Which is more important to you?

I have a question: Did Jesus like people to follow the rules? 

 Jesus said that not one jot of the law would pass away, and he certainly followed the rules himself (see the bit about paying the Temple tax) but there were times he didn’t (picking heads of grain on the Sabbath). But what about breaking the rules he’d set out?

I’m a little flamboyant with the phrase ‘breaking the rules’ though, so I’ll just cut to the chase. Luke 16 shows us ten lepers who ask Jesus to heal them. Jesus doesn’t say he’s going to do it; he just tells them to go show themselves to the priests (which sounds a lot like “fill these stone jars with water” and “bring it to the steward” because at no point does he say “and then a miracle occurs.”) And they go.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, on the way there, they notice they’re healed, and one of them turns back to go tell Jesus thank you. Jesus says, “Weren’t all ten made whole?” and asks why only the foreigner (a Samaritan) came back to thank him.

All my life, when I’ve heard that story, I’ve resolved to be more thankful. And the last time, I realized, that’s not the point at all.

The point was, nine of them followed the rules and did exactly what Jesus told them to do. The one who didn’t was the one raised outside the Jewish system, the Samaritan, who probably didn’t care so much for the rules of Jewish society as much as he cared, “Sweet! I’m healthy again!” 

We don’t know that the other nine weren’t going to track back and find Jesus to thank him after they did what he said to do. But I can tell you right now that if it were me that happened to, that I would go and do everything Jesus had told me to do for fear that he’d take away the good thing if I didn’t complete the task he’d set me. (And no, he didn’t. God doesn’t take the gifts away if you’re insufficiently thankful.)

I’ve read about Lot’s wife, turned into a pillar of salt for turning back to look at a burning Sodom. Would I want to be turned back into a leper? No. Therefore, if Jesus said, “Go show yourself to the priests,” there I would have been, showing myself to the priests. And then I’d go over to Burdick Chocolates to pick up a little thank you gift for Jesus to show him just how happy I was.

So what did Jesus expect, I wonder? Didn’t he want people to do what he said?

Kind of a scratch-your-head moment for your friendly neighborhood rules-conscious Philangelus.


  1. Christine (Oxymoroness)

    At that point in time, one of Jesus’s major battles was with the Pharisees over legalism.

    The value of “follow the rules and you’ll be righteous” in the Pharisees’ mind and what they taught was far greater than, “do what is right and be holy.” — The rules were so important to them that instead of following them, they just kept elaborating on them and making up more and more as they went along.

    In fact, many of the rules Jesus “broke” were man-made and not God-ordained.

    Jesus didn’t condemn the 9 who followed the rules, they were still cured … but he praised the one who remembered him [i]first[/i] — and followed the rules second. Not so much encouraging rebellion, but more like encouraging prioritites.

    What sticks out in my mind the most is what Paul said. “Who would die for a righteous [aka … “right” follow-the-rules kinda guy] man, but for a [i]good man[/i] [compassionate, even if not a by-the-booker] one might dare to die.”

    I like rules, rules keep most people from doing really stupid things, but I prefer those who look at rules objectively and ask, “Is this a rule God would approve of?”

  2. philangelus

    Good points, Christine.

    At heart, I’m a legalist, and I’m well aware that my legalism stems from fear. If I follow the rules, I’m effectively playing it safe: I won’t really be noticed and I don’t have to worry about having the higher-ups turn on me. And to some extent, playing by the rules really is the best way to go about things (ie, if you follow the rules about not drinking and driving, you don’t plow into a tree and kill your passengers.)

    But over-legalism (or “scrupulosity”) becomes a problem for me when I start getting paralyzed about the rules: I know I did the right thing, but did I do it the right way? Etc.

    A lot of the time, God does approve of the rule but doesn’t want us tying ourselves in knots over it. I’m bad about that.

    I still would have completed Jesus’ instructions first and then sent him a nice thank-you note and token gift afterward. 🙂

  3. ivyreisner

    This is a turning point in human theology that’s hard to understand from a modern perspective. Prior to Christianity all religions were orthopraxys (right practice) not orthodoxys (right thinking).

    Ra wanted myrrh burned as an offering at noon every day. If you liked Ra. If you hated Ra. If you thought the whole thing was hogwash, that mattered not in the least. You burn the myrrh and he’s satisfied.

    It’s like driving the speed limit. The cop doesn’t care if you hate it, love it, or think it the tool of timid lesser beings to keep competent drivers from getting places fast, if you’re going the limit, you’re fine. Early Judaism was exactly that. If you did what you were supposed to do, that’s what really mattered.

    Christianity puts thought and feeling into the picture. Suddenly you can’t go to a worship practice like Communion and think “wow this is a pile of nonsense” and have it count. Your heart has to be in it. Intention suddenly matters, and sometimes trumps actions. That had to have been a hard thing for the ancient world to understand. What you’re witnessing is that being played out and figured out.

  4. philangelus

    I’d be the person peering at the altar wondering if the myrrh had burned *enough* that the sun would come up tomorrow.

  5. Christine (Oxymoroness)

    “Early Judaism was exactly that. If you did what you were supposed to do, that’s what really mattered.”

    I agree, for the most part.

    Judaism in Christ’s time was like that. Further back, the heart is still what ultimately mattered. The Law of Moses was what was intended to set-up Christianity. Which is why there were so many provisions made for welcoming strangers, loving God first and foremost, rules that protected women and children’s health (very strange for that period of time), and also commands concerning the forgiveness of debts (the year of jubilee).

    These were rules that to everyone else would have seemed impractical, unnecessary and even silly.

    Yet these were rules that were supposed to plant the seeds of compassion and understanding into an entire culture.

    Naturally, things didn’t necessarily work out as planned. That can be seen in the Psalms and the writings of the major and minor prophets, were God scorns and rejects the offerings because their hearts weren’t repentant and not in the right place.

  6. Jenni

    Amazing thoughts!
    I was just talking to my husband the other day about the “spirit of the law” as we got to the verse in Mark about the Sabbath being made for man as opposed to the other way around.

    And that is true that the new covenant went deeper than following the rules. It used to be that if you didn’t commit adultery, you were fine. Then the New Testament was if you thought about it in your heart than you’d done it. And along those lines, I think it’s interesting that the Catholic Church stresses confession of thoughts more so than the other denominations. A teacher once said that bringing thoughts captive to Jesus just meant that you didn’t speak the wrong ones. But I’m thinking now that’s only half the battle, that you need to rebuke and confess the thought – not just not voice it.

  7. ivyreisner

    The rules to protect women and children, forgive debt, and welcome strangers are still rules, action items. Some of them seemed unnecessary, such as the laws about not wearing wool and linen in the same garment, but that’s because they were an aspect of being part of a covenant community. Most faiths have these. Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays for much the same reason. It’s not a practical concern; it’s a religious one.

    The Torah isn’t a set-up per se. It’s complete. It’s like building a table. The table is sturdy. It works. You can put a laptop on it and go surf the Internet. If someone puts a calendar on the table, it doesn’t mean that the table was a set up for the calendar.

    IMHO things are working out just as planned. Sure G-d scolds us, as any parent would a child. But disciplining and teaching a child is an expected part of being a parent.

  8. Christine (Oxymoroness)

    If the Torah were complete, then why did Christ come to “fulfill the law” ?

    The Torah [aka “Da Rules”] in-it-of-itself led to the promise that led to salvation. The sacrifices, the scapegoat, the year of jubilee and most of all the Passover were are prophesies of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

    Paul wrote how by it was the forefather’s faith in God’s *promise* that led them to salvation. After Christ’s death and resurrection it became faith in the *promise fulfilled* that leads to salvation. One cannot be “saved” by simply fulfilling the Law, because it is impossible to do so flawlessly.

    Paul also wrote that Christ did not *negate* the Law, he fulfilled it and in doing so set up a New Covenant. Through faith first, salvation is obtained, after faith comes the responsibility to obey God, which includes *parts* of the law. Other parts of the law are no longer necessary because of Christ’s one sacrifice which *completed* those parts. (Things such as the kosher diet and the sacrificial system.)

  9. philangelus

    Christine, Ivy is Jewish, so unless I”m drastically wrong, she doesn’t believe Jesus fulfilled the law, only that he was a good Jew who abided by it. 🙂

    But I think what we’re seeing here is the basis of that false dichotomy between faith and works. Works alone can’t get us into Heaven (we need the intention/will to follow God) and faith alone doesn’t suffice either (to quote Jesus, “If you love me, do what I tell you.” Or the entire book of James. Or Paul: If I have enough faith to move mountains but have no love, then I’m nothing.)

    God wants that combination of the two, the deeds that prove our faith and love *as well as* the faith and love that spawn the deeds. Ideally, they’re a circular relationship, with your faith leading to more deeds and your deeds reinforcing your faith. And always the pair of them moving us closer at heart to God.

    But that’s one reason why this incident in the Gospel puzzled me so much. Because Jesus told them specifically what to do and then reacted negatively to the nine people actually going and doing it. They may well have been thankful to the bottom of their souls, but we don’t know it. (ah, we don’t know it because they didn’t act on their thankfulness?)

    And then he praises the one who didn’t do what he said to go do.

    Maybe it stings to not be acknowledged, even if you’re God. But it almost sounds as if Jesus didn’t give the other nine a chance to do both.

  10. Christine (Oxymoroness)

    Ooops, sorry Ivy! (blushes)

    Many times, Jesus demonstrated that he knew what was going on in people’s hearts. Perhaps he already knew who was grateful and who wasn’t? (And yet healed them all anyway.)

  11. philangelus

    It could be. And yeah, he went ahead with it.

    Maybe the one who turned back had such an overwhelming gratitude that he had to express it immediately? And that’s what God wants?

  12. ivyreisner

    I like that idea, Jane, deeds and faith combined.

    In the situation listed, I agree with you completely. I would do as I was told and then bring some token gift to say thank you.

    It’s interesting too because there is a long-standing tradition of a holy man securing a blessing, even healing. Often those come with some kind of stipulation like “go and study Torah” or “go and help the needy”. For such a man to say “go present yourself to the priests” would be perfectly normal. For the Israelites, steeped in that tradition, it would be the height of rudeness to not go and do what they were told. Which cycles back to something you said a long time ago, if on some alien world sticking up your middle finger at someone is a sign of abject respect and adoration, and a person from that world flipped off G-d, G-d would understand the intention and accept what the person means by it. In this story, all ten people are showing gratitude in accordance to their own culture and understanding. Unless the nine never bothered to present themselves.

  13. ivyreisner

    Gah, messed up my edits. I meant “absolute” not “abject”. Sorry.

  14. Jenni

    I agree and the faith/works things trips up a lot of Christians. That’s why some protestants think Catholics “work” for their salvation when it’s a misunderstanding of the importance that Catholics place on “Faith without works is dead”.

    Hebrews was written for the Christians who think that once they’re saved they don’t have to worry about anything and they’ll automatically go to Heaven.

  15. philangelus

    And similarly, works without faith is dead.

    I imagine Satan sits around rubbing his hands together and laughing smugly whenever people get into the faith/works argument. It’s like a bunch of doctors sitting around arguing about whether blood or oxygen is more important for a human being.

    “Well without oxygen the person asphyxiates!”
    “Well without blood the person can’t get the oxygen to his systems!”
    “Are you saying BLOOD is important for a living creature? As we all know, oxygen is important! That means blood is valueless.”

    Etc etc etc. You need both, and you need them in the right places.

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  17. CricketB

    I suspect I’d do the same as Jane: Do what He said, and send my thanks through prayer and forward service. I can understand, though, one rushing back and thanking Him before He moved on, rather than going directly to the priests who will be there for a while.

    I’m more surprised that Jesus felt the need to be thanked in person. What about doing good work that you won’t be thanked for because they don’t know who to thank? Does God not forward his Prayer-Mail?

    My interpretation of Jesus’s initial instructions, given that they were cured en route, was he wanted the Priests, and others, to see that He was working miracles.

  18. Jenni

    In a bigger “following the rules” question – whenever Jesus did miracles, he warned the people not to tell others about him. Why? Of course this only made everyone talk more and word spread like wildfire. I can’t imagine that he would be using reverse psychology, so why did he always warn them to keep quiet and was it better that they didn’t?