November 26, 2008

The Basis of the Higher Law

The Judeo-Christian Ethic, as a phrase, should be relegated to the place it once occupied as a legal term describing Western notions of justice and legal precedence. I say this, because each time the phrase is used in reference to religious beliefs, it inevitably gets defined by the Ten Commandments, which are far more Judeo than they are Christian. While this statement is an observation and not meant as a critique of religious systems, it’s clear that Christ used the Mosaic tradition as a starting-off point for a far more ambitious ideal that little resembles the context from which it emerged.

Consider the Sermon on the Mount. An important implication of this defining discourse is its claim that there are higher and lesser laws. In Matthew 5, Jesus contrasts the Mosaic Law to His gospel in five telling passages that play upon the same theme. For example, in verses 21 and 22, we read:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
The meaning is clear. While the Law of Moses has its demands, Jesus’ gospel requires another, arguably higher, standard altogether. According to the passage, it’s not good enough that we refrain from murder, but we must also bridle our angry thoughts and displays, as well. By enumerating the principal difference between the two laws, Jesus establishes three kinds of actions.
  • Actions that are inconsistent with either standard—let’s call this, “The Law of the Jungle”
  • Actions that are consistent with the Law of Moses
  • Actions that are consistent with the gospel of Jesus
Notice how these standards differ by Christ’s own reckoning:

To assume that the Ten Commandments are all we are required to observe misses the point of Christ’s most salient discourse. As CS Lewis says in, The Problem of Pain:
To disobey your proper law (i.e., the law God makes for a being such as you) means to find yourself obeying one of God’s lower laws: e.g. if, when walking on slippery pavement, you neglect the law of Prudence, you suddenly find yourself obeying the law of gravitation.
The implication is extraordinarily important and scarcely ever noted. During our times of honest introspection, it’s not enough to ask: Am I obedient? Human beings have no choice but to be obedient. The more useful question is: To what am I being obedient, a lower or higher law?

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