Religious Law and Christlike Love

Recently I had a conversation with a student about some trials his family is facing—one of his siblings has become wayward. He explained how his father is willing to accept this wayward sibling back into his home on the condition of repentance—an adherence to the house rules.

As I listened, I wondered: Does the child feel as if returning home is even an option? So, I asked. The student quickly responded, “Yes; my father loaned his RV to her, which impressed on me his Christlikeness.”

As I considered his answer, I could not help but wonder: What is the difference between being religious and being Christlike? Throughout the Gospels, Christological examples of service are rife, and evaluations on service are also widespread.

Couched between Christ’s teaching on the Beatitudes and prayer, Christ demands His disciples to live righteously, even perfectly, in this world. Christ says, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). And, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). These two passages should create an ominous reflection; however, more often than not, we appease our conscience theologically, saying: these passages are dealing with an unattainable righteousness, an alien righteousness, His righteous. Even though these theological truths are undeniable, practically, Christ commands His followers to live righteously, overshadowing the religious leaders. So, what does this kind of life look like, and in what way should Christians be identified as Christlike?

Matthew addresses the Jewish tradition, and in this tradition, the Law is pivotal for an adherent to be considered godly. Jesus makes this point clear, saying, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Even in modern, Orthodox Judaism, to the degree that one adheres to the Law, he is identified as “a godly man, the prophet—the creator of worlds” (Soloveitchik 90). The Law is thus to be implemented “without any compromises or concessions, for precisely such implementation … is his ultimate desire” (Ibid). This is the posture of the religious leaders within the Gospels, for they often condemn Jesus for not keeping “the Torah without … compromises or concessions.”

So, how does Christ demonstrate the kind of honorable actions that overshadow the religious leaders of his day? Ironically, He eats with the unrighteous (Luke 5:30), works on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8-14; John 5:8-10), refuses ceremonial washing (Mark 7:3ff), and fails to condemn a sinner (John 7:53-8:11). In all of these situations, Christ justifies His actions, proving them to be perfect, righteous and wise.

In Judaism, adhering to the law takes on two forms: Halakha (strict adherence to a sacred command) and Aggadah (wise exegesis of a sacred command). The Halakhic man strictly obeys the laws “without compromises or concessions,” but the Aggadahic man exegetically treats passages, reflecting God’s loving character while responding thoroughly to an apparent need. For example, in the Halakha, one cannot touch a dead body or work on the Sabbath; but what happens in the event that a Rabbi walks a short distance (about a half mile) to the temple and sees a dead body? The Halakahic man bypasses the body; but the Aggadahic man buries the dead and grieves the loss (Book 4.11a: Tracts Pesachim). So, in the Aggadah, one negotiates the strict standard of the Law and responds with a kind of wisdom that preserves the character of God, serving an immediate need.

So, to what degree do we wrestle with the Scriptures enough to exemplify Christlikeness, benefiting the other person, and preserving the character of God? In every situation where religious leaders condemn Christ for some violation, He evokes the wisdom of the Law, exemplifying the character of God and the benefit of the other person. Christ even addresses situations showing that obeying the Law implicitly is not most desirable.

How should we wrestle with the situation that I mentioned from the beginning? Should we think this father’s acts of providing shelter, rules and expectations are Christological? The first thing one should do is consult the Scriptures in a way that upholds God’s lovingkindness while looking for a beneficial outcome for the other person.

How is this done? One should ask the question: Does the Bible have a direct prohibition about how to treat a wayward child; and does the Bible negotiate this prohibition in a narrative? For example, the Bible is clear about how to treat a rebellious, disobedient child (Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Exodus 21:17); however, narratively, this parental command was never enacted. Story after story illustrates God’s lovingkindness and longsuffering even to a disobedient child.

One clear example is the father’s response to his son in Luke 15:11-32 (The Prodigal Son parable). The older son had a clear reason to be “angry,” unwilling to celebrate his brother’s transformation. But, in the father’s wisdom, the father pleaded with his older son to feel the pain of loss and the pleasure of redemption, for “this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:32). In Halakhic terms, the older son correctly responded, but in Aggadahic terms, he failed to uphold the lovingkindness of God and meet his brother with rejoicing. A higher wisdom is desired—a divine response displaying the character of God in the midst of a challenging situation.

So, was this father acting with Christlike, Aggadahic wisdom, giving shelter to his daughter with his RV? No, but he acted as a good man, even as a good religious man. The Aggadahic wisdom demands a warmth far beyond shelter, love far beyond rules, service far beyond preconceived expectations. Aggadahic wisdom daily seeks after the wayward without a protective distance.