The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 26, 2023 - 6:01:33

Law and judgment in the new paradigm

Katie van Schaijik, May 11, 2018

Amid all the ongoing disdain for the Pope in certain conservative circles, a March Gospel reading stood out to me. It's from John 7:40-53. In the preceding verses, controversy is brewing over Jesus' teaching and his healing of a blind man on the Sabbath. The religious leaders of the day resent him and begin plotting against him.

Jesus challenges them:

21 “I did one miracle, and you are all amazed. 22 Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs),you circumcise a boy on the Sabbath. 23 Now if a boy can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath? 24 Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”

Judging correctly evidently means not prioritizing the letter of the law over its spirit. It means grasping and the real thrust and meaning of the law as being for man. The Pharisees were instead using it as a means of controlling others and aggrandizing themselves.

Then Jesus promises that springs of living water will flow within anyone who believes in him.

40 On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”

41 Others said, “He is the Messiah.”

Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee? 42 Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” 43 Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. 44 Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.

45 Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?”

46 “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied.

47 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. 48 “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”

50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked,51 “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”

52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”

Notice that rather than being moved by the testimony of those who have personally experienced Jesus, they're only interested in the law. They show contempt for those who aren't as well-versed in it as they are. They are experts, and they know, as the ignorant crowd doesn't, that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem, not Galilee. The crowd, meanwhile, may not really know or care about all that, but they're open to experience, and they recognize that Jesus speaks and acts with divine authority. 

The Pharisees were right that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem, but they were wrong in a much deeper and more important sense. Their vaunted expertise backfired on them. Their inner attitude and their attachment to a too-narrow understanding of the law led them to reject Jesus. The unlettered crowd, whose hopes and expectations came from their experience of need and their hope of salvation were in a much better position, spiritually speaking, to recognize Him.

Notice too that this Gospel passage does nothing to suggest that the law isn't important and needn't be fulfilled. On the contrary. The reader relishes the irony of knowing what that Pharisees don't—that Jesus did come from Bethlehem. The law will be fulfilled, but in a way that takes experts in the law by surprise.

It's almost as if the whole thing were arranged by the Holy Spirit to foil the law-obsessed.