Jesus had an interesting relationship with the Law. The Law was an important aspect of the Jewish faith. The Law was given to the Israelites from God Himself, and it directed and guided every aspect of their lives. The Law set them apart as a chosen people, and informed what it meant to live as a community in relationship with God.
Jesus and the Law
Jesus didn’t do away with the Law, (Matthew 5:17), but he did engage with the Law in a new and different way. In some cases, his teachings went deeper than the Law. For example, Jesus taught that, yes, murder is wrong, but having anger in your heart is bad also. You have heard that it said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment (Matthew 5:21-22).
In other cases, Jesus disregarded parts of the Law as unimportant. For example, Jesus pretty much did away with the Jewish cleanliness laws dictating what a person could or couldn’t eat, and when and how they had to wash their hands. Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defiles a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them (Matthew 15:17-20).
How did Jesus determine which parts of the Law to expand upon, and which parts to set aside? One of the core aspects of the life and teachings of Jesus is that he lived his life by a particular set of values. These values guided the way Jesus engaged with the Law, and the Law was subject to those values. For example, when the Pharisees asked Jesus about the Greatest Commandment, he replied that it was to love God and love others. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:37-40). In other words, the Law was subject to the guiding value of love.
Jesus got really angry when the religious establishment would set up rules that actually went against the values of Jesus. For example, one value that was important to Jesus was to honor your father and mother. But the religious leaders were more concerned with their rule that governed how much money people should give to the temple. And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honor your father and mother” and “Anyone who curses their father and mother is to be put to death.” But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father and mother is “devoted to God,” they are not to “honor their father and mother” with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your own tradition (Matthew 15:3-6).
The Big 3 Values of Jesus
What values were most important to Jesus? In another passage where Jesus confronts the Pharisees, he describes his most important values clearly: 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 (Matthew 23:23).
Justice, mercy, and faithfulness. I think these 3 values do a good job of summarizing what Jesus was all about.
- Justice. Justice was important to the heart of God, we see a focus on justice throughout the Old Testament, the life and teachings of Jesus, and in the early church. Justice involves giving people equal opportunity and fair treatment, irrespective of how they look or their cultural background. Justice is especially important for those who are less fortunate and can’t stick up for themselves.
- Mercy. Mercy is a core characteristic of who God is, and we see this embodied in the life of Jesus. Jesus didn’t treat others as they deserved to be treated; instead, he gave love and forgiveness freely, even to the point of laying down his own life. The core Christian message is that we don’t have to be judged according to our sinful actions; instead we are freely loved and forgiven by God.
- Faithfulness. God sticks with us. We first see this in the Old Testament, in God’s covenant with the nation of Israel. Even though the Israelites struggled to obey God, God is faithful, sticking with them through the ups and downs. In the same way, God is faithful to us today, promising to never leave us nor forsake us.
Values are important because they guide our behavior. Our values are the guiding principles for how we organize and run our life. Whenever we have to make a decision, big or small, we can go back to our values, and check how our proposed course of action lines up (or doesn’t). We choose our values, and it is perhaps the most important decision we make. It’s a good idea to consider how our values line up with the values of Jesus.