February 28, 2015: Jot and tittles of which law?
Lent Day 11: What I Believe, Chapter 5
In Chapter 5 Tolstoy splits hairs over the Church’s 1600-year-old interpretation of pivotal point in Christian doctrine: Jesus support or non-support of the written Hebrew law. But the little point he disputes is one on which the entire history of the world balances and, it might be argued, its destiny depends.
Tolstoy examines the two meanings of the word “law” as it is used in the Gospels. In Tolstoy’s new found understanding, Jesus is calling people to abandon the existing law, as expressed in the Hebrew scripture, and embrace the higher law of God. The law of God is not new, is in fact eternal, and is hinted at and alluded to in the old scriptures, but it is not the law that humans have, hitherto, ever followed.
The old – or Mosaic law – is based on retribution for wrongs and protecting our rights (“i.e., “an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth”). This very human-based approach to organizing societal order is the root of our criminal code and our systems of law enforcement and methods of punishment. The law of God, which Jesus was teaching, is based on a completely different foundation. Rather than being built on a foundation of fear of punishment, this law is built on a foundation of love, non-violence, and putting the needs of others before self.
Since the New Testament scriptures continually refer the law this and the law that, it is easy for humans to misunderstand, and even to purposefully misinterpret Jesus’ message to mean what it does not mean: that He came not to abolish the old law but to confirm it. This little point, whether Jesus meant to confirm or abolish the old law, makes a rather essential difference in what it means to be a Christian, and how we ought to live if we want to live lives of genuine truth and meaning .
Tolstoy focuses on the key verses in this controversy: Matthew 5:17-19. These verses, he says, always bothered him. I’m glad to know I am not the only one. The passage reads, “Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass, not one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the law, until all is fulfilled.”
Well the Church, meaning nearly all denominations, have jumped all over those words and proclaimed them as proof that Jesus was all for the Mosaic (as written) law. But wait just a minute! says Tolstoy. Does is not give you pause that Jesus, who is all about forgiveness of sin, who stopped the stoning of a woman, who broke the rules of the Sabbath, who tells people to take the moat out their own eye before judging the specks in other peoples’ eyes, should suddenly be okay with all the bizarre and harsh laws of the Old Testament: stoning, killing disobedient children, poking out eyes, etc.? Something, says Tolstoy, is wrong with this picture.
Can we resolve this disturbing inconsistency? Tolstoy says yes. Once we see this verse in its correct interpretation, once we identify the error, the puzzle pieces fall will into place and the inconsistency will disappear. Next: Tolstoy explains the error.
(TO BE CONTINUED)