Jesus had regular run-ins with people who affirmed the importance of the letter of the law. They were legalistic literalists. One of the more frequent disagreements revolved around the Law of the Sabbath. Jesus set this law aside time after time after time. The law was pretty clear: “Remember the sabbath day , and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work. . . ” (Exodus 20:8-10, emphasis mine)
One sabbath, Jesus allowed his disciples to pluck heads of grain to eat. They weren’t starving. They could have fasted. Also, Jesus occasionally worked healings on the sabbath day. Generally, these people were not in crisis. He could have waited a day.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke clearly as one who would not be a literalist. In Matthew 5 he rejected three laws: 1) the specific law concerning divorce that had been handed down in the Mosaic code; 2) the law giving permission to make vows; 3) the law of retribution, i.e. an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Jesus was not a literalist. He was an essentialist. He was interested not in the letter of the law, but the essence of the law. He declared both in word and deed that the essence of the law was to love God and to love one’s ‘neighbor’. No law could be used to override or ignore the absolute law of love.
In the Gospel of John chapter 5, Jesus has a confrontation with some Jews who were upset that he had healed a man on the Sabbath Day. According to Jewish tradition, the Sabbath was the day, once a week, that God had set aside for the people of Israel to rest. This was part of the Law of Moses.
In so many words, Jesus accused his accusers of not believing in the venerated Moses. They would have scoffed at those words. They were obeying the Law of the Sabbath and Jesus was not. The did ‘believe’ in Moses. However, Jesus pointed out that Moses had prophesied concerning Jesus. Since those particular Jews did not believe in Jesus, then they were also not believing in Moses.
I hope you are still with me! I have belabored this point that they believed and did not believe in Moses in order to affirm that this pattern seems true of many American Christians today. They believe in Jesus, but they don’t believe in him at the same time.
In the sense of affirming that Jesus is Lord and Savior, America is one of the more Christian nations in the world. But how many of this great multitude believe in Jesus to the point of taking seriously his calls to non-violence in Matthew 5:38-48 and to a simplified life-style in Matthew 6:19-34? He closes this great sermon affirming that only those who act on what he has said will stand on a firm foundation.
Roads that will last must be built on solid foundations. One of the more effective pathways to God is to read the Gospels concerning Jesus over and over again on a regular basis. To do so will make it much harder to believe in Jesus and simultaneously to not believe in Jesus.