One of my favorite sayings of Jesus comes in Matthew’s version of the grain-plucking episode. Jesus’s disciples are accused of doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath because they are tilling and eating as they go.
Jesus says, in part,
Have you not read in the Law that on Sabbath days the priests in the Temple profane the Sabbath–and are guiltless?
I love that in all of Jesus’s responses he willingly accepts that what his disciples does is unlawful.
Jesus is not interested in the game of finding a way to say that this action does not, in fact, break the Law. Instead, Jesus is interested in demonstrating that his presence relativizes the Law and that he determines the nature of guilt and innocence.
This is a place where I think that the notion of the story-bound God enables us to read the biblical narrative with greater integrity, and where it is perhaps challenged at the same time.
Reading the Story Well
In terms of reading with integrity, the notion of God who is truly and actively bound to this world frees us from limiting abstractions such as a law to which God must conform. There is no transhistorical moral law, deeply embedded in the fabric of the universe, peeking through in summary fashion in the Decalogue, for instance, by which all actions should be judged.
Instead, there is a God who reaches out to and into the world. And the people of the world are called to respond to that God’s initiative in creation, providence, salvation–and most of all in the person of Jesus.
Matthew, in particular, drives this point home. Get to the end of the Sermon on the Mount and you’ve just witnessed Jesus displacing the Law as the standard of righteousness, community belonging, and eschatological vindication with himself and his own teaching.
What matters in this story is how we respond to the work of God, and the Gospels invite us to see the work of God in Christ.
But if God has chosen to bind Godself to this particular storyline, doesn’t that mean that what God gives as the standard (i.e. the Law) should remain so, consistently? Put differently, even if there is no law outside of God binding God’s actions from the beginning, shouldn’t God’s actions conform to the standards of any law which God might give? Isn’t this the consequence of being a story-bound God?
That conclusion rests on the idea that the kind of law God creates is a transhistorical eternal frame within which all virtuous action must thereafter fall.
However, this is not how law works in the biblical story.
In the biblical story, the giving of commands is tied to particular moments in the story–be they the covenant promises and the command of circumcision, the Exodus and the Decalogue, or the cross and the commandment of self-sacrificing love.
This is a dynamic story in which God continues to act, and in which the actions introduce true change in the narrative of God’s people and hence in what is expected of them.
Reframing Our Moral Imagination
The purpose of Jesus is not to reaffirm a binding code by living it out perfectly in his own life. The purpose of Jesus is, with respect to ethics, to create a new type of moral imagination in which he figures prominently.
That’s why Jesus can deploy the category of guiltless lawbreaking.
To know what we are to do demands more of us than knowing what is in a vice list or virtue list or law code or saying. It demands that we behold the person of Jesus, know how he was at work in the past and is at work in the present.
It might put us on the dangerous ground of declaring that a certain action is guiltless lawbreaking. But if we won’t walk that ground we might find ourselves on the more dangerous ground of failing to embrace the work of God and therefore of condemning the guiltless.