Love Knows No Borders

Failing to love is the best way to break the law. Just ask Jesus.

Riddle me this: what is a barrier that is nearly invisible to the untrained eye but one day of every week will leave you deserving of execution if you cross it?

Answer: an eruv wire.

Appearing high in the sky and often mistaken as a just another telephone line, an eruv wire is a staple of Orthodox Jewish communities to demarcate an area in which lawful work can be done on the Sabbath.

Through the creation of a symbolic, continuous wall around a neighborhood, the boundaries of each family’s household are extended to the entire eruv, making tasks like pushing strollers, carrying keys or bringing food to a neighbor’s house possible outside the home under Jewish law.

At its simplest, an eruv wire helps the community practice Sabbath faithfully. After all, the Torah makes itself quite clear regarding expectations for the Sabbath: is to be a day on which no work is done, a weekly perform active act of remembering the day of God’s rest and the six days of creation that preceded it.

The Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘Surely you must keep my Sabbaths, for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. So you must keep the Sabbath, for it is holy for you. Everyone who defiles it must surely be put to death; indeed, if anyone does any work on it, then that person will be cut off from among his people. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; anyone who does work on the Sabbath day must surely be put to death. The Israelites must keep the Sabbath by observing the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between me and the Israelites forever; for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.”
-Exodus 31.12–17 (NET)

Woof. Check out those consequences!

The Sabbath restriction was clearly against work — “melachah” — but what constitutes work? Having heard the Torah and believed it to be true, Jewish religious leaders worked ardently to shape practical ways of following the Sabbath commands. Activities such as using a hammer or slaughtering an animal were deemed prohibited work; walking was permitted, so long as it was under a certain distance. Eventually eruvs were formed, Jewish communities with clear boundaries in which certain activities reserved for the privacy of the home could be done in public without breaking Sabbath.

Torah said it. They believed it. That settled it.

These Sabbath laws seem fairly straightforward. You’d think any law-abiding, Torah-believing Jew would agree. And then we meet this Jesus character.

Jesus was going through the grain fields on a Sabbath, and his disciples picked some heads of wheat, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is against the law on the Sabbath?” Jesus answered them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry — how he entered the house of God, took and ate the sacred bread, which is not lawful for any to eat but the priests alone, and gave it to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
On another Sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue and was teaching. Now a man was there whose right hand was withered. The experts in the law and the Pharisees watched Jesus closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they could find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and said to the man who had the withered hand, “Get up and stand here.” So he rose and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil, to save a life or to destroy it?” After looking around at them all, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The man did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with mindless rage and began debating with one another what they would do to Jesus.
-Luke 6.1–11 (NET)

Two Sabbaths, two examples of Jesus’ breaking of Sabbath. This from a Torah-teaching, otherwise law abiding Jewish rabbi. What in sheol does he think he’s doing?!

Jesus clearly would have known what he and his disciples were doing — not to mention what they were risking — in breaking the Sabbath. Even so, he does not admit malfeasance when confronted by the religious leaders, nor does he plead ignorance. Jesus instead doubles down on his breaking of the law: first pointing to the precedent set by Israel’s favorite king, then arguing the Sabbath law’s intended application was to give life and rest rather than squelch it.

Jesus changes the conversation to practice. He doesn’t get rid of the Sabbath but changes the lawful intent and asks: “Does the practice of this law fulfill the purpose of doing good and saving life? Or does it do evil and destroy life?” Put differently, “Have we constructed an invisible barrier which is preventing us from participating in the unfolding kingdom of God in our midst?”

This is far from the last time Jesus will get into trouble for crossing a barrier. Next in line to be offended is John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative and forerunner. Though John had been calling people to repentance and preparing the way for the arrival of the long-awaited messiah, Luke reveals that John had his own boundary that he seemed unwilling to cross: Israelite exceptionalism.

Hearing that Jesus had healed the slave of a Roman officials and in the process commended the Roman’s great faith, John was indignant and sent a deligation to meet with Jesus. The messiah was Israel’s long-awaited king who would make the nation great again; the Romans were the godless occupying forces whom the messiah would defeat and drive from the land. Ergo the messiah would never work for a Roman, not to mention elevate his faith above anyone in Israel. You can hear exasperation in his voice as he asks Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should be look for another?” (Lk 7.18–19). Jesus crossed John’s boundary — a boundary with merit of which he is entirely convinced — therefore he can’t possibly be the messiah.

Later in the same chapter, Jesus is having dinner in the home of a Pharisee when a stranger stumbles into the room. A woman whose sinfulness has become public knowledge falls at Jesus’ feet — washing them with her tears, kissing them with her lips, and annointing them with expensive perfume. If this sounds like an awkward series of events … that’s because its an awkward series of events, particularly in first century Palestine. Here the Pharisee hosting Jesus (Simon) reveals a boundary as well: religious propriety.

What Simon watched unfolding in his home and before his very eyes was not proper. It was not proper behavior for a woman to be interacting in this way with a man who was not her husband. It was not proper behavior for a man to be interacting in this way with a woman who was not his wife. And it most certainly not proper behavior for a man of Jesus’ religious stature to be in the presence of such a sinful woman, not to mention allow her to touch him as she was. Simon is thus indignant and says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner” (Lk 7.39). Jesus crossed Simon’s boundary — a boundary with merit of which he is entirely convinced — therefore he can’t possibly be a prophet.

These boundaries weren’t wrong in theory, each intended to ensure their respective parties maintained their distinct religious and cultural obligations. In each circumstance, however, the boundaries are problematic — not in theory but in practice.

The strict practice of Sabbath laws failed to see the love and life-giving potential of meeting the needs of those around us, no matter the day of the week.

The practive of excluding of all non-Jews from the kingdom of God failed to acknowledge the universal application of the good news of Jesus.

The practice of regulating “appropriate” forms of praise failed to embrace passionate — even shameless — responses to God’s grace and mercy.

It’s almost as if Jesus is saying that if our religious barriers in practice prevent us from engaging with, loving, and welcoming the other, the ought to be crossed.

This idea that the religious rules — the metaphorical “eruv wires” if you will — can be crossed was one of the reasons Jesus was killed. Even those who were closest to Jesus had trouble aligning themselves with what he was saying and embracing his agenda as their king. But Jesus didn’t break the rules. He changed them, reinterpreted them to his current context, and brought their original intent to real life.

In the kingdom of God, service is valued above status. The Pharisees may have been known as the strictest sect of the Jewish religion (Acts 26.5), but in Jesus’ kingdom their religious status was unimportant. In the new reality where God is in charge, however, the greatest are children, the poor, the oppressed, and even the sinners — those who recognize their need for God and turn their gratitude into serving others.

In the kingdom of God, inclusivity is valued above exclusivity. Like many of his peers, John the Baptist struggled with a little thing called tribalism: the belief that people like them were better and more important to God than others. In the new reality where God is in charge, however, those like the centurion who trust that Jesus will act on their behalf are commended — regardless of their tribe.

In the kingdom of God, humility is valued above certainty. Simon the Pharisee — rather than examining his own shame and need for grace and mercy — determines that the woman’s actions and Jesus’ reception to them are shameful. In the new reality where God is in charge, however, those who are able to set aside their own presuppositions are the ones who are blessed.

Jesus knew this would cause much cognitive dissonance among those who believed in and/or benefited from status, exclusivity, and certainty. He knew that many would find this type of kingdom too difficult, too controversial, too costly, and even too political to be agreeable. He therefore offered this subtle benediction: “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me” (Lk 7.23).

To those who have been born and raised within “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” traditions, this might sound to a lot of people like a “liberal” or “postmodern” approach to Christianity. In reality, Jesus’ earliest followers were doing this from the very beginning. After their experiences with the messiah who was incarnate, alive, dead, and resurrected again, the disciples soon recognized that Jesus had changed the world and changed the rules for practicing their scriptures.

Yes, the scriptures said it. And yes, they believed it. But Jesus and the kingdom that he revealed forced them to reread and practice those scriptures differently.

Remember, the earliest followers of Jesus were all Jewish yet they came to understand that the gospel of Jesus’ kingdom was good news for everyone. While they started worshipping as they always had in the temple and synagogues on the Sabbath — Friday night to Sunday night — after awhile they started their own gatherings in order to include new non-Jewish converts. And they started meeting on Sundays to mark the day that Jesus rose from the dead … even though the laws said otherwise.

As non-Jews started flooding the Christian faith, the leaders had to decide whether new converts would be expected to become cultural Jews and follow the whole law. After much debate and a council in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15, they determined that they did not want to put up extra barriers for people to come to faith.

And in his letters, even the Apostle Paul — one of those dastardly Pharisees that Jesus would have confronted — can be seen flying by the seat of his pants trying to reinterpret and reapply the law according to the newly understood freedom found in Jesus.

Given this rich history, I find it ironic and more than a little discouraging that many of our churches today have forgotten this lost art of boundary breaking and have actually taken a step BACK from the early church in the process. That’s not to say that holding to the orthodox confessions for Christian faith and practice are not important. In fact, I think it is becoming increasingly important to lean into our distinctiveness as followers of Jesus. But I also think that far too often the Bible and the rules that we construct around it serve as walls that brings separation and death rather than bridges to freedom and life.

The Bible says it. We believe it. That settles it. Right? But what about the nuance in application? What about wrestling with implications for a time and culture and context some 2,000 years from the original? What about when our use of the scriptures brings death?

In divisive times such as these, I think what we need is to constantly interpret the Bible and interpret our everyday life in light of a Jesus who is willing to break down superficial barriers. Does this thing bring good or evil, life or death, freedom or enslavement?

So what are the barriers which you are keeping you from love, service, inclusion, and humility? What is preventing you from thinking new thoughts about how our faith translates to our real world context? And what is stopping you from loving beyond those barriers?

Such questions may feel precarious but actually have the potential to lead us into greater alignment with Jesus and his kingdom. Jesus, after all, said that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Mt 5.17). There can be fear in such an adventure, but we don’t have to go it alone.

So may we together look to Jesus as our litmus test for our faith and practice. May we embrace one another rather than the barriers that separate us. And may we fulfill the law, not with empty words but with tangible acts of love.

“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands) — remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”
-‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭2:11–22‬ ‭(NIV‬‬)
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