How much of the Torah Law should we live by? It’s a fair question, after all, if we claim to follow the Bible, we can’t just ignore it because it is inconvenient. Of course, this is daunting, there are 613 laws to learn and follow. Some are fairly easy, Lev. 19:13, “Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.” Those seem pretty to easy to follow, pay those you hire at the expected and agreed to time and don’t steal the neighbors’ tomatoes. Other rules are much harder. We could avoid wearing mixed cloths (Deut. 22:11), but this would mean a careful scrutiny of everything one buys and wears, The same is true with following a Kosher diet. Somethings seem to go against our morals, like forcing childless widows to marry to their deceased husband’s brother (Deut. 25:5) or a rape victims to marry her attacker (Deut. 22:28-29). On top of this, there are tons of rules that no longer seem to apply because of Jesus’s sacrifice and the lack of a Temple.
What was the purpose of the Torah in the first place? First, it was create a society that was more just and fair, a reflection of the God of Justice and Grace. Second, it was meant to set Israel apart, to make them unique from other peoples. Just as the Levites lived in special ways that marked them as the priests for the nation, the nation would live in a special ways that marked them as the priests for all nations. Last, the Law was meant to transform every action into one that was God centered. Whether you were eating, constructing a house, chatting with a friend, or taking a walk, thinking about God should be at the center of your actions.
The Torah is extremely advanced for the time of its creation, it had far more equality and protection for those that were often taken advantage of and/or looked down on. But just as we talked about the other week in the sermon, God knows that we humans cannot make huge leaps, that we do better with incremental changes. So the Torah was an advanced for its time, but draconian in many ways today. I believe that it was meant as a step in the walk towards God, not the end of the path. (Rom. 7)
But the people didn’t advance, they didn’t become more God centered, instead many people had become obsessed with following the letters of the Law and not the spirit. They were using it as an excuse to lead lives centered on greed, pride, and fear. They had failed to advance and when Jesus came and began his ministry he started the process of reforming our approach to the Torah. So when Jesus ascended to Heaven and the disciples began to into Gentiles into the Church, it begged the question, how much of the Torah should they (and we) follow the Torah rules? Thankfully there is actually a pretty easy answer to the question:
“You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:29, NIV)
This is the Council of Jerusalem’s answer for the Gentile Believers. Paul will further refine these by proclaiming it is fine to eat idol meat under certain circumstances (Rom. 13, 1 Cor. 8-10). And, frankly, the strangled meat clause as he opens up the possibility of buying meat that we don’t know how the animal was harvested.
That’s it, right‽ Just avoid eating blood* and sexual immorality and we’re good. We don’t need to worry about the other rules! Not exactly, let us look at the heart of our faith, Jesus’s Way:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17-20, NRSV)
Does this mean that the we should ignore Paul and the Council? Not exactly, I take it as a reminder that they are not releasing us to do as we wish, but rather they point us to a new understanding of how to live the Law.
Jesus took some of the Torah and advanced it even further during his Sermon on the Mount, such as providing even greater protection for women in divorce (Matt 5:31-32). Each step is meant to take us closer to the heart of the Torah, towards the Greater Commandment, to loving God perfectly as God loves us. All the positive things that mark a God-centered life flow naturally from that point. Why do we love our neighbors? Because by loving God we find ourselves loving our neighbors. Bigotry, greed, fear, sin, they are marks that we haven’t quite centered ourselves on God. That our love for God is not yet perfect.
So long story short: Do you need to follow the Torah? No, but it is fine if you choose to. Should you study the Torah? Yes, it will better help you understand how centering on God will effect every facet of your life. So read your Bible, contemplate on it, write about it, talk about it, and focus upon God.
*As a cook and someone who likes their meat rare to medium, the read that comes out of a less done piece of meat isn’t blood but myoglobin. It is similar to hemoglobin, they both transport oxygen, but it is a part of the muscle tissue and not the blood.