Worshipping a dead law

July 7, 2009 | 24 comments
By

A couple of years ago I got really interested in the Law of Moses. It’s hard to read the scriptures and miss it—particularly the Book of Mormon or the Bible. I can’t help but feel like it was the issue of the day. The thing that, for one reason or another, many members of the ancient Church just couldn’t get their heads around. I can almost see Paul sitting up late at night, rubbing his temples, trying to think of another way to teach that the Law of Moses had been fulfilled, that salvation was—always was—in Christ, that if they couldn’t understand that critical doctrine they didn’t get any of it.

I wondered why the ancient Saints had such a hard time understanding it.

Recently, I was vacuuming our chapel. The night before, I’d been at Cub Scouts, and that afternoon, I had to be at a ward activity. I was in charge of sharing time the next day, and there was ward council, and, and, and.

I don’t mind going to these things. I don’t even mind that sometimes, building the kingdom means coming up with an act for the ward talent show. I’m not saying there are too many meetings and too many requirements. It’s just that it doesn’t amount to much if we don’t personally consecrate them.

Alone in the chapel, it hit me that I’d been hopping from one Church-related activity to the next without ever acknowledging that I do these things because I love God. And so I had removed a significant portion of their meaning.

You might even say I was worshipping a dead law.

“And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law. Every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea,infinite and eternal” (Alma 34:14).

24 Responses to Worshipping a dead law

  1. Dan on July 7, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Why did the ancient Israelites not get it from one Pauline letter? Or maybe two, or three visits? Why didn’t they get that Jesus fulfilled the law from just a couple of testimonies? After 2000 years of having the Law of Moses hammered into their brains, into their culture, their very beings, it was rather inevitable that they would not get it.

  2. Kim Siever on July 7, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    Thanks for this great insight and reminder. Now that I am no longer EQP, I have less to go to. Nevertheless, there’s still some.

  3. HeidiAnn on July 7, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    I’m going to share this post with my presidency in our next meeting. What a great reminder. Thank you so much!

  4. Jonovitch on July 7, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    I do my home teaching not because I’m duty-bound to fulfill my “priesthood responsibility” — ack — but because I’m trying to care for those people (most of whom are inactive) as Jesus Christ might care for them.

    Jon

  5. Sarah on July 8, 2009 at 8:57 am

    A great stake president of mine once opened a stake conference by praising the efforts of the saints. He noted how there was a clear striving for perfection among us – the t’s were being crossed and i’s dotted. He talked about our efforts in our callings, in our scholastic achievements, in trying to choose the right… but there the praise abruptly stopped. President G. pointed out that we were doing right things most often for wrong reasons. We were aghast – loving our neighbor? Seeking for answers? Wanting to live with our families forever? It’s not like we were in it for the money. His point was clear – that these things were good ways to get us to do good things, but our primary motivator should always be to serve the God we love.

    I remember being taken aback, thinking about all of those promises of blessings and eternal life – weren’t those great causes for motivation? But the chasing of these promised blessings appeal in many ways to the where’s-my-allowance-i’ve-earned-it kid in me; I want that, I fulfilled the required duty for it, I’m justified in my reward, pay up. Offering my tithes in seeking out those windows of heaven blessings, while still good and proper, is not the same as paying my tithing because I love God and want to give where I have been given much. I surmise that to be motivated purely out of love for God makes us more like Christ than any other attribute, as this was his primary motivator for every perfect action.

  6. Brohammas on July 8, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Does building the kingdom ever really mean participating in a ward talent show?
    There are many, MANY, activities or events in church that have a purpose such as “to have fun” (talent show), and in such cases that the event does not fulfill that purpose for me, I feel no obligation to attend or participate……
    OK I’m lying, I do feel obligated, and so do most members.
    This is the fast lane to burnout and emotional dissconnection. We do so many things because we feel obligated, especially in the planning and execution, that we often forget and miss the purpose.
    Quite often a higher purpose would be fulfilled if we adjusted or even occassionally skipped an activity, had one less meeting, spent more time enjoying our family (both direct and ward family), actually administering to one another rather than briskly delivering a meel or leaving cookies on the doorstep.

  7. Hunter on July 8, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Good thoughts. As for Brohammas’ point about how we can get busy doing things at a superficial level, the contrarian in me thinks that even if some things are done in a less-than grandiose or meaningful way, they are still getting done. What I mean by that is that the Ward 4th of July breakfast is still bringing a community of believers together; that poorly prepared or shoddily-delivered Sunday School lesson is still getting taught.

    In other words, I think we sometimes glorify sitting at home too much.

    But as to the main point of the post, how wonderful when our meetings and duties and activities actually combine with spirit and love and purpose. Thanks for this, Rebecca! A great post.

  8. Jerry on July 8, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    I am not sure I see the law of Moses as doing things at a superficial level as much as micromanaging a people that didn’t understand God. We still have many things in our church that fall into this arena. The dress and grooming standards that were just handed out. Avoiding alcohol and coffee which by many has been intrerpreted to caffiene are all law of Moses rules they do not give us any understanding of God or bring us to Jesus (he had a beard drank coffee and alcohol which were common in the middle east).

    But your point about understanding why we do what we do is a good one. I do think we should be very careful of why we have meetings so they stay focused and productive.

  9. Rebecca Smylie on July 8, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Dan–you don’t think the Israelites (and more specifically, the Jews) only got on Pauline letter or a couple of visits regarding this topic? I imagine they heard it from the bishops and stake presidents too. And while the Law of Moses was still in force, they were still supposed to be doing everything unto Christ. The records we have of what they were being taught (think Abindai) make that clear. The reason they got the Law of Moses was to make it easier for them to worship Christ.

    So yes, 2000 years of the law of Moses is hard to discard, but likely less hard for the people who were living it correctly.

    And I’m not blaming them for a failure to understand. I think the reason there is so much about the Law of Moses in a book written for today is because failing to realize why we are doing something, or holding onto old systems is an easy easy thing to.

  10. Rebecca Smylie on July 8, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Good distinction Jerry. Yes, I don’t think the law of Moses was about doing things at a superficial level either. I just think that when we do things without recognizing Christ, it is similar to people who failed to recognize that the law had been fulfilled–or were so used to doing something (like vacuuming the church) that they had a hard time seeing the purpose of it.

  11. Di on July 8, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    nice post rebecca!

    ‘I am not sure I see the law of Moses as doing things at a superficial level as much as micromanaging a people that didn’t understand God.’

    -my thoughts as well. danithew & i have been studying the old testament together…

  12. Kathryn Skaggs on July 8, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    I too, have studied and contemplated “The Law of Moses”, in particularly – The Old Testament. How difficult it was for the Israelites to eventually come to accept the doctrine of “Grace”. They could/would not accept it. For them, it was through the strict obedience to law, that they understood salvation.

    The New Testament is nearly overloaded with the doctrine of grace and mercy, to the near disregarding of LAW. (not really, but that is how it is interpreted generally) Today, we battle helping evangelical Christians accept that God still, requires that we keep His commandments, in order to lay claim to His blessings.

    We as members, would do well to study the doctrine of Grace, and apply it to ourselves and each other; as we strive to keep the law. In many ways, WE are like the children of Israel, still:-)

    tDMg

  13. m&m on July 8, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    I love this post. Thank you for the reminder.

    Our stake president recently talked about something along these lines…when we do lessons on tithing, or whatever, to bring it all back to Christ.

    I love the discussion back and forth about finding that balance between activities/meetings and being at home. I think the answer is that there is no pat answer to such tensions. The Spirit can help us figure the details out along the way, but I agree with Hunter that it’s easy to swing to the side of glorifying being at home. It’s also easy to glorify the busyness of meetings and checklists that can be empty w/o the underpinning purpose addressed in this post.

    And I love the idea that we can learn from the Israelites in this regard…so much said about the law and surely said about the deadness of the law. It’s like the repetition about the Sunday School answers for us, perhaps, or other similar things.

    Anyway. Thanks.

  14. David Clark on July 9, 2009 at 7:59 am

    All,

    Please tread carefully on this one. The average Mormon understanding of the “Law of Moses” is completely wrong. I’m seeing a lot of average Mormon understanding on this one.

    First, how hard is it for you to be your nationality? Probably not very hard. What if someone came along and told you that, using one example, it is no longer necessary for you to be Americans? That’s more of what the “Law of Moses” was like, than all of the silly activities and meetings we make each other go to. It was a mode of being, a way of life, something that was so foundational that most Jews probably just lived it automatically, just like you obey the law in your country without even thinking about it.

    Second, I seriously doubt many Jews “worshipped the law.” They worshipped God who gave them the law. To be honest this is where the LDS conception of the law borders on anti-Semitism. The conception that they were given the law after rejecting the higher law and then worshipping the “lower law” is just wrong in my opinion. It’s actually not too far removed from Evangelicals claiming that we worship Joseph Smith. Of course some Christian understandings of the law border on anti-Semitism too, but for different reasons.

    Third, Christian understanding of the law has been tainted by the New Testament’s portrayal of the Pharisees. They are constantly portrayed as the legalistic and hypocritical foil to Christ’s loving compassion. This says more about the writers of the gospels and the times they were living in, than it does about the Pharisees themselves.

    For a people who constantly gripe about being misunderstood, we should do better in understanding the Jewish people.

  15. Rebecca Smylie on July 9, 2009 at 10:33 am

    David, if living the law of Moses were just a way of life, then they weren’t living it correctly. Like I said before, the purpose of the Law of Moses was to center their worship on Christ. If they were living it automatically, not thinking about it, like you said, then they didn’t get it. Abinadi touches on this: “And now, did they understand the law? I say unto you, Nay, they did not all understand the law; and this because of the hardness of their hearts; for they understood not that there could not any man be saved except it were through the redemption of God.” (Mosiah 13:32)

    But we do things and it’s easy for us to stop thinking about why we actually do them. This is the parallel. It seems to me that the ancient Saints performed the “law of performances and of ordinances, a law which they were to observe strictly from day to day” so day to day that there ceased to be meaning in the law for many of them. Just like there ceases to be meaning in home teaching when we do it just to get it done–or month to month, as it were.

    I don’t belittle that it would have been difficult to change your way of thinking/way of life. One reading of Galatians 2 is that Peter is being sensitive to the feelings of the Jews when he stops eating with the Gentiles. But the difficulty of something isn’t a defense for it. Paul gets after Peter for his actions, rightly stating that “if I build again the things I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.” (vs. 18)

    I wasn’t saying that the activities and meetings we go to are “silly.” I think there is a purpose in all of it. As imperfect as it all comes out (as long as the meetings run, etc.) the purpose is, like the Law of Moses, to center our worship in Christ. If we fail to do so, then we’re like the misunderstanding children of Israel that Abinadi is speaking about. That’s what makes the “law” or the “activities” dead to us.

    Finally, I’m not on board with the assertion that the gospel writers had an incorrect view of the Pharisees. What is your source for the Pharisees being different than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John portray them?

  16. mb on July 9, 2009 at 11:08 am

    David, your argument is a little dangerous because it’s a bit of a stretch and it doesn’t really apply in reference to this post. If you are serious about what you are saying, then the entire New Testament is anti-semitic.

    I also think that you have to be a little careful not to dilute the meaning of the word (anti-semitic…or similar ones like racist, sexist, etc) by throwing it out too often or in circumstances where they are not exactly applicable. It’s a convenient argument to throw out from a moral highground, but it usually does not foster discussion because you have crossed into self-righteousness.

  17. David Clark on July 9, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Rebecca,

    For a better conception of the law of Moses I would recommend reading Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E.P. Sanders. Just a warning, this is a very difficult book to read. The main gist of the book is that modern conceptions of ancient Judaism, and I put Mormons here too, are completely wrong. He does a massive survey of the primary sources for the time period to make his case. This book was an absolute revolution in Pauline studies, it inaugurated what has come to be called “The New Perspective on Paul.”

    Your citations from the Book of Mormon are problematic for a couple of reasons. First, the Book of Mormon is referring to a “law of Moses” that would have existed in 600 BC, which would have been very different from the “law of Moses” at the time of Christ when people were struggling with what to do with it. I use scare quotes not to be a jerk, but to emphasize that these are two things, though I am using the same label to identify them. Second, we don’t even really know what the Book of Mormon is referring to when it says the law of Moses since it doesn’t bother to explain what it is. Judaism has never been a monolith so if you aren’t specific, living a particular law can mean different things.

    As for the gospel writers getting it wrong, I would suggest reading more about the gospels. However, put it this way, Mormons are always complaining that other religions never do justice to what Mormons believe. Yet, would this not apply to the gospel writers themselves, they are describing a different religion at that point.

  18. David Clark on July 9, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    mb,

    It’s not dangerous. First and foremost the NT is not a monolith. It displays a wide variety of attitudes towards a wide variety of Jewish beliefs of the time. You find those 27 books bound in one cover so you assume that they are speaking with one voice, but they are not. And yes, some of the authors had better attitudes and thoughts about Jews than did other books. You also see a development of Christian thinking about Jews, and it tended to get more negative over time.

    I also fail to see how I have crossed into a self righteous moral high ground. Did I somehow assert that I am better than others on this? Also, I am not just labeling here, there are good reasons for saying what I am saying, see my reply to Rebecca.

  19. jed on July 9, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    I don’t read many difficult books, but I find it odd that a Mormon in 2009 is labeling writers of the New Testament as anti-semites. No one has a corner on the market for true interpretations of the law of Moses, or most Gospel principles for that matter. It stands to reason that some interpretations will be more based in history than others, but a wise-guy once said “you are too biased to be a good judge of what is historical and what is not.” The post’s reference to the law of Moses is a perfectly viable one.

    PS – I also find it mildly amusing that within a deep discussion of texts and history of the law of Moses, some commenters have totally missed the point of the post.

  20. warner on July 9, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    #14. David, ironically you begin by making Rebecca’s argument for her. Just as you state, the “Law of Moses” over time had become a cultural identity for the children of Israel. Decisions in life about certains things had become perfunctory – “this is just the way we do things.” The way they prayed, sang, dressed, shopped, traveled, worshipped, etc. – these things happened in a certain way without much thought as to why it was that way. Sometimes the original meaning or reason for doing something can be lost completely. (i.e. we are the Lord’s “peculiar” people should be understood that we are of great “pecuniary” worth – not because we’re different or set apart (or weird) from the rest of the world – which is also true, but likely not the writers original intent).

    You may not like the fact that the children of Israel did in fact go astray or that their religious leaders led the march (take a gander at Matt. 23 sometime “Woe!”), but they did, they were the only nation wicked enough to crucify Christ, and the weight of scripture, ancient and modern, is piled up against your position.

    Did all of Israel worship the law only? Did they all myopically focus on jots and tiddles? Certainly not. We have Mary and Joseph, and Zacharias and Elizabeth, and the many, many others that recognized Christ. They recognized the meaning of the sabbath and Christ’s perogative to heal on His day. But, most of Israel did not. And if not most, a significant and influential number did not – why? because they were focused on the letter of the law.

    I think that Rebecca’s “average understanding” is rather an accurate understanding of the Israelites and the law at the time of Christ. At the very least, I think it’s a good example to use for the spirit of her message.

  21. warner on July 9, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    A great talk about focusing our worship on Christ:

    http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=10979

  22. David Clark on July 9, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    #14. David, ironically you begin by making Rebecca’s argument for her. Just as you state, the “Law of Moses” over time had become a cultural identity for the children of Israel. There is an irony here. In fact, I think Rebecca comes away with a valid point, that one must dedicate one’s actions, no matter how mundane to God.

    The irony is that is just what Jews do when they obey Torah. My point is that she shouldn’t use Jews and the Law of Moses in contradistinction to her point, rather it is parallel to her point.

  23. David Clark on July 9, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    jed,

    I find it odd that a Mormon in 2009 is labeling writers of the New Testament as anti-semites. To be fair, I should have used anti-Jewish, not anti-semitic. But, it’s because it IS 2009 that one can identify hints anti-Jewishness in SOME of the writings. If this were 1909, it would be odd.

    a wise-guy once said “you are too biased to be a good judge of what is historical and what is not.” Guilty as charged.

    I also find it mildly amusing that within a deep discussion of texts and history of the law of Moses, some commenters have totally missed the point of the post. See #22.

  24. David Clark on July 9, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Last post, I promise. I gave the recommendation to read Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and I stand by the recommendation. However, if you want to start with something free, some fellow writers at the FPR cabal have done some posts on this very thing here and here.