Jesus entered the synagogue. There was a man there who had a withered hand. They watched Jesus closely to see if he would cure him on the sabbath so that they might accuse him. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Come up here before us.” Then he said to the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” But they remained silent. Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death.-- Mark 3:1-6
Ah, thinks the modern Christian. Those legalistic Pharisees--following the letter of the Law and not its Spirit! But it's not so simple. We read in the Book of Exodus that God--the same God Whom the Pharisees in today's Gospel plotted to crucify--is the God Who told Moses and the Israelites:
These are the words the LORD has commanded to be observed. On six days work may be done, but the seventh day shall be holy to you as the sabbath of complete rest to the LORD. Anyone who does work on that day shall be put to death. You shall not even light a fire in any of your dwellings on the sabbath day.”-- Exodus 35:1-3
It's hard to imagine how the Pharisees could have read this any way other than the way they did. Is God contradicting His own Law? And how could God have made such a Law for the sabbath, if, as we read yesterday, the sabbath was made for man? What good has such a harsh law ever done for man?
In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that:
the Divine law is twofold, namely the Old Law and the New Law....
Hence the Apostle (Galatians 3:24-25) compares the state of man under the Old Law to that of a child "under a pedagogue"; but the state under the New Law, to that of a full grown man, who is "no longer under a pedagogue."
Now the perfection and imperfection of these two laws is to be taken in connection with the three conditions pertaining to law, as stated above. For, in the first place, it belongs to law to be directed to the common good as to its end, as stated above (Question 90, Article 2). This good may be twofold. It may be a sensible and earthly good; and to this, man was directly ordained by the Old Law: wherefore, at the very outset of the law, the people were invited to the earthly kingdom of the Chananaeans (Exodus 3:8-17). Again it may be an intelligible and heavenly good: and to this, man is ordained by the New Law. Wherefore, at the very beginning of His preaching, Christ invited men to the kingdom of heaven, saying (Matthew 4:17): "Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. iv) that "promises of temporal goods are contained in the Old Testament, for which reason it is called old; but the promise of eternal life belongs to the New Testament."
Secondly, it belongs to the law to direct human acts according to the order of righteousness (4): wherein also the New Law surpasses the Old Law, since it directs our internal acts, according to Matthew 5:20: "Unless your justice abound more than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." Hence the saying that "the Old Law restrains the hand, but the New Law controls the mind" ( Sentent. iii, D, xl).
Thirdly, it belongs to the law to induce men to observe its commandments. This the Old Law did by the fear of punishment: but the New Law, by love, which is poured into our hearts by the grace of Christ, bestowed in the New Law, but foreshadowed in the Old. Hence Augustine says (Contra Adimant. Manich. discip. xvii) that "there is little difference [The 'little difference' refers to the Latin words 'timor' and 'amor'--'fear' and 'love.'] between the Law and the Gospel--fear and love."
Briefly, Aquinas tells us that while, e.g., being killed for working on the sabbath was of no earthly good to the ancient Hebrews so punished, the fear of that punishment was the beginning of their spiritual good of wisdom about the sabbath: fear was a way to get Bronze Age nomads, used to bloody-swordplay at slight provocation, to the constant raping and pillaging of the armies of their neighbors in Egypt and Mesopotamia, to actually pay attention. Some kids respond to carrots--gold stars on their papers, perhaps. Some kids--perhaps most--also need the fear of detention to keep them on track. A puppy indulged from the beginning may eventually need to be put down. A well-disciplined puppy will eventually grow up into a dog you can love and trust to behave well.
We humans, corrupted by original sin, did not emerge especially well-behaved from the early stone age into civilization. We were--as we often are now--bloodthirsty and stubborn. We are far less like the Perfect God than a puppy is like us human mammals. The Old Law, and the fear it inspired was, we are forced by logic to conclude if we believe that God is good, good for us. The Fear of the Lord began our long journey toward Wisdom, toward the Holy Spirit. Its discipline rigorously shaped the Hebrews into a people pious enough toward the one true God that the Son of Man could fittingly be born among them.
Christ knew all this. He knew that the Pharisees' zeal for the Old Law came from a place of piety. But, oh, how it saddened him, how it grieved him, that the Pharisees were not willing to see that He Himself was the fulfillment of what the Old Law had been preparing Israel to be the first on earth to receive: Himself. For while fear of the Lord was the necessary beginning of wisdom, the merciful, non-violent Love of Christ is the goal of the law, the end (telos, goal) of wisdom.
The enfleshment (Incarnation) of God as Jesus Christ changes everything. From the Old Law's prohibition on graven images of the Father (still erroneously adhered to by many Protestants), we have the New Law's celebration of iconic images of Christ the Incarnate Son. From the Old Law's harsh penalties, necessary to inspire fear of the Lord in the unruly childhood of our species, we have the peace and love of the Beatitudes, meant to transform us into new men who share in the blessed life of God.
Accepting that the rigor of the Old Law was ever necessary is repugnant--we want to hate the God of the Old Testament, like the heretic Marcion or the atheist Christopher Hitchens. But He is the same God as Jesus Christ. Instead, we should accept that we are so sinful that the Old Law was as necessary and good for us in our early centuries as discipline is for a puppy. And we should be grateful that despite being such sinful creatures, God chose to accept the horrid violence of Crucifixion--at the hands of misguided, well-intentioned zealots for His own Old Law!-- in order to save us and bring us into His Life of Love. He loves us that much, that he took the punishment of the Old Law--including the punishment of death--onto Himself. When you complain that God ordered sinners to die to train us in virtue, remember that He accepted it when we--all of us, every sinful day--put Him to death. No human has ever been perfect enough to do all that God's law, old or new, requires of us. But in suffering the penalty for our sins on the Cross, Christ takes all that onto Himself. Yes, the Old Law is harsh. But God subjected Himself to it, too. Out of love for us.