Made you click! Ok, confession: The title of this article actually has little to do with the content. I was merely using a technique to demonstrate how much we like lists.
Seriously! Listicles, or articles in the form of a list, are some of the most tempting click bait on the internet. Who can resist titles like “The Top 7 Things All Successful People Do,” or “The 10 Must-Watch Movies on Netflix Right Now,” or “Five Things to Say to Get Him to Commit?” I am certainly guilty of using this technique in my blog posts or emails to get people to pay attention. However, listicles can be dangerous because they give the false impression that if you follow the advice exactly, you will guarantee job success, relationship success, or whatever else the article is selling.
Is success really as easy as following a set of rules? As someone who is, in general, a rule-follower, I would love for this to be true! Rules make me feel safe and save me time and energy in thinking through situations for myself. But do shortcuts, hacks, and guarantees really exist? I’m pretty skeptical about a magic formula for success.
This got me thinking about another well-known list. God gave Moses and the newly-freed Israelites the Ten Commandments as ground rules to help them rule their new community. (If you don’t remember the Ten Commandments, there are several YouTube videos with kids’ songs about the Ten Commandments. I watched more than I care to share while procrastinating my writing, but this one is my favorite. You’re welcome.) Over the years, the Mosaic Law, as it’s called, grew to include hundreds and hundreds of commands and ceremonial rules. The Israelites and their descendants thought following the laws to the letter would make them holy and acceptable to God.
Most of us know from firsthand experience that following the letter of the law doesn’t necessarily make you a holy person. My granddaddy was a Southern Baptist and liked to lord his beliefs over anyone within hearing distance. For all I know, my granddaddy may have followed all of the tenets of his Baptist faith, but he also wasn't very nice. I wasn’t impressed by how he treated my granny, and I don’t remember ever feeling love from him myself.
It was the same in Jesus’ day. Jesus criticizes the scribes and the Pharisees who made a great show out of following the Laws of Moses with exactness but who ignored the plight of widows and lepers. They found loopholes to the laws, and used them to gain wealth and status. The abuse of the laws by the religious leaders was evident to everyone but themselves, and Jesus has some pointed, though at times contradictory, things to say about following the laws.
On one hand, Jesus seems to not only agree with the laws but to go a step beyond them. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus teaches that the previous laws on justice, adultery, divorce, and more fall short of the true standard that God has. Here are two examples: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you…if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” And: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Here, Jesus is expanding the laws and arguing that we should follow the spirit rather than the letter of the law.
On the other hand, at different times Jesus seems to break or abolish some of the old Mosaic laws. He heals on the Sabbath. He eats with “unclean” people and touches lepers, making him ritually unclean. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit reveals to Peter in a vision that previously prohibited meats are now allowed and that non-Jews can become followers of Jesus. And later the disciples discern that followers of Jesus do not have to follow Jewish laws around circumcision.
So, which is it? Do we follow the laws of the Old Testament? Do we go a step beyond the commandments? Do we ignore parts of the commandments but follow others? How do we decide? It can be very confusing, and Jesus isn’t known for being forthright! He routinely answered questions with questions, and he often told stories without offering much in the way of an interpretation.
Fortunately, I find some clarity in Jesus' words to the disciples during their final meal together. “A new commandment I give to you,” says Jesus, “that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). Jesus doesn’t say here that he is replacing the Ten Commandments, but one could argue that the new commandment encompasses all the other commandments. If we truly love one another the way Jesus loves us, we also wouldn’t lie or cheat or kill one another.
Sometimes I long for a set of rules to follow to feel comforted in knowing that I’m a good Christian. But much like the Pharisees who find loopholes that fit their personal agendas or like the person who follows the advice of a relationship columnist without doing the hard work of discovering the most authentic method for her, following guidelines isn’t always adequate. We can wind up at best superficial and at worst hypocritical.
Socrates once said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Jesus doesn’t give us a magic formula, a listicle, or a checklist of Dos and Don’ts to follow. But he also doesn’t leave us without any guidance. Instead, Jesus invites us to live an examined life. He invites us to seek him, to study his teachings, and to continually ask ourselves, “What is the loving thing to do here?” This is the way of spiritual maturity, the way of a deeper understanding of myself and of God that I’m seeking as I follow, stumble, and hopefully find my footing on the way forward.