Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Breaking the Law

In this Sunday's reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus heals a woman who has been crippled and bent over by an evil spirit for 18 years. The leader of the synagogue gets quite indignant with Jesus, because he heals the woman on the Sabbath, when the Torah (also known as the Pentateuch--literally, five books) specifies quite clearly that no work is to be done. This provides yet another opportunity for Jesus to call out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, who favor a legalistic reading of the Torah, rather than taking a common-sense or pastoral approach, as Jesus does. This story is meant to help us reflect on what it means to apply the rules of our faith to real life.

It is important to remember that the Torah that Jesus, the Pharisees, and ordinary Jewish people followed was not a legal code. We often translate that word, "Torah," as "Law," such as when we recite "the Summary of the Law" in the Book of Common Prayer, in which Jesus says that loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves are the greatest commandments, on which hang all the Law and the Prophets. Yet the word, "Torah," is more accurately translated as "teaching," "instruction," or "guidance." The longstanding practice of translating the word, "Torah," as "Law" in English is actually a translation of the Greek word, nomos, which was chosen when Jews first translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This translation, which we know as the Septuagint, rendered "Torah" as "Law," and so have we.

Fortunately, we know better now; and incidentally, so did the learned Jews of Jesus's day. The Torah was not just the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), "the Written Torah," but also the tradition of scholarly rabbinic interpretation of those five books that has been passed down through the generations and is now enshrined in the writings of the Talmud and Midrash, "the Oral Torah." Both the Written Torah and Oral Torah represent an attempt to apply holy wisdom to real-life situations. Jesus reminds the religious elite of his day that the Torah doesn't offer us a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to every situation. Real wisdom requires a person to apply the Torah's instruction and guidance creatively to each new situation, not just to offer a pat answer that will fly in the face of common sense and common decency.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

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