Guiltless Lawbreaking

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.

The Challenge

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.

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13 thoughts on “Guiltless Lawbreaking

  1. Daniel,

    Of course I think what you are saying here is important (and in broad agreement), but I don’t think you have gotten the center of this story. I think the next verse is where the real value is: “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.” This goes hand in hand with the story of David. Jesus is implicitly saying that his presence replaces (or makes redundant) the Temple and the meeting place of heaven and earth. If David (as a priest of sorts) eat the bread of presence, so too Jesus (a new high priest) and his followers (the proto-priesthood of all believers) can partake without breaking the law because the law was only there to facilitate and encournter with the presence of God (but not the facilitating Law is not needed because God is already present in Jesus).

    I worry that using the passage as you suggest leans toward a type of “trans-valuation” of morality via “guiltless lawbreaking” that will get overly disconnected from the story of Jesus who still held very strong moral values.

    I think we should read this story as more to do with the Temple and how the Law/Sabbath serves the temple, rather than the reverse. (And if you hear Watson, Beale, and Perrin in the background, you would be right).


    1. A couple of thoughts, Geoff.

      First, I am not sure how this post can be accused of disconnecting from the story of Jesus when the whole point of the post is that the revelation of God in Jesus determines what is good. It does not keep Jesus as you have chosen to interpret his significance front and center, but that’s not the same thing as disconnecting morality from Jesus.

      Second, I am not persuaded that Jesus as temple is an exegetically sound way of reading the Synoptic Gospels. John, yes. Matthew, no. Jesus does claim to be greater than the Temple here, which keeps his own person front and center as you rightfully point out. Morality is determined by service that is derivative of him.

      David is helpful, but not as a proto-priest (he is that at points, but not in the story Jesus cites and not in the way Jesus deploys it). He is helpful as an anointed king en route to his throne. He has no right to the bread based on being “a priest of sorts,” and that lack of right is the point of comparison. That is another instance of guiltless lawbreaking determined by the presence of God’s anointed.

      1. Thanks for the reply.

        I don’t think you are disconnecting Jesus from the larger story, but that it could be easily done from your exegetical emphasis. Without further qualification I hear all sorts of people expanding this type of argument to allow all sorts of things (and when we begin to qualify it will the force you given be as significant, I don’t know).

        Regarding the Temple and Jesus, yes the theme in the Synoptics is not nearly like it is in John, but in this passage it seems the emphasis. If Jesus has only brought up David then your point would stand, that the Lord’s anointed bends/breaks the rules. But he drives it how with reference to what the priests do on the Sabbath. Jesus is pressing into the issue to suggest that the Law/Sabbath/Temple is not primarily about (human) purity but (divine) presence, which is what the Temple was for.

        I suppose part of the rub for me is that I don’t think this is a particular innovation of Jesus, as the quotation of Hosea indicates, such that the larger story gives us hints at what Jesus is doing rather than Jesus innovating as the Lord of the Sabbath (which of course he is).

  2. I would be concerned that “following Jesus” would become a metaphor for “doing the loving thing” which is a metaphor for capitulating to the social good of the age.

    1. I hear you. One of the reasons this passage and others like it are somewhat scary is that it shows us that we are not on safer ground by being more conservative or “biblical” in our ethics. We have to figure out what Jesus has to do with it.

  3. If there is no “transhistorical moral law, deeply embedded in the fabric of the universe,” what did Paul mean when he wrote:

    “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, or misunderstanding Paul (or both), but this seems to completely contradict your point. There IS a transhistorical (since the creation of the world) moral law (so that people are without excuse) embedded in the fabric of the universe (being understood from what has been made).

      1. But that just doesn’t make sense in the context of Romans 1. Paul is talking about “all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (verse 18), which leads right into verse 20. He then goes on to speak about “every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity,” including sexually immoral behavior. All of this stems from people not recognizing God’s moral law, which is so enmeshed into the fabric of the universe that everyone, not just believers, are without excuse for not seeing it. Isn’t that what Paul is saying here?

        1. Ah, those verses!

          I have a couple of thoughts.

          One of them is that Rom 1:18ff. is unusual in the NT, and especially in Paul, for basing an ethic on creation/nature rather than redemption. For Paul in particular the death and resurrection of Christ lies at the center of his instruction to the churches in a way that this natural law argument does not. I do not mean to imply that just because it only appears here we can blow it off. But, I do mean to say that we need to ask why it is only here that he talks this way, and if it has something to do with the particular circumstances or rhetorical contingency of the letter.

          Second, it is interesting that what is known is listed, first and foremost, as attributes of the Divine. What they should know is who God is, but since they don’t act on this, God gives them over to all sorts of improper behaviors.

          Third, the end of the chapter comes around to the notion of knowing that certain things are unlawful, but people doing them anyway.

          How do I take all of this in light of what I see is the larger dynamic of ethics being contingent on the acts of God?

          First, it is important to see in Rom 1 that Paul does not appeal to a law outside of space and time, but things we should know based on creation. While I see the works of God in redemption being more important for our ethics, there is also a need to respond to what is reflected in nature, as much as we can know that.

          Second, I think it would be difficult to say what things “nature” shows us in a way that actually reflects people of all times and places–though there are a few things that we might pinpoint. People of different times and places actually think different things are obvious. And this is why the revelation of God that coincides with redemption is so important–it spells things out.

          Third, it is in the particulars that we are often surprised. I would say that the two great commands to love God and love neighbor are constants, but that what they look like varies in different times and places. Often the NT demands love for neighbor in ways that an OT Israelite could not imagine being required to love, but that a follower of Jesus must take as absolutely essential.

          Overall, when I wrestle with Rom 1 I try to find a way to include it in the dynamic paradigm I articulated in the original post because that is the more prevalent as I see the NT articulating its ethics. And I think it can fit, if somewhat uneasily or as a surprising sort of addition.

  4. Thanks for this post, Daniel. I find the example of Jesus confusing, in that he appeals to a legal precedent (Numbers 28) but calls it unlawful. Is it possible that Jesus is simply working with their categories (law breaking & implied Sabbath desecration) to reveal his identity, and not making a generic ethical point at all? Hays made a convincing argument on this text that Jesus–as ‘God with us’–is now the greater one whose presence sanctifies the work of those who serve him. In this line of thinking, Jesus isn’t so much the new temple as he is Yahweh’s presence. He then links this to Matt 18:20, ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I AM there among them.’

    I think there are ethical implications here, mainly in terms of a challenge about the kind of community that now has access to sacred space, and the criteria for sacred duty (Matt 12:7).

    Thanks for your posts.

    1. Hi, Matthew, I have to say that I don’t find Hays compelling on this point. I have some significant disagreements about how Matthew wants us to understand Jesus’s identity. Jesus is not God incarnate in Matthew, though he is the indication that God is with God’s people to save them. As Messiah, Jesus is the greater one who is present. But that sense of presence with the divine overtone is closer to John than Matthew. I also am wary/doubtful of “I am” having mystical divine connotations.

      I do think that Jesus is disclosing his identity as authority-possessing son of humanity. And, I think that this disclosure is inseparable from ethics. Jesus is teaching like one having authority, not like the scribes. He occupies a place that enables him to say what is good or not.

  5. I see this teaching as a crux and therefore critical to understand. The synoptics all discuss this (it is therefore said to be a part of the triple tradition). The discussions are found in Matt 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5.

    My take is that one needs to try to form a comprehensive and coherent teaching from all the accounts even tho each gospel author can choose to either write or leave out specific parts for his own reasons. In other words, I think it is a mistake to try to figure out what each teaching means independently and not consider how each account gives us information, at least potentially. Part of my rationale is that I have seen claims that the argument Jesus gives does not make sense, but I think this claim means that the claimant could not figure out the argument.

    Let me say up front that I see Jesus as a Jew and furthermore a Torah-pursuant Jew teaching Torah correctly, based on his claims elsewhere. The question I see Jesus addressing here is what does one do when 2 commands in Torah that seem to apply to a situation are in conflict that is, trying to obey each one by itself leads to 2 different actions so that one cannot obey both. In other words, which laws trump other laws? This is why it is a critical teaching. But because SOME laws may get trumped some times, it is possible to (I think wrongly) claim that all laws are trumped or obsolete, so this is another reason I see this teaching as critical.

    Notice that Jesus does not claim that the Sabbath law was not broken, that is, transgressed; his argument is that the Sabbath law is trumped in some cases and he argument is based on teachings in the Tanakh. The fullest argument is in Matt, so I will explain that as I understand it.

    Jesus points out that (1) David was hungry and violated the rules of the temple service and (2) the priests at the temple service violate the Sabbath prohibition of no work by doing work (actions that are commanded in Torah), therefore (3) when a disciple of Jesus violates a Sabbath prohibition on no work because of hunger, it is OK. That is, since (1) trumps (2) and (2) trumps (3), then (1) trumps (3), the trumping principle is transitive.

    This has HUGE implications when Jesus says that the 2 greatest commandments are to love God and love others as oneself, as they are the ultimate trump commands.

  6. About the appeal to natural law in Rom. 1: I think that this arises, like the whole Epistle, because of the pastoral situation at Rome. Paul is saying that when it comes to false worship and all its evil consequences, everybody knows, and nobody does, so there can be no excuses. The Gentile knows the identity of the Creator, and the moral law, independent of Moses (which can be clearly demonstrated from all human traditions), the Jew has learnt these in the matrix of his religion. But neither group is less needy than the other, so there must be salvation. And so there is true equality between the quarrelling groups in the church.

    About what is being said in your Matthew passage and its parallels: I believe that running through the Synoptics (and John too) is the fundamental question Who is Jesus, and that this is particularly true of those episodes when someone tries to put Him on the spot, often to get Him in wrong with someone. For decades I have meditated on Lk. 10, getting I thought plenty out of it. But just recently I have realised that I was missing the fact that when Jesus says, “You have answered right”, He must ALSO be saying, “I am right to say that your answer is right, because I gave the Law.” Who is the Jesus Who died and rose again is surely the question to which the run-up to the Passion Narrative parts of the Gospels are the answer. To refer back to another running thread, of course that question is about His whole person including the full humanity.

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