Have you been looking for a scripture passage that will make you feel terrible about yourself and angry at Jesus? Have you been looking for a biblical quote that will convince your friends and neighbors that it is an awful idea to spend Sunday mornings at Church? Look no further. This is your lucky day.
For several weeks now we have been listening to Jesus preach his Sermon on the Mount. It started with a confusing passage that we sometimes call the beautitudes. Last week there was a lovely inspirational piece encouraging us to be salt and light for the world. But this week – this week Jesus has really warmed up and has something more controversial to offer:
“You have heard it said, “You shall not murder,” but I say to you: if you are angry or insult someone or say, “you fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery,” but I say to you: if you look at someone with lust you have already committed adultery in your heart. You have heard it said, “You shall not swear falsely,” but I say to you: do not swear at all by heaven or earth.”
The Jesus we meet on the mountain this morning is not the man with kind eyes and pastel robes you’ll find porcelain figures of in your local Christian bookshop. This guy is a hard liner; a table turner; maybe even a provocateur.
In this difficult teaching, Jesus is exploring the wisdom of the scriptures. He is interpreting God’s law for us. This is where the trouble begins. As educated and independent thinkers, we resist the idea that religious law is necessary for us, whether it comes from Jesus or from anyone else. Surely, ethical adults like us know how to act in a decent way, without being constrained by rules like kindergartners.
What’s more, we know how flawed religious rules can be. Our bible has been used very effectively as a tool of repression and discrimination against enslaved African Americans, against women, and against GLBTQIA identified folk, among others. Just in our passage for today, there are very strong statements about divorce, which we know from our own experience is sometimes for the best and at other times absolutely necessary for the emotional and physical safety of those involved. Religious rules are often deeply flawed, reflecting human ignorance and prejudice. They hold a mirror up to our cultural limitations.
Religious rules can be flawed. And haven’t we gotten past a legalistic understanding of our faith, anyway? According to some understandings of Christian scriptures, rules or laws are the provenance of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures. By contrast, the New Testament, or Greek Scriptures, contain “The Gospel,” the good news of Jesus. The basic idea is that our ancestors started out with a rule-bound system for guiding human behavior, but it didn’t work out so well. Jesus allows us to have a new relationship with God that is guided more by a relationship of grace than by the rule of law.
While this reasoning may sound appealing, unfortunately it is deeply problematic. It vastly oversimplifies Jewish relationship to scriptural Law, which is an ancient, varied, and rich tradition. This mindset also creates and reinforces Anti-Semitism and Christian Supercessionism, encouraging Christians to believe that we have a superior faith. Finally, it directly contradicts Jesus himself, who says just a few verses before we started reading today:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:17-19)
Jesus loves and honors the tradition he was raised in. He’s not trying to diminish it, or repair it, or replace it. He’s trying to teach it: to help those who are following him to understand and follow it.
So finally we have to ask: why does Jesus feel this law is worth following? And why does he think that intensifying it, magnifying it, making it even stricter, is an effective strategy?
What is the purpose of the law? This is a good question to ask, as our culture is battling over our political laws and their enforcement. Maybe some lawyers in our community can give me some special insight. My understanding is that each law is an imperfect attempt to guide human action in a way that is acceptable to the values of the community. The challenge is to be clear about what those fundamental values are; and then wise as to how they should shape our actions.
I suspect Jesus was inflammatory for a reason. He was convinced that people had become too caught up in obedience to the letter of religious law. If we refrained from murder, avoided adultery, followed divorce law, and kept our promises; we had no further work to do concerning God. Jesus is pushing the envelope in an attempt to help us get past our fascination with the surface of the law and instead investigate the spirit of it: the underlying values of right relationship, and compassion, and honesty.
Rules and laws are important, but they have their limits. If all we needed to do to live a faithful life was memorize and obey guidelines like the ten commandments, there would be little need for synagogues or churches or mosques. To live a faithful life we need not only to learn about the often flawed rules of our religious traditions, but more importantly, the values underneath them. Then it is our work to discern how to apply the spirit of the law, the values of our faith, to our daily lives.
We come to church, and we listen to Jesus, not to be lectured and judged and reprimanded; not to be treated like naughty children. We come because we need help keeping our deepest values at the center of our lives, and living out those values in a complicated world. With the help of God and one another, we can confess our failings, find forgiveness, and try again.
Did you hear the words of the psalmist? “Happy are those … who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who… seek God with their whole heart… who walk in God’s ways.” God’s law, however imperfectly interpreted, is a gift. Our opportunity is to accept that gift; to investigate it; to argue with it; to refine its expression. So I encourage you not to dismiss Jesus’ message, but rather to read it and to wrestle with it. We’ll continue our wrestling with this passage next week.
God, thank you for your teachings, even the ones that infuriate me. God, thank you for your law, even when it challenges me. May I persevere with a steadfast heart, seeking out your truth and acting out your love, each day of my life. Amen.