An Ethic That Shows No Law Can Provide Salvation

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

It’s common to think that the point of religion is to have the right laws and to follow them.  However, James 1:27 says “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”  This is a different definition of religion than we often think of.  Today continues a series based on this verse, focusing on the insufficiency of laws as a way to salvation.  Only by Christ’s fulfillment of the laws of God through His life, death and resurrection can we achieve salvation, or a restoration of a right relationship with God and with each other.

Which laws do I mean?  In the Old Testament, there are three types, which include what many people think of as “religion”: moral laws of what is right and what is wrong, civil laws about what to do when those laws are broken, and ceremonial laws that explain requirements for restoring relationship with God.  But also in the Bible are signs that all civil and ceremonial laws are provisional, or temporary and incomplete, even if they are designed by God.  They exist because man cannot keep the moral laws, which is where this post begins…

The Poor Among You
Consider these verses from the same chapter in Deuteronomy:
“But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess— if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” – Deuteronomy 15:4-5
“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” – Deuteronomy 15:11

Just a few verses apart, it says that “there will be no poor among you”, but then that “there will never cease to be poor in the land.”  It seems like a contradiction, but the two thoughts can coexist because the first one is conditional on full obedience of the law – “if only you will strictly obey…”  God knows His moral law is perfect, but also that our obedience is imperfect, which will lead to poor in the land.  So, He further commands that His people take care of the poor.  This second command shows that He provides additional moral and civil laws to help those who are hurt by the failures of people to follow moral law.  Every failure of His people throughout time was known to Him when He gave the law, but He gave it anyway because it was not intended as an ultimate solution.

Jesus also recognized that poverty would not be solved until we reach Paradise, after He comes a second time.  In Mark 14:7, He said “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.”  He said this because His disciples were criticizing Mary of Bethany, who decided to use ointment worth a years’ wages to anoint Jesus rather than to sell it and help the poor.  The gospel of John singles out Judas as the accuser of Mary, but also says that Judas “said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.”[1]  Elsewhere, Jesus quoted Isaiah, who said “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.[2]  What we now call “virtue signaling” is not new.  Throughout history, people have been better at promoting virtue in concept than in practice, and in others rather than in themselves.  Therefore, even if the law we have is perfect, we will never achieve its ends.

Ruth and the Civil Law
Second, the Old Testament story of Ruth shows that even a perfect moral law, perfectly followed, cannot solve every problem – specifically the problem of “orphans and widows in their affliction.”  In addition, civil law can only limit the impact of some problems, not eliminate them.  The civil laws for gleaning and levirate marriage are key to Ruth’s story, while providing examples of faithfulness in a broken society, are also reminders that society is broken in ways laws can’t fix.

Gleaning, provided for in Leviticus 19:9, 23:22 and Deuteronomy 24:19, is necessary because “there will never cease to be poor in the land.”  God commanded His people to leave the edges of their fields unharvested, so the poor could eat what was there.  Levirate marriage, defined in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, is necessary because there are widows and orphans in the world. It gives provision for widows by obligating relatives of the deceased husbands to care for, or even marry, the widow to preserve the family line and inheritance.  However, these laws didn’t prevent Naomi and Ruth from becoming poor, or from losing their husbands.

One aspect of Ruth’s story is that people of faith can rely on God’s provision, both through His civil law and through others who follow it, to make a tangible difference in a world where many ignore God’s law.  Good civil law can improve the conditions of the poor, the orphan, and the widow, if people also follow the eternal moral law of love.

Civil law is a provision for

a fallen world, not a pathway

to a perfect world.

Another aspect of the story of Ruth is how it keeps us “unstained from the world.”  The world wants us to believe that with enough time, effort, resources, cultural revival, laws, coercion, or whatever, that we can produce a widow, orphan, and poverty-free utopia.  But whatever its source, civil law is a provision for a fallen world, not a pathway to a perfect world.  There will always be widows and orphans as long as there is death, and no law can overcome death.

Jesus, Our Religion
For me, the power of thinking about James 1:27 this way is not that I come away thinking, “now I know what to do!  Let’s go!” but that I come away knowing there is no way any of us could possibly measure up to the standard God requires.  Every time we see someone left behind it is a reminder of our collective failure, evidence that we really don’t have the answer even to our own individual problems, much less a path to perfection for the world.

Fortunately for us, the book of Ruth ends with hope, in the form of a genealogy showing her as an ancestor of King David, and therefore an ancestor of Jesus Himself.[3]  Through His life, death, and resurrection, He overcomes both death and the cause of death – our inability to generate religion that is acceptable to God the Father on our own.  Only Jesus, in a perfectly lived life, seeking out and loving “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” fulfilled the requirements of “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father.”  He offered His perfect record to the Father in our place, so we could be accepted based upon His religion, not ours.  He fulfilled the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws in our place, providing a way to a world with no poor, no orphans, and no widows.

For many in the world, civil law is their false gospel, their hope of salvation.  But the Bible lets us know that in this world, we will always have poverty.  There will always be widows and orphans here.  However, because we cannot follow moral law perfectly, we need temporary civil law as a provision for a fallen world.  To keep society from falling apart until Christ returns and molds us into new creations that follow the moral law of love naturally, with no need for civil or ceremonial law.

Until that day, Christ rejects both the tyranny of, and freedom from, law as the answer for His people.  Any civil law – even that of the Old Testament – can only mitigate the damage of sin, but in many cases, the wrong laws can make the damage worse.  However, absence of, or rejection of, all law is not the answer because the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of a Kingdom.  Jesus said in John 8:31-32: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  This freedom is from the failed kingdoms of this world, but not license to reject His righteousness as our personal standard of behavior.

Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.[4]  His righteousness brings us into a Kingdom like no other, where to “Visit orphans and widows in their affliction” is the freely offered sacrifice acceptable to our Lord, and an example of what James refers to later in his letter: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.[5]

This is the 3rd post in a series on James 1:27, which began here

Next Up in This Series: An Ethic That Puts People First and Issues Second

[1] John 12:6
[2] Isaiah 29:13, Matthew 15:8, Mark 7:6
[3] Ruth 4:17-22
[4] John 14:6
[5] James 2:18

Poor in Spirit #4: The Scope of Our Need

Today is part 4 of what was supposed to be a Monday-Friday series on the first Beatitude from Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Having taken yesterday off, we pick back up today and hopefully finish tomorrow.  If you want to catch up, the three previous posts are linked: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday

Today begins later in the same chapter as the Beatitudes, where Jesus includes in sin matters of the soul’s inclination, which are “entirely” internal:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” – Matthew 5:21-22
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:27-28

We have all heard people saying what is done in private, either alone or with other “consenting” people, is none of our business.  “Who does it hurt?” they say.  In this later section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells everyone that He cares about what they do, in public and in private.  Even within themselves.  He is not saying this to embarrass anyone, but to break down their spiritual pride and lead them to depend on Him.  To Jesus, intent makes us spiritually poor as much as action does.  Sin is not a matter of consequence; it is a matter of conscience.  It includes not only the action, but the inclination to the action.

But who does it hurt?  When excluding from our definition of sin things that other people don’t see, we may be tempted to turn faith into performance art, like the scribes and Pharisees, who “do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”[1]  Those “ashamed” from Monday’s post who come to church looking for compassion will only feel alienated unless they join in the performance.

If only public “righteousness” matters, the pressure of keeping up appearances can mean that internal sins – though just as important as external sins with “obvious” consequences – remain private and un-dealt with, keeping us from relying on Jesus to restore the joy of our salvation!  Compensating for guilt, and the pressure of managing expectations, become primary drivers of action rather than the guidance of the Spirit, and the fruit of the Spirit is nowhere to be found.    When we know we are not really changed and are failing, we may try to hide it to keep up appearances.  We harbor guilt and bitterness and become unable to accept ourselves and love others.

Instead, testimony of our brokenness is an essential part of Christian witness.  In his letters to churches, the Apostle Paul repeatedly mentions his own past because it highlights the grace of God and power of Christ in redeeming him.  Likewise, those connected to Christ must confess their brokenness openly and ask His help.  Hiding our brokenness – keeping it private (sometimes even trying to keep it from Him) – obscures the power and necessity of the gospel from those who need to hear and understand it, and also keeps us from experiencing its power in our souls.  If we do not count as brokenness things where we do not see the consequence, we keep Jesus at a distance and the kingdom of heaven will not rule us.  Who does it hurt?  Well, us to begin, then also those around us who we love less as a result.

Humanity’s need is spiritual.  Our brokenness comes from the inside, not the outside.  From conscience, not consequence.  When humanity denies that brokenness is an internal, sometimes hidden, problem, it faces only the symptoms of the problem, and with the wrong prescriptions.  External forces cannot fix our internal inclinations and will tend toward the original sin of Adam and Eve, seeking the tree of wisdom in the garden that seems to offer an alternate way of governing ourselves.  Any laws, including some forms of religion, or systems of coercion will not fundamentally change us, but may provide an appearance of doing so, or worse, an incentive for a harsher system of coercion.  When coercion isn’t working, and spiritual solutions are denied, greater coercion often follows.  Unless we know we are broken, and how we are broken, we refuse the solution offered by the kingdom of heaven and remain lost looking for an alternative that does not exist[2].

We must not accept anything less than Christ’s righteousness.  But we must accept Christ’s righteousness at our very core.  Only the power of the gospel – the good news of the kingdom of God – can make straight what is crooked at its very root[3].

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” – Acts 4:12
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] Matthew 23:5-7
[2] I’m not advocating for anarchy or libertarianism or any particular form of government but pointing out that what a society thinks its government can, and should, do reflects that society’s view on what it expects government to solve.
[3] Ecclesiastes 1:15 and 7:13

Found! A Man in Need of an Ally

Do you hate paying taxes?  Maybe you think you pay too much.  That others don’t pay enough.  Maybe you don’t like what its being used for.  Maybe the system is just too complicated and a hassle.

In Jesus’ day, people also hated paying taxes.  As noted in a prior post, Jesus lived and ministered during the “Pax Romana”, or “Roman Peace”, which was announced by Roman Caesars in “gospel” messages telling the people they benefited from unprecedented peace and prosperity due to the godlike powers of the Caesars and their Roman government.  Of course, these benefits could be expensive and had to be financed.

Worse than Turbo Tax

Enter the tax collector, or as some historians say: the tax “farmer”.  Instead of collecting taxes themselves, the Roman state sometimes sold the right to collect taxes to individuals at contracted rates.  Tax farmers collected required taxes, including “ground-, income-, and poll-tax. The ground-tax amounted to one-tenth of all grain and one-fifth of the wine and fruit grown; partly paid in kind, and partly commuted into money. The income-tax amounted to 1 per cent.; while the head-money, or poll-tax, was levied on all persons.”[1]

On top of this, the tax farmer invented other taxes for his own benefit, “such as on axles, wheels, pack-animals, pedestrians, roads, highways; on admission to markets; on carriers, bridges, ships, and quays; on crossing rivers, on dams, on licenses”.[2]  These taxes the farmer would keep for themselves, usually making them incredibly wealthy.

Adding insult to injury, they sometimes would use Roman soldiers to enforce payment, or if they were especially well-off, they had their own private enforcement squads, subjecting citizens to the “vexation of being constantly stopped on the journey, having to unload all one’s pack-animals, when every bale and package was opened, and the contents tumbled about [and] private letters opened.”[3]

Not Religious Freedom
Now enter Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea and Samaria, who later presided over the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Pilate was the man in charge of maintaining the hypocrisy of the “Pax Romana” while the soldiers under him harassed citizens for taxes.  He had a history of provoking the Jews and reminding them of their powerlessness, including seizing money from the Jewish Temple treasury to build an aqueduct, and by prominently posting Caesar propaganda within Jerusalem.  Both instigations are recorded by first-century historian Josephus[4].

Therefore, to many Jews of Jesus’ day, tax payments were seen as not only supporting the corruption of the tax collector, but also as financing an oppressive government and its pagan gods.  Often, the tax collector was Jewish himself, putting themselves forward for the job, then being appointed by their province.  In them, Jewish leaders saw not only a symbol of their contempt for “Pax Romana”, but also traitors and cheaters, representatives of an enemy power.  “They were a criminal race, to which Lev 20:5 applied,”[5] which says “then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech.[6]  All tax collectors as a group fell under the Rabbinic ban, or their version of excommunication.  Under the ban, a person or group of persons became “like one dead”, not allowed to socialize with other Jews, who could not even give them directions.  “It was forbidden to eat or drink with such a one.”[7]

Zacchaeus Has No Friends
In Luke 19, we meet one of these chief tax collectors, Zacchaeus, who appeared to be having a mid-life crisis.  He was a very rich, successful man because of the abuses described above, but was trying to reform.  Luke 19:8 records Zacchaeus’ words when he met Jesus: “And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.[8]’” Comically, he had to climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus at all, who was surrounded by crowds.

Excommunicated from the Jewish faith, and probably less popular with his Roman bosses due to collecting less tax, Zacchaeus was looking for anyone to accept him.  We don’t know for sure what led Zacchaeus to search for Jesus, but maybe he knew about John the Baptist calling tax collectors to “Collect no more than you are authorized to do”, as recorded in Luke 3:10-13.  Later, maybe Zacchaeus heard Jesus’ teaching about taxes and tax collectors as did Matthew, another tax collector and eventually author of the first book of the New Testament.  In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus contrasted the obnoxious self-righteousness of a Pharisee to a humble tax collector begging for forgiveness.

When Jesus saw Zacchaeus in the tree, he called out “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”[9]  Then came the complaints of the Pharisees, a group of religious leaders, who “grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’”  See, the Pharisees were right that Zacchaeus is a sinner.  They were right that he was an oppressor.  The Pharisees divided the world into “us” and “sinners”, and expected Jesus to do the same.  After all, the Rabbinic ban applied to the entire class of tax collectors and if Jesus wanted to be a Rabbi, he had to enforce the ban.  If they were Mandalorian, they would have said “This is the way!” [10]

In contrast, earlier in Luke 6:27-32, Jesus taught:

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.  And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.  If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.”

The first part of this seems to be describing precisely the actions of tax collectors and their thugs, and saying “Love them!”.  The latter part sounds like a rebuke to the Pharisees.  What the Pharisees did not understand is that from Jesus’ perspective, all are sinners and all are enemies of God.  Fortunately, He does not leave it at that: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” – Romans 5:8. If Jesus had not loved His enemies on the cross, we – including the Pharisees – would all be without hope, like Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree.

Jesus announced “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” – Luke 19:9b-10. In saving Zacchaeus, Jesus was proclaiming a new paradigm, where there is no “Us versus Sinners”, but in His death and resurrection He created a church that is “Him for Them”, and then “Us for Them”.  He elevated Love above “truth”, letting the Pharisees know that although their accusations against Zacchaeus and all tax collectors were “true”, that truth was not good enough.  The truth of the Law condemns because we are all sinners. Jesus is the Truth we need, that brings peace and sets free.  Zacchaeus was excluded from church and state, but Jesus offered a third, superior kingdom that would accept him.  By disowning his sin (Luke 19:8 above), Zacchaeus didn’t become perfect, but he acknowledged Jesus as the Savior and King he needed and relied on His grace.

Ripple Effects
The Pharisees continued longing for a political messiah who would get rid of traitors like the tax collectors and overthrow Rome.  Their worldview pointed back to the reign of King David, who oversaw a sovereign Jewish nation governed by the laws of the Pentateuch[11], with a “pure” system of Jewish law centered around worship and sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Rather than being reformed by the Zacchaeus episode, Pharisees later tried to force Jesus to take sides between church (as the Pharisees saw it) and the occupying Roman state in Luke 20:19-25, asking “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”  Jesus deftly replied, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Jesus did not condemn paying taxes even though he knew fraud and corruption was involved, but he earlier demanded that those responsible for corruption repent.

If you feel like a Pharisee in this story, break the stereotype of “Us vs. Them.”  Find a Zacchaeus out there and bring the love and forgiveness of Jesus to them.  I guarantee you know one.  The nightly news or your social media feed are probably very good at identifying enemies.  However, “Blessed are the peacemakers”[12], because they are like Jesus.

Zacchaeus probably continued to collect taxes, but as a reformed man.  He would refuse to be a cog in a corrupt machine.  As a chief collector, he may have influenced subordinates to be less corrupt, and therefore his conversion was good for the citizens while also making Pax Romana look more like its propaganda and less like what the Pharisees hated.  A bit of the righteousness and justice of heaven was injected into Pax Romana because Jesus saw Zacchaeus as a person, and not as a category or type, beyond redemption under the ban.

If you feel like Zacchaeus in this story, cast out and rejected with unforgiving enemies on every side, turn to Jesus.  Perhaps you feel like the religious establishment doesn’t like you or your kind.  Jesus is not the religious or political solution the Pharisees and Romans wanted, but He is the solution – the Answer[13].  For you.

The Right Side of History
When people say they are on “the right side of history” they’re implicitly claiming to know the future and also claiming the right to judge the present based on that knowledge.  However, they often ignore the One who actually does know the future.  When Jesus met Zacchaeus, saving him from slavery to the kingdom of sin was more important at that moment than overthrowing Rome and saving the Jews from state oppression.  Jesus knew that Zacchaeus’ soul was eternal, but that Rome and all its institutions and culture were temporary.  Only in hindsight do we know what Jesus already knew at the time: in AD 66, Rome would invade and level the city of Jerusalem, including desecrating the temple.  In 410 AD, Germanic tribes would sack the city of Rome and eventually overthrow the empire of Pax Romana.

What was Zacchaeus’ fate in AD 66?  We don’t know, but if we are Christians, we know we will meet him in heaven.  He was rescued, spiritually, just days before Jesus went to the cross for him.  Jesus overcame the temporary power of the world – the oppressing power of sin and darkness that enslaves us – by offering Himself and the radical power of forgiveness.  Zacchaeus was a state oppressor of the Jews as an agent of Rome, and also religiously oppressed by the Jews who tried to keep him from God, but he will outlast both systems.  He overcame, in Jesus, the Oppressor that cuts across all categories of people – sin.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28

From the perspective of eternity, being on “the right side of history” is when the oppressor loves the oppressed and the oppressed loves the oppressor.  Isaiah 11:6-9 describes the future from which Jesus will judge our present actions and whether we are on the right side:

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
            and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together;
            and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
            and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain;
             for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”


[1] Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1886). P. 357
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Josephus. The Jewish War (2.9.2) (AD 75) and Antiquities of the Jews (18.3.1) (AD 93). Cited in Wikipedia entry on Pontius Pilate.
[5] Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. (1886). P. 357.
[6] Molech was a god of the Ammonites, whose followers sometimes sacrificed their children to him by fire. Ammonites were descendants of Abraham’s brother Lot, through his younger daughter who got him drunk and seduced him. (Gen 19:38)
[7] Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. (1886). P. 602.
[8] Possibly referring to Exodus 22:1 – “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.”
[9] Luke 19:5
[10] In the Disney+ series, The Mandalorian, the title refers to a tribe of bounty hunters who use this phrase when referencing their shared code of conduct.
[11] The first 5 books of the Bible, or the “books of Moses”
[12] Matthew 5:9
[13] See my first post, “42 is Not the Answer” for more on how Jesus is the Answer.