[The following was originally part of another post, but I wanted to post it separately for ease of finding and referring to it in the future.]
Some argue that Jesus made compassion more important than adherence and obedience to religious dogma or morals, therefore he would allow, for example, gay marriage, or divorce and re-marriage, rather than let people suffer the pain of being forbidden to marry, receive Communion, etc.
I would agree that Jesus considered compassion more important than observance of the Law – that is, the Law of Moses or the Mosaic Law – but not more important than righteousness.
His specific criticism of the religious authorities was that they would bend over backwards to make sure the letter of the law was fulfilled in every particular, while acting in a manner exhibiting indifference to the demands of righteousness and compassion. Thus, the scribes and Pharisees would neglect the care of their aged parents by claiming that their money was “corban”, or consecrated to God, and therefore not available to them. In this way they put on a show of obeying the Law, while disobeying the direct commandment to honor their fathers and mothers. (Mk. 7:1-13.)
The way the subject arose was that the scribes and Pharisees were criticizing Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands before eating. This really ticks Jesus off and he lets them have it for honoring God with their lips while their hearts are far from him, and “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Mk. 7:7).
Jesus never condemns obedience to the Law, but he hates it when people obey the Law while neglecting moral righteousness. The Law is not about righteousness per se, but about ritual cleanness and uncleanness. It’s about what you have to do in order to participate in the sacrificial and other religious rituals prescribed under the Law. It’s wrong to disobey these things because God commanded the Israelites to carry them out. But it’s wrong for that reason alone, and not because of any unrighteousness inherent in, for example, eating the meat of animals with cloven hoofs, or touching a dead body.
Jesus’ message is that he’s more concerned about things that are inherently righteous or unrighteous, than about ritual cleanness or uncleanness. Thus, it’s far more important to feed the hungry and care for widows and orphans than to wash your hands before eating. A good Jew should do both, but to do the latter while neglecting the former is, for him, the height of hypocrisy.
The story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 8:1-11) again provides a point of illustration:
“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?’”
Jesus, of course, says that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone. Do we not, then, have it straight from Jesus’ mouth: Sexual sins don’t matter since we’re all sinners anyway? Doesn’t this show that the real sin is persecuting those who commit sexual sins?
But look at how the story ends:
“Jesus looked up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.’”
Jesus’ command “do not sin again” has two implications: First, that her sin was really a sin; and second, that she must stop it.
What, then, is the lesson of the story? I would suggest that one lesson is that, again, righteousness is more important than adherence to the Law.
Note that the scribes and Pharisees say to Jesus, “[I]n the law Moses commanded us to stone such.” They’re eager to comply with the letter of the Law, like good Jews. But do they care about righteousness? Jesus thinks not. Therefore he tests them: “Oh, you care about righteousness, do you? In that case, let whoever is righteous among you cast the first stone.” When he puts it that way, they fail the test. If they really cared about righteousness, wouldn’t at least one of them be righteous himself, and therefore worthy of casting a stone? They were all eager to stone someone for a violation of the Law, but all admitted that they were no more righteous than she was.
Whereas Jesus’ actions do serve the cause of righteousness. In what way? By telling the woman, “Sin no more. I don’t condemn you [to death], but you must repent of your sins. You cannot keep behaving unrighteously.” He has compassion towards her by sparing her from stoning, but only so that he can bring her to repentance. Thus, both his compassion and his reproof serve the cause of righteousness. If she had died, the cause of righteousness would not have been advanced; but by saving her life, he is able to encourage her not to continue in unrighteousness, but to act righteously thenceforth.
Note, therefore, that adherence to the Mosaic Law is the thing above which Jesus is elevating compassion. And it’s not compassion per se that he is elevating, but righteousness generally. Jesus hates it when people are sticklers for complying with the letter of the Law, while being indifferent to righteousness. How much more horrified would he be at the idea of jettisoning righteousness altogether for the sake of compassion?
Indeed, it’s a mistake to believe that Jesus would consider it compassionate to leave sin uncorrected. Sins are what he has come to save us from. What is compassionate about abandoning someone to his sins without trying to correct him?
“I tell you, … unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Lk. 13:5. Why would he want us to perish?
“[After healing a lame man], Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.’” Jn. 5:14. Why would he want something worse to befall us?
“Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.’” Jn. 8:34. Why would he want us to be slaves to sin?
“Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Lk. 15:7.