When I was a brand new mother, I became obsessed with renowned pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton’s show on TLC called “What Every Baby Knows.” I was quite sure that every baby in the world knew everything that I didn’t know, so I hung on his every word. He filmed the episodes right in his office, where the viewer watched parents interact with their children as Dr. Brazelton patiently explained everything they were doing wrong. Just kidding! Actually, he was quite affirming in a gentle, grandfatherly way, but he still addressed things they could be doing better.
When it came to toddler behavior, his perspective was that rules are not only necessary, but what the child actually wants and craves. He explained that setting firm guidelines was like building a protective fence around your child. They wanted to know the limits, because going outside the safety of the fence was as scary to them as it was to the parents. I never had trouble enforcing rules with my kids after that…just ask them. When I realized that saying no and addressing rule-breaking was something a child needs to feel secure, I embraced the philosophy. It wasn’t always easy, but it worked.
Such it is with God’s laws and rules for us. The Ten Commandments and the laws that followed were given out of the love of a parent who only wants the best for the children. These rules ensure that the entire community will be safe and enjoy the well-being that comes from everyone knowing what to expect. Justice can’t be a part of a nation without laws.
When Jesus came, there was confusion about the Law. The radical new system that he taught turned a lot of things upside down. The law under the Pharisees had become punitive and was eventually filled with the minutiae of 613 additional regulations. Jesus redefined things.
For example, the law that commanded that the Sabbath be made holy was interpreted as saying that work on the sabbath was prohibited. And “work” became very strictly defined. Jesus argued that if your ox fell in a ditch on the Sabbath, it was within the law to get it out. Therefore healing on the Sabbath was permissible as well. This rocked the Pharisees to the core. Who was this man and what was he saying? Was he about to completely dismiss all of the Law and the Prophets who came before him? Rumors and questioning began in the community.
So Jesus sat down on a mountain and taught the people about the Law:
Matthew 5 (Common English Bible)
17 “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. 18 I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality.
Jesus is clear that what God had inscribed on the stone tablets in Moses’ presence still provided the covenantal framework for how the people were to behave. The Law still applied, but not the minutiae. When the scholars undertook to write rules that explained the Law, they missed the intent of the Loving Parent who gave the Law. God made the sabbath for humanity, not the other way around.
19 Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps these commands and teaches people to keep them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The Law is a gift to keep us safe inside a defined boundary that is lovingly overseen by the Lord. Breaking the commands will result in being called the lowest of the kingdom, but keeping the commands will result in being considered great.
Being righteous in this context means understanding and adhering to the heart of God’s rules rather than punishing others for violations of the man-made addendums to it. Jesus invited his followers to err on the side of grace in their treatment of others. In this way, they would enter the kingdom of heaven well before the legal experts and Pharisees, who could only ever attain self-righteousness.
Where is God calling you to step back inside the security of his commands? Have you gone outside his commandments to pursue things that aren’t good, and certainly aren’t godly?
Jesus is the gatekeeper, calling us to repentance and righteousness through the confession of our sins. Is it time to come back inside?