The Jewish world in which Jesus lived was shaped by the Torah. Jewish life was unique in the ancient Mediterranean world because Torah observance and the Levitical and Deuteronomic laws were to govern all of life, not just the cultic practices of Temple worship. Here is a key point that many in miss in the Jewish understanding of the law. They practiced the law not because they felt it earned them salvation. They believed they were chosen and unique already because of God's covenant with Abraham that was reemphasized with Isaac, Jacob, the exodus, and ratified in the law of Moses. Rather, observance of the law is a way of maintaining identity and marking them as different from Gentiles.
Here is another caveat, there was both a universal Judaism and a variety of sects. Much the same with modern Christianity where universal Christianity would adhere to elements of things like the Apostles Creed and the canonical Bible but there are also a variety of denominations. For Judaism the universal beliefs included their being chosen by God, the Torah as foundational for life, and the Temple, and feast days. We know about three main sects, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. The question is did Jesus fit into any one of them? And if not how was his understanding of scripture and ethics different.
The Qumran community took obedience of the Law to an extreme by removing themselves from the rest of society as best they could. Instead of priests declaring clean and unclean and instead of community dialogue regarding application in everyday situations, one person or the council of twelve became the filters through which all application was made. To become part of this community required a multi-year multi-step process which, involved turning over all possessions and withdrawing from a “normal” everyday existence. Those who are not in right relationship with community are forced into processes of repentance.
With this background Jesus is similar in many ways and yet clearly different. Jesus’ use of Mishnah type phrases is seen in his Sermon on the Mount. So in some ways his teaching style does not differ all that much from his contemporaries. He cares about the law and states he didn’t come to change it but rather fulfill it. Like the Mishnah, Qumran, and OT demonstrate Jesus also believed that application, i.e. action, was required to demonstrate obedience. “Everyone who hears words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man…” Matt. 7:24. He also clearly still finds use in the Temple and priests for when he heals the lepers he instructs them to present themselves to the priests.
Jesus’ call to radical discipleship is rooted in the basic principles of the Jewish teachings to love God. The law, temple activities, festivals, and diets is centered on the idea of loving God in every aspect of life. What make the Jewish people unique is they desire God to shape every element of their existence. And yet there was constant separation of who did and didn’t have access to God either because of Temple cleanliness or Torah interpretation. Uncleanliness prevented people from Temple practices and community. Most people were unclean most of the time for one reason or another. This basically puts a majority of the population out of relationship with God and the ability to engage freely in community and household life. The interpretation of the law essentially required actions and time to become clean again. Jesus is different because he heals people removing the need for further action required for purification and eliminates the time needed to be made clean. He also calls people out to follow him without any test or previous ability unlike Qumran which requires demonstration of being an expert in the law.
Jesus also emphasizes the love of neighbor, where chapters 19-20 of Leviticus that is quite specific. These laws governing right relationship with others was to be expressed through specific actions of not lying, stealing, oppressing, murdering, etc. Priests and Levites spent much energy defining what constituted lying, stealing, oppressing, etc. This is where Jesus goes beyond his contemporaries. His teachings sometimes begin with “you've heard it said…but I say…” He goes beyond physical action into motivation. You cannot just not murder someone, but you cannot harbor hatred either. You cannot just not steal, you cannot covet. You shouldn't just give charitably, but do so without pretense. Jesus’ love of neighbor goes beyond mere definitions of what is or is not permissible to do to others but rather gets into the “heart” of the matter by rooting every action in love.
Jesus’ call of radical discipleship is most different because it is rooted in following him, rather than Torah alone. He separates himself from Moses, the Levites, Priests, and subgroups like Pharisees/Sadducees/Essenes because he does not consider himself an expositor of the Law, a teacher of application, or part of the Temple system. Instead he is the very presence of God, he is the fulfilment of the law (Matt. 5:17-20) and he alone is the source of his love ethic. He is the kingdom come near. Through Jesus the chosenness of Israel is expanded to include all people.
Where the law created isolation by removing people from community for purity issues, Jesus heals and restores into community. Where the priestly temple system is big and cumbersome, Jesus is simpler. Where the unclean have not access to the Temple, Jesus gives immediate access to himself. Where the Qumran community requires a three year process for acceptance, Jesus calls out sinners to be in his inner circle immediately. Where the law is interpreted and fences built around laws to further define their meaning to follow God, Jesus instead is claiming to be the very core of what it means to follow God.
These are some of the ways Jesus has a more radical summons to a more difficult discipleship.