People who think that religion is opposed to what Jesus came to do usually criticize others, such as those religious leaders in Jesus’ time, for adhering to rules and rituals. And when they’re referencing groups such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, by “rules and rituals” they usually mean the things Moses wrote in the Law.
I have many complaints with the “religions vs. relationship” dichotomy, but in this post, I want touch on a particular aspect of it: whether Jesus was opposed to the rules and rituals–and by extension, the entire Law–to which his opponents adhered. I submit that he was not, and the true nature of his complaint was not that they were too “religious.”
Let’s start with this passage from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I will you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)
In the past, I’ve taken this passage to mean one of two things: 1.) I exceed the righteousness of the religious leaders by asking God for a new heart (a request that Jesus’ contemporaries had not made), or 2.) my righteousness can never be good enough and so I must rely on the crucified-and-risen Lord for my salvation and goodness (something Jesus’ contemporaries missed in their quest for works-based righteousness).
While both of those options have truth to them (and I think the Cross is what Jesus has in mind when he hints of all things being accomplished), I think the Lord had something else in mind when he said that the great names of the kingdom would belong to its Law-abiding citizens.
I think Jesus is saying that we fulfill the Law by loving God and other people.
Note this important passage from Deuteronomy:
Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
All of those rules and rituals prescribed in the Old Testament–the rules and rituals that people like the “Why I Hate Religion” author and others tend to decry–all had a point, and that was to serve as both an expression love for God as well as a way to fall deeper into love with Him.
(It should be noted that not all rituals are meant to be eternally binding on the lovers of God. The early church addressed in this issue in Acts 15.)
The point of the Law was to get people to love God and others. You can’t love one without the other, as any number of passages from our holy books will attest. Jesus himself taught that this was the greatest commandment. And this, I believe, is where he found complaint with groups like the Pharisees.
Jesus saw his contemporaries and opponents as having developed traditions that helped them to get around the Law instead of obeying it. Jesus rebukes them for this in, among other places, Matthew 15 and Matthew 23:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (23:23-24)
Here’s the point:
Jesus didn’t rebuke his opponents for keeping the Law too much.
He rebuked them because they weren’t keeping it enough.
If Jesus’ opponents actually followed the Law like they claimed, then they would have become greater lovers of both God and their neighbors. (And in the process, they would have stopped trying to figure out which type of person qualifies as a neighbor–another loophole of theirs that Jesus rebuked.)
In Romans, Paul wrote this:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up by this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
May we all strive to fulfill the Law in our lives.