A Hedge of Protection?
I think we can all admit that sin is a problem, even among those who are trying to obey God. The question comes down to how do we keep it from happening so often, and to such a great extent. The good news is that we have a few examples in scripture of how people sought to prevent breaking of God’s law, and how that ultimately worked out.
The solution employed by the Pharisees was to extend what constituted sin outward from the actual command to prevent any real transgression. Many bible scholars and preachers have referred to them building a “hedge” around the Law. The bible calls that “tradition.” What did Jesus say about the effectiveness of tradition, and what did He propose as an alternative?
To keep people from breaking the Sabbath, the Pharisees had created very complicated rules to define “work” so that they would not violate passages like Exodus 31:14. The law is clear, “Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.” However, over time, they misunderstood the purpose of the command and used the tradition to condemn others.
Luke 6:1-11 records two discussions about sabbath work, and in each, Jesus highlights the inconsistencies in the way they applied tradition. He asked the Pharisees directly, “is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?” This moved the conversation from “work” to “doing good.” The tradition of the Pharisees made no distinctions, and the lack of distinction gave them opportunity to accuse Him. However, His question made it impossible to bring a charge when Jesus healed the man out of compassion.
Luke 14:1-6 records a very similar incident, although Jesus’ question is even more pointed. “Which one of you will have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?” The reality is that not all action was work, and when the action benefitted what the Pharisees valued, they would not consider it work. Therefore, the problem was not how to keep people from transgressing the law, but what things were truly valuable. The sad reality was that the people who were sick were not the concern of the Pharisees, and therefore the tradition they had elevated to law did not provide them protection or benefit.
Jesus’ answer to avoiding sin was never to create more and more complex laws, but to to examine our values. The problem of sin starts in the heart, and it is there that it must be addressed. (cf. Matthew 5-7) Will we have hearts that are always seeking the things that God values, and will that dictate our actions? It is the only way for us to truly obey Him.