The relationship of Christianity with the law has often been conflicted, stemming from the apostle Paul’s complex teachings regarding the Torah and Jesus’ own words, like those from the Gospel of Mark. There Jesus cites Isaiah to the Pharisees and scribes, “In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines,” and then adds, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” But note in Jesus’ teaching that he does not deny the validity of “the commandment of God,” but criticizes the abandonment of it for “teaching human precepts” or “human tradition.”
The Christian reception of the Torah, God’s law, is therefore confusing for Christians and others today. Many Internet memes note that the church accepts some Old Testament laws, like the Ten Commandments and prohibitions regarding homosexual behavior, but not those about mixing fabrics or eating shellfish. While Jewish theology has never accepted a division in the Torah between moral laws and ceremonial laws, understanding all of the law as a seamless garment, later Christian theologians, like Thomas Aquinas, did so.
Yet these later discussions and distinctions, which understood certain Old Testament laws as fulfilled in Jesus’ mission, should not allow us to treat our obedience to God’s law as provisional or insignificant. As much as most of us hate to be told what to do regarding certain behaviors, this is precisely what God does.
Fine philosophical and theological distinctions regarding the law are not insignificant, but both Jesus and James, the brother of Jesus to whom the letter of James is attributed, warn against a legal casuistry that renders moot the question of what God wants us to do.
Jesus warns us against our hearts being turned against God and our fellow humans, saying: “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
The starting point regarding excising sin is always a searching, personal moral inventory, since whenever we sin it is because we have given ourselves permission, in however subtle a way, to do what we desire. Just this once. No one will be the wiser. Who will know? I deserve this. After all, everyone does it! As Ronny Cammareri says in the movie “Moonstruck,” “I ain’t no freakin’ monument to justice!”
The Letter of James continues Jesus’ theme of converting our own hearts in order to follow God’s law. James writes, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” The phrase “implanted word” suggests Scripture, naturally, but at an even deeper level of growth suggests that our source of conversion is Jesus, the word (logos) made flesh, planted in us, able to root us and ground us in God’s ways, which are found in Scripture.
For Jesus is not just the word made flesh but the law (nomos) made flesh. As James goes on to say, “Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” This perfect law (nomon teleion) is Jesus himself, and Jesus offers a law of freedom, eleutheria, which seems initially to be a contradiction. How can the law that restrains us give us freedom?
The law of freedom indicates that doing God’s law fulfills human desires perfectly, blessing us, since it responds to our deepest needs regarding who we are and what we are intended to become. James says that if we do not do the word, but only hear it, we “are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” Why? Because we only become who we are intended to be by doing what God wants us to do. We come to know ourselves by understanding God’s law, our purpose for ourselves. We know ourselves by just doing it.