A “God of technicalities”?
The first article I ever published in academia was “The Sabbath Controversy in Matthew: An Exegesis of Matthew 12:1-14″ which appeared in the Restoration Quarterly 27.2 (1984) 79-91. I have now uploaded this on my Academic page.
At some point in the future, I may reflect in personal terms on how that study subsequently impacted me. But that is for another time when I have more time. Perhaps I will make it part of a series about theological turning points in my life.
However, I linked it today because it relates to my last post, especially the paragraph I quoted from Daniel Sommer at the end of that post. Sommer rebuked what he called a “technical” use of the hermeneutic of silence and authorization. No doubt many wondered whether Sommer himself was not guilty of similar technicalities on where he drew lines of fellowship. In other words, why is the use of instrumental music in a worshipping assembly a godly reason to limit fellowship but to break fellowship over the right hand of fellowship is a technicality? Especially, I might add, when we have technical definitions of when a worshipping assembly begins and ends (choirs–even instruments!–are permitted after the closing prayer but not before), whether a family worship in the home using the piano meets the definition of “worshipping assembly, etc.
Sommer’s language of technicality intrigued me. That language sometimes pops up in the Stone-Campbell Movement. One recent example is F. LaGard Smith’s argument that the God of Jesus is a “God of technicalities” (e.g., Naaman, Uzzah) in his Who is My Brother? Facing A Crisis of Identity and Fellowship (p. 252; also p. 127).
It seems to me that this is exactly where Matthew 12:1-14, including the quotation of Hosea 6:6, has something to teach us. God is not interested in technicalities–he desires mercy rather than sacrifice. Technically, David broke the law when he ate the “bread of presence” because he was hungry and in a hurry. Technically, the priests profane the Sabbath every week when they offer sacrifices on the Sabbath. But if we understand the heart of God, then we will not make these technicalities into fellowship barriers between God and humanity.
Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 as a hermeneutical principle. If the Pharisees had known the meaning of Hosea 6:6, they would have had the theological and hermenutical lens through which to consider the actions of others. If they had known the meaning of Hosea 6:6, they would not have condemned the disciples….and neither would we condemn David…and perhaps we might not condemn each other as well.
When we evaluate others based on the technicalities of ritual and precision obedience, we miss the heart of God. God is relational, not technical. God is more interested in mercy than he is ritual. God is more interested in relationship than he is perfectionistic precision. This is the declaration of Hosea 6:6, the application of Jesus, and Matthew expects his readers to embrace it as a principle for living in relationship with others (see also the use of “mercy” in 9:13 and 23:23).
This does not entail a rationale or an excuse for disobedience, but it should soften our heart with the mercy of God as we relate to others. After all, should we not treat others with the mercy with which God treats us? And, indeed, I need lots of mercy…mercy for my actions, my words, my ignorance…and much more! I am grateful that God’s heart yearns for mercy more than sacrifice, for heart more than ritual, for relationality more than technicality.
The article I have posted–first written as a seminar paper for a course at Western Kentucky University in 1980–was one of my first steps toward seeing God’s heart instead of what I once thought was his technicalities. Maybe it might help you…or maybe not.