Self-denial is about as popular as Old Testament law these days, despite how important self-denial has been in containing and avoiding infection during the pandemic.
Moses with the Ten Commandments, Rembrandt, 1659
Dr Rachelle Gilmour
Over the last year, laws (especially state laws) have affected our lives more than ever. Suddenly there are rules about where and when we have to cover our faces, where we can travel, how many people we can see.
At the same time, the extraordinary success of laws and restrictions in Australia for keeping us safe and healthy has demonstrated that laws can be a way of relieving us from a burden, not necessarily placing one upon us.
Old Testament law is not a popular part of the Bible. Yet, on the third Sunday in Lent, according to the lectionary, the ten commandments are assigned as the Old Testament reading. And alongside the ten commandments, a wonderful psalm is placed: “the Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7).
The purpose of the law for Israel was not as a burden: but rather as a means of keeping Israel safe and healthy as a community, especially in the way they related to God and to the vulnerable in their midst. That the laws were for overall moral formation, rather than being a set of legal rules, is demonstrated by how unenforceable many of them are: when adultery and stealing are already legislated against, how can the command “do not covet” be enforced?
When we read Biblical law today, it is important to remember that these laws were written for a particular context. Even within the Old Testament, laws were updated and reinterpreted for new situations in which Israel found herself, for example, instructions for worship needed to change when in exile in a foreign land without a temple. At the same time, there are many principles that transcend context, and remained relevant throughout Israel’s history and for the church today.
Self-denial is about as popular as Old Testament law these days, despite how important self-denial has been in containing and avoiding infection during the pandemic. In a similar way, so much of Biblical law is oriented towards individuals acting in self-denying ways for the health of the whole community and the strangers among them. Alongside well-known commands for worshipping God alone, this included forgiving debts, not charging interest, providing for the poor and for strangers, forbidding exploitative sexual relations or those that betrayed another. Desires for wealth, property and people are regulated in exchange for a fullness of life for the whole community.
This lent, while reflecting on self-denial, on the teaching of Jesus Christ and God’s law, may we catch a glimpse of the joy of the Psalmist who relishes in health of the whole community, “the Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.”