Monday, January 12, 2009

Shaking Things Up

by Keri Wyatt Kent

Shaking Things UpSomething shifted tremendously in how people followed God after Jesus walked our planet. Although the roots of the Christian faith are in Judaism, the way that modern Christians keep Sabbath, or don't, looks quite different from the way ancient Jews did. Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. But really, that fulfillment changed a lot about how people lived out their faith.

Even when Jesus walked the earth, people were aware that he was shaking things up. The gospel writers often tell us that people marveled at Jesus' teaching because he spoke with "authority."

Commenting on the rabbinic tradition and this idea of authority, pastor and author Rob Bell writes, "Different rabbis had different sets of rules, which were really different lists of what they forbade and what they permitted. A rabbi's set of rules and lists, which was really that rabbi's interpretation of how to live the Torah, was called that rabbi's yoke. When you followed a certain rabbi, you were following him because you believed that rabbi's set of interpretations were the closest to what God intended through the Scriptures. And when you followed that rabbi, you were taking up that rabbi's yoke."

Bell continues, "Most rabbis taught the yoke of a rabbi who had come before them. … Every once in a while, a rabbi would come along who was teaching a new yoke, a new way of interpreting the Torah. This was rare and extraordinary. … Now imagine if a rabbi who had a new perspective on the Torah was coming to town. This rabbi who was making new interpretations of the Torah was said to have authority. The Hebrew word for 'authority' is shmikah. This might not even happen in your lifetime. You would hike for miles to hear him. A rabbi who taught with shmikah would say things like, 'You have heard it said …, but I tell you …' What he was saying is, 'You have heard people interpret that verse this way, but I tell you that this is what God really means in that verse.'"

So Jesus offered this new yoke, which he claimed is easy. But in a way, it seems harder. He often began with "you've heard it said" and cited the Old Testament law. Then he followed with "but I say to you." For example, he said, "You've heard it said, 'Don't commit adultery.' But I say, 'If you look at a woman with lust, you've already slept with her'" (Matt. 5:27–28, my paraphrase). And, "You've heard it said, 'Don't murder.' But if you call someone a fool or hate them, you've killed them" (Matt. 5:21–22).

His teaching encouraged people to hold to a higher standard than mere legalism but also helped them to realize that keeping the law perfectly is an impossible proposition. Examining ourselves in light of the spirit of the law, rather than the letter, points us to our desperate need for grace. Jesus exhorted his listeners to examine their hearts, their attitudes, as well as their actions. He challenged his listeners to bring outward practice and inner reality into alignment. This again directed his most attentive listeners toward grace, not more careful legalism.

Here's what I've noticed, though. Jesus never used the "you've heard it said, but I say to you" formula to discuss Sabbath. He didn't, for example, say, "You've heard it said, 'Keep the Sabbath holy.' But I say …" And he definitely never said, "You've heard it said, 'Keep the Sabbath on the seventh day,' but I tell you, 'Switch it to the first day.'" Why is that? Did he say it and it somehow just didn't get written down? Was his teaching on Sabbath edited out of the biblical record?

Jesus did criticize the Pharisees for piling rules onto the people, burdening them with lists of what they couldn't do, not just on Sabbath but in regard to all sorts of regulations and man-made traditions. He accused them of valuing their traditions over the law, saying, "You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition," and quoted Isaiah 29:3 to condemn them (see Matt. 15:1–20).

He handed out insults to Pharisees and scribes alike, saying, "You experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them" (Luke 11:46).

While he didn't use his "you've heard it said, but I say" formula to teach about Sabbath, he did find all sorts of teachable moments to instruct his followers, and his critics, about Sabbath. Usually this happened when he defended his choices to heal people, cast out demons, or engage in other questionable activities on the Sabbath. Not surprisingly, he focused on aligning our hearts with our actions.

He did say, "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath." And he claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath. But what does that mean? Does it set us free only from the ceremonial aspects of the law, or from the law entirely?

The thing Jesus seemed to get in trouble for most was breaking the Sabbath, at least in the eyes of the legalists of his day. They watched him closely, seemingly in hopes he would slip up and break the rules, although he hardly seemed interested in hiding his actions from them. In fact, he tried over and over to teach them about the heart of Sabbath, asking, "Don't you on the Sabbath untie your donkey and let him have a drink, or pull your sheep out of a pit?" to point out that compassion is never against God's rules (see Luke 13:15; Matt. 12:11).

Norman Wirzba writes, "Jesus does not obliterate Sabbath teaching but reframes it so that we can see once again, with renewed emphasis, what creation's ultimate meaning is."

Jesus came to die for us, but also to live for us, to show us how to live. He modeled spiritual practices like solitude, prayer, and compassion. If you are someone's disciple, you try to emulate them, try to live as they would. And Jesus kept Sabbath. Not in the way his culture expected, perhaps. He exercised great freedom. If we are his disciples, we will take on his yoke. We will live in this life-giving rhythm of work and rest. Jesus kept Sabbath in a new way, a way that shook things up. As his disciples, we can keep Sabbath too. And apparently we're free to shake things up as well.


Anonymous said...

"The Hebrew word for 'authority' is shmikah."
Close, but no cigar. Actually, the word is "smikhah".

Stacey Sparshu said...

Thanks for the correction. I'm no Hebrew scholar. I did look it up (online, mind you) and did find it used several times as "shmikah." Curious. Hopefully it didn't distract you too much from the intention of the article or Ms.Kent's (or Rob Bell's) heart for better understanding what it means to live under Jesus' authority.

Tim Kantel said...

"Hopefully it didn't distract you too much from the intention of the article or Ms.Kent's (or Rob Bell's) heart for better understanding what it means to live under Jesus' authority."

....(snicker)You're the best Stacey! said...

I agree with you that Jesus Christ kept the Sabbath and did not abolish it. What Christ taught against was the traditions of the Jews that made the Sabbath into a burden instead of a blessing as God intended. As I point out in a Sabbath discussion in my blog, Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for mankind (Mark 2:27), not just for Israel, and the seventh-day Sabbath still exists for Christians today.

I also think you make a good point about Jesus shaking things up. People sometimes forget how new and strange some of his teachings seemed to the Jews of His day. This is not because His teachings were so very different from the teachings of the Old Testament, but they were very different from the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees, and those Jewish traditions in many cases nullified the spiritual intent of God's teaching in the Old Testament (Matthew 15:3-9).

The strong effect of tradition can be seen today in people who were raised in a particular religious tradition. It is very difficult for people to see and believe the truth of the Bible on particular points where it differs from the tradition they were raised in.

Stacey Sparshu said...

Thanks for your comments. It's good to critically think through this sort of material often and then, as necessary, apply new thoughts to our own lives. That's why I felt this article would be interesting to post. Ms. Kent, the author of the article, has some thought provoking things to say.