Torah but taken to the extreme. But at the same time, all of these were useless without the “weightier things” of Torah.
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6: 8)
In Matt. 23, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their attention to detail but the absolute neglect of their heart attitude of mercy. They did the right thing as far as Halakhah was concerned but they missed the point of Yahweh’s Torah completely. Whatever Halakhah demanded was to be fulfilled in the spirit of Torah – justice, mercy and faithfulness. These “religious” Jews were so intent on gaining a reputation for their “piety” that they were completely phoney before God.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matt. 23:23-24)
What was Jesus saying? Wherever the prescriptions of Halakhah came into conflict with the weightier matters of Torah, i.e. justice, mercy and faithfulness, Halakhah must give way.
Jesus’s many altercations with the religious leaders raged around the issue of mercy versus Halakhah. His call to Matthew to be a disciple and the subsequent banquet Matthew gave for Jesus with the disreputable element of society as his honoured guests, provoked a protest from the Pharisees.
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and “sinners”?’
On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy that need a doctor but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.’ (Matt. 9:10-13)
A few days later the Pharisees went on the attack again. While Jesus and His disciples walked through a field of grain on the Sabbath, the men picked a few heads of grain and rubbed them in their hands because they were hungry. Always on the warpath, the Pharisees protested.
When the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.’ He answered, ‘Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread – which is not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests . . . If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.’ (Matt. 12:1-4; 7-8)
It is quite obvious that they had not learned the lesson. As far as Jesus was concerned, wherever mercy and Halakhah clashed, mercy took precedence, even when it came to the simple matter of hunger over what was lawful according to Torah. Every requirement of Torah had to be fulfilled in the spirit of Torah for it to be what God intended.
Scripture is taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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