In Deuteronomy 24:19 it says
When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
Someone kindly pointed me to a Jewish parable, probably from around the time of Jesus, about this verse. Here it is:
A certain pious man [hasid] forgot a sheaf in the middle of his field. He said to his son, “Go and offer two bullocks on my behalf, for a burnt offering and a peace offering.” His son said to him, “Father, why are you more joyful at fulfilling this one commandment than all the other commandments in Torah?” He said to him, “The Lord gave us all the commands in Torah to obey intentionally, but he only gave us this one to obey accidentally.”
For if we obeyed this deliberately before the Lord, we would not be fulfilling the command. He said to him: It says, “When you reap the harvest of your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow” [Deut.24.19]. Scripture thereby sets out a blessing.
What is interesting about this delightful story is how it sheds light on the motive for Jewish keeping of the law.
Often Christians have caricatured Judaism as being a legalistic form of works-righteousness, coupled with a rather grim sense of desperately trying to do enough good works to appease a forbidding, harsh and rather impersonal God who is busy weighing the scales of good works versus bad.
This parable tells a different story.
This was the only law that could only be fulfilled accidently. It could not be planned for; action could only follow forgetfulness! See how this Jewish man is therefore overjoyed that his bad memory has given him an unexpected opportunity to fulfil this law.
And, like many of Jesus’ parables, there is an outrageous result. His offering of two bullocks was ‘way over the top’ in terms of cost. This sense of wild exaggeration is making a serious point to the listeners; Yes the law is to be obeyed in every area of life, but it is a joy and delight to obey the law.
The parable does not talk about fear as a motive for obedience. Rather, the motive for obedience is joy – the sheer joy of pleasing God and doing his will. This is obedience out of love and relationship. The parable is celebrating an unplanned and unexpected opportunity to obey another law.
How does this fit with your view of the Judaism of Jesus’ day?
Comments, as ever, welcome.