Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

OT Jews, NT Christians: Why such a different moral code? Part 3

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 31, 2022

From the previous installment, we can perhaps see that in Judaism there was a very real tension between the Law and mercy, but we can also see that the era of the “Law” as a formative political thing was very near its end. The Jewish diaspora had begun during the period of exile, which itself was announced as Divine punishment for the Jews’ failure to live up to the promise of the law—to retain their special Godly identity as a nation. This very human failure and God’s judgment upon it confirms that the Jewish nation as a political reality had always been simply one phase of God’s fundamental plan for mankind.

Perhaps we can see this phase as a long, civilizational lesson in what it means that each of us is to be set apart by God for Himself, that this is difficult enough in the exterior rules of life but even more difficult interiorly, and that God understands clearly that He will have to draw even closer for us to live both exteriorly and interiorly in union with Him. This thought is paramount in the prophecies of Ezekiel that God Himself will have to shepherd His people (Ez 34:11-31), as previewed in Part 1, and as Jeremiah foretold:

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [Jer 31:31-33]

As I indicated in Part 2, this urgency is clear enough in all the prophets. There is a continuing emphasis on what is really at stake in the moral life—that is, not mere external observance of customs and rules, but lives of genuine love and care for God and neighbor. The Psalms and Old Testament wisdom literature are also shot through with these insights which go far beyond outward forms and legal permissibility. Clearly, then, God’s dispensation for the Jews under the Old Covenant was only a preliminary stage in the fulfillment of His plan—the stage, perhaps, in which all mankind can learn that political forms and exterior observances, while naturally formative, are by themselves insufficient for union with God.

In any case, the old political possibilities of a legally pure people had been decidedly removed by God through the Jewish exile and subsequent weakness. Under the Romans, the Jews could not even put anyone to death. Within a generation of Christ’s time, the Temple would be definitively destroyed, never to be rebuilt, and the diaspora would be complete.

The Next Phase

We cannot, of course, fully grasp Divine Providence, as if purely by reading the signs of the times we can state with personal authority exactly what God is doing and why. It remains to a considerable extent a mystery. But by the first century AD, Jewish dispersion and degradation were fused with expectations of the long-desired Messiah. This yearning grew stronger under Roman oppression, as even the pagan victors, in control of what was perceived as the whole civilized world, sickened away in cruelty, debauchery and pessimism. This was the reality on the ground even though the Jews had been expressly instructed by the Ten Commandments and the Greeks and Romans had been given a significant philosophical understanding of the natural law—yet another stunning development, if we are attempting to discern a Providential plan.

Perhaps, then, we are able to see what was needed now: Not a new set of moral laws or a new set of political forces or legal impositions, but rather a new spirit in our fallen human nature. Perhaps mankind has at this point begun to perceive that even if we know what is right, we cannot do it with any consistency. We cannot lift ourselves to God. Perhaps the history of the Jews rules out political solutions, while the history of the Greeks and Romans rules out philosophical solutions. Perhaps if we have ears, we ought to hear.

So where are we? God had spent a thousand years forming the Jews in the Law and the Prophets and preparing the Greeks and Romans with an understanding of the natural law. And yet, as Chesterton observed in his great book The Everlasting Man, if ever there were a moment when the wave of human achievement had risen and curled and crashed, surely it was this time of the abject weakness of the Jews under the increasingly dysfunctional weight of Graeco-Roman civilization.

We humans are so constituted as to draw insight not just from our own personal experiences but from our own collective history, through which some lessons tend to work their way, so to speak, into our very bones. But at this juncture, in the early first century AD, all human achievement is crumbling into despair. If God will not stoop to save the world now, then when?

Christ and the internalization of the Law

At this point in history, God might almost have said: What we have here is a failure to communicate! That is why the prophecies of God coming Himself to shepherd His people become so pronounced: There is just too much obfuscation and even trivialization of the Law of God into particular practices which are nothing more than ways to justify ignoring the fundamental relationships the Law is designed to establish. In other words, for far too many people—and perhaps especially for those who enjoyed prosperity and human respect and high positions—the law kept degenerating into carefully orchestrated rule-based excuses for claiming righteousness without developing the right motives or doing the right thing.

Jesus Christ hammers away at this problem when He begins to teach. For example, on one occasion the Pharisees object to the fact that Christ’s disciples eat with unwashed hands. In Mark’s gospel (7:3-4), Mark explains that “the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze.”

St. Matthew (15:16-20) makes very clear that Our Lord is teaching that the Jewish dietary laws concerning what is clean and unclean were not ends in themselves but a means of getting the people to understand purity in their own hearts: “Hear and understand: It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person”. What may be most astonishing to us now is that his disciples assume here that Christ is merely using figurative language to illustrate some other point, and so they ask him to “explain this parable”!

Jesus responds rather forcefully:

Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.

Having tried plain speaking, He speaks figuratively a little later, when he cautions His disciples to “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”—those religious and legal experts who so dominated the Jewish hierarchy. But His disciples assume He must be talking about making bread, since they had brought none with them. Accordingly, and perhaps with a touch of exasperation, Jesus responds:

O men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to perceive that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. [Mt. 16:8-11]

Only then did they understand that “he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (16:12).

In this entire discussion of the law and its human manipulation, we must discern the anger in Our Lord’s response, in which He denounces the very legalism of which the Pharisees were so proud, precisely because they have missed the whole point of it. It is important to read the entire account by St. Mark, which explicitly identifies the whole problem with the Jewish observance of the Law. This problem adds to our difficulties concerning a perceived difference of moral codes between the Old Covenant and the New. For Our Lord deliberately goes far beyond the particular question they raise to the mindset which causes them to raise it:

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’; but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do. [Mk 7:6-13]

“And many such things you do.”

Here is the essential difference between the constant distortion of the Law as we encounter it in the life of the Jews in the Old Testament and the purity of the Law internalized by the wisdom of Christ who brings the Law to perfection in the New Testament: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets,” Our Lord exclaims, “I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Mt 5:17).

As I was writing this series I was, by a happy coincidence, also rereading the Gospel of St. Matthew. In chapter 23, Our Lord condemns the religious teachers of the time. It is well worth rereading: Pronouncing a seven-fold woe on them, Our Lord repeatedly demonstrates how they emphasize minor human distinctions and miss the whole point, concluding:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity [Mt 23:27-28].

It is their hypocrisy that offends Christ most. Then, in the very next chapter He offers the parable of the servant left in charge of a household while the master is away. This unjust servant takes advantage of the situation to eat and drink and abuse his fellow servants. And what will happen is this: “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (24:50-51).

And immediately following this, in chapter 25, Matthew presents Christ’s discourse on the final judgment, when the King will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at his left: “And then they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (25:31-46).

The problem at the heart of this whole discussion is not that the moral code imposed upon the Jews under the Old Testament is radically different from the moral code imposed upon Christians now. The problem is with the “many such things” we do, the many external preoccupations with purity and propriety which were often never internalized by the Jews and—dare I mention it—also the preoccupation among Christians today with a conveniently shallow attitude of “hearts being in the right place” (or perhaps our being “on the right side of history”) such that we interpret into nothingness any aspect of the moral Law which runs contrary to either our own desires or the characteristic faults of our culture.

A moral code both more merciful and tougher

Clearly the Jewish people are at a new stage in the history of their salvation. I have suggested some reasons for the timing, but they must remain suggestions, or hopefully insights. In any case, it is no longer the moment for a righteous nation set apart for God to impose severe criminal punishments to purify the nation. It is the moment for the whole heavy load of a confused humanity to recognize their own sinfulness and their own need for mercy. Even if human governments ought to impose punishments to limit evil and protect the citizenry, it is the time for all of us—and especially religious leaders—to hate the sin but love the sinner, and to recognize their own need for mercy, so that (as recounted in John’s gospel), each of us says in his heart, with Christ Himself, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:7).

But now, recalling the question this series was written to answer (“OT Jews, NT Christians: Why such a different moral code?”), we must beware of concluding that the moral code has been made easier. Quite the contrary, while the punitive role of a theocratic state has been removed, the ultimate stakes remain the same, and the moral code has actually, in Christ, become not only fundamentally spirit-driven but far more challenging. I have already mentioned God’s intention to write the law in our hearts, at the core of our being. But Christ Himself explained right from the first, in the Sermon on the Mount, what this really means:

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.... You have heard that it was said to the men of old, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, “You fool!” shall be liable to the hell of fire.... You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.... You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [read in entirety Mt 5:13-48]

We are called to a life that it is possible to live only when God dwells within us, when God shares His very life with us, which is the meaning of grace. And though it is beyond the scope of this series, it will be clear to most of my readers that it is precisely through the sacramental presence of Christ in the Church that we receive and take full advantage of this Divine gift. Fortunately, then, while we cannot say with absolute certainty precisely why God’s plan includes these various stages of salvation history, and neither can we fully grasp their times and seasons, we can now look back and, with the help of the Church Christ founded and the Scriptures He inspired, gain insights which are very helpful to us today.

But each of us must ask whether we are getting the Message, whether we are taking advantage of the Plan. What the Jews slid over by focusing on external prescriptions we may well slide over today in the name of personal liberty, self-fulfillment and what “everybody knows”. If the Jews used an externalized grasp of the law as an excuse to justify themselves, and so to do whatever they wished, we may well use a dim awareness of the life of grace as an excuse to follow our personal inclinations, and so do whatever we wish. In both cases, our consciences are effectively silenced, for whether by the abuse of law or the abuse of grace, we have already reinterpreted ourselves as angels of light.

Though I am ashamed to admit it, and just as Our Lord told the religious leaders of His own day (Mk 7:13): There are many such things that we do.

Previous in series: OT Jews, NT Christians: Why such a different moral code? Part 2

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Jun. 01, 2022 9:30 AM ET USA

    I've found this series to be a great benefit, thanks.