The season of Epiphany generally focuses on revelatory stories about Jesus which show us who he is from a variety of perspectives. The baptism and transfiguration of Jesus form the bookends of the season, and in between are stories which illustrate some aspect of Jesus ministry and being – his healing, his teaching, his miracles, and so forth. This year I am departing from the lectionary to do something a little different. I want to focus on some of the important things Jesus shone a light on that changed the way people of faith thought. Some of those are the law, grace, the path of discipleship, and humility. Today we start out with Jesus shining a light on the law.
Just to remind you, the law of Judaism was at the heart of faith when Jesus lived. What was this law? Well, the foundation was the Ten Commandments, but all told there are 613 laws found in the Old Testament. Obedience to the law was the primary concern in order to be in right relationship with God, so religious leaders gave much time and energy to parsing out the implications of all those laws. So there were volumes of commentaries written which spelled out exactly what was required for Sabbath observance – how many steps could you walk, what could you do and not do, and so forth and so on.
One of the things Jesus was frequently criticized for by religious authorities was healing people on the Sabbath, because that was regarded as work. And on the Sabbath recorded in today’s reading from Mark, he is criticized because his disciples plucked heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath. His response to these criticisms was that the Sabbath was instituted to help people, not to hurt them. It was to be a blessing in people’s lives, not a prison cell.
The section which I read from Matthew comes from the Sermon on the Mount. For Matthew this clearly parallels Moses receiving the law on Mount Sinai and bringing it to the people. In the sermon on the mount Jesus brings clarity to how we live by the law of God. It is a crucial section for Christians to grapple with and understand. A literal reading of each sentence will either cause us to completely tune Jesus out as unreasonable and unrealistic, or to institute a new and even more difficult order of legalism in the church. A careful reading and right understanding will lead us beyond trying to live by the letter of the law to trying to live by the spirit of the law instead.
Much of the New Testament shows people who are trying to make an either-or decision about Jesus and then about Christianity. Either Christians are still going to be a part of Judaism and still subject to the laws and rituals of Judaism – or they are not. It was an either-or mindset.
The Sermon on the Mount provides a third possibility. It is a possibility, however, which is fraught with danger for us when we attempt to take single sentences of Jesus’ sermon literally and neglect the context. If we take sentences like, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” and, “Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” on their own, we are doomed. If the new law of Jesus is to be followed by the letter, not a single one of us stands the slightest chance of making it into the kingdom of heaven.
You know enough about Jesus to know that this would not be his intention. He intends to fulfill and transform the law so that people can move beyond attempting to fulfill the literal requirements of the law and pay attention to the spirit and intention behind the law. He wants to help us move to the day and the way of life Jeremiah promised, when the law would no longer be written on tablets of stone as an external authority, but would be written on our hearts, as an internal authority which we are wholehearted about wanting to follow.
You may recall that when Jesus was asked which was the most important commandment, he said, “The first and greatest commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind;” and the second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a very important piece of teaching to keep in mind when interpreting today’s passage. He said that all of the law and the prophets are derived from these two basic commandments. It was a very orthodox answer, right out of the Old Testament, right out of the Shema recited daily by Jews. It was just not the aspect of the Law that was most emphasized by the Judaism of his day.
When Jesus tells his followers they need to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, he is talking about quality rather than quantity. Tom Long writes, “The followers of Jesus are called to a different kind of righteousness, which is ever expressive of the merciful, forgiving, reconciling will of God that lies at the center of the law.” (Westminster Bible Commentary, Matthew, p. 54)
Charles Cousar adds, “The teachings of Jesus reflect what life is to be like in the kingdom of heaven. It moves beyond legalism which guides particular actions to a community where people make choices based on love for one another and a desire to live in harmony and wholeness.” (Texts for Preaching, Year A, p. 144)
Jesus doesn’t just talk in generalities about these things. In the Sermon on the Mount he uses six examples to explain the difference in the way law functions in the kingdom of heaven. We will look at some of them in a moment.
The old way of dealing with the law is typified in the exchange between Jesus and a lawyer who asked Jesus what was required to earn eternal life. Jesus asked him what answer his studies had led him to, and the lawyer answered just as Jesus had in the other conversation. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “That’s right. Do this, and you will live.” But in the world the lawyer lived in the conversation was not over. The law needed to be further defined and clarified. So he asked Jesus, “And how do you define ‘neighbor’? Where is the line drawn for those people that I have to treat as neighbors and those that I don’t? There were commentaries devoted to this question. Is it just someone who lives within a certain number of blocks? Someone who is of the same race or religion? Someone who speaks the same language? What are the limits?
In response, Jesus tells a story – the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story a man is traveling alone on the dangerous road between Jericho and Jerusalem. Sure enough, robbers attack him and take what he has and beat him within an inch of his life and leave him lying in the ditch. As he lies there a priest and a Levite pass by and do not stop to check on him. I think the implication is that their strict observance to the law keeps them from stopping, because if they get too close and the man is dead, they are made unclean and unable to discharge their religious responsibilities. Then a Samaritan, despised by Jewish people, comes by and stops. He ministers to his injuries, puts him on his donkey, takes him to the nearest inn, and pays for his room and his care. Jesus looks at the lawyer and asks, “Which was a neighbor?” The lawyer can’t bring himself to say, “The Samaritan.” He says, “The one who showed mercy to him.”
Jesus changes the question and the assumptions. Assuming this is a Jewish man lying in the ditch whom the lawyer would consider a neighbor, Jesus points out that his slavery to the letter of the law can prevent him from doing the right thing. He also turns the question around to ask, “If you were lying in the ditch about to die, who would you want to be a neighbor to you? Would it be okay if it was a Samaritan? Then is it okay for you not to consider the Samaritan your neighbor?”
In the same way, Jesus asks his followers to rethink their approach to the law in the Sermon on the Mount. He starts out with one of the Ten Commandments: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder;’ and whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, or if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”
Under the Ten Commandments, as long as you restrain yourself from killing the person you are mad at, you have obeyed the law. You can despise that person, never speak to that person again, try to undermine that person’s business, so long as you don’t commit murder.
Jesus says this is not what life in the kingdom of heaven is supposed to be like. True righteousness is not just refraining from murder, it is letting go of the anger and being reconciled. Looking beyond the letter of the law to its spirit teaches us that God wants people to live in harmony and work for each other’s good.
In another example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Again, Jesus wants us to move beyond the letter of the law in relationships between men and women to a relationship of wholeness and integrity. In the world of the Bible, adultery was defined as extramarital intercourse between a man and another man’s wife. That is because women had no rights and were regarded as property. So a relationship with an unmarried woman was not considered adultery.
Jesus wants to move us away from trying to find the loopholes in the letter of the law to basing our relationships on honesty, care, trust, and faithfulness. This addressing of loopholes continues in the section about divorce. Jesus says, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
We need to spend some time with this one, because it has been taken more literally and seriously than the other examples. Those who have been divorced have been condemned and ostracized and excluded from serving the church in various times and churches. Many ministers refuse to conduct weddings for anyone who has been divorced, largely because of these verses.
Jesus certainly took divorce seriously. The law did not. Wives, as I said, were regarded as property. All it took for a man to divorce his wife was to say, “I divorce you,” and send her out the door. No rights, no alimony, nothing. The law that a man should give his wife a certificate of divorce was a small protection for a woman. It proved that she was divorced and that another man could marry her without fear of being charged with adultery with another man’s wife.
Jesus argues his case very strongly in the hopes of swinging the pendulum away from the rampant divorce rate and leaving women in precarious, vulnerable states. Such should be our aim, to present a high view of working out problems and preserving marriages, without demonizing people if they are not finally successful in doing that.
Another example has to do with retaliation. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.” Can you imagine if people tried to make this a literalistic law for Christians in the same way they do the saying about divorce? “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”
Retaliation is deeply rooted in human nature. You hit me, the natural response is I want to hit you back, and that turns into a never ending cycle of violence and vengeance. Look at the Middle East for that cycle being played out over and over. The law was instituted to put limits on retaliation. If someone puts out your eye, then you can put out one of their eyes, but not both. This all sounds very reasonable, but Jesus turns it upside down. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, instead of slapping them on the right cheek you turn the left cheek in case they want to hit that one. Not many of us take this one literally either, do we?
Jesus takes it one step further in the last example. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
Resistance and hatred of enemies had a very immediate context in Jesus’ day because of the Roman occupation and control of Israel and their brutality. Many Jews wanted to revolt, and there was much hatred of Romans. One of the expectations of the coming Messiah was that he would be a military leader who would lead Israel to renewed independence and prosperity. Jesus turns that expectation upside down and inside out.
Jesus says that by loving our enemies we differentiate ourselves from the rest of the world and we show ourselves to be children of our Father who is in heaven. In the Beatitudes in the previous chapter Jesus had said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Tom Long writes, “The heart of the law, as Jesus interpreted it, was to love even your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. The reason that one ought to do this is because God is like this, and we are God’s children. God does not hate the enemy. If we love only those who love us we are simply imitating the world rather than imitating God… To be ‘perfect’ is to respond to other people – even our enemies – with the kind of compassion and desire for the good that expresses the way God responds to the world.” (WBC, p. 64)
This is what it means for our righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus accomplishes two things with these teachings. First, he attempts to move us from a “letter of the law” legalism to an emphasis on the quality of life lived by the values of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus points us to the will of God for human relationships which lie behind the law. He paints the picture of perfect life in the kingdom in the hope that it will inspire us to live more in that direction and to embody those ideals and characteristics as best we are able.
The second thing Jesus does in these teachings is to make it abundantly clear that not one single human being is ever going to be able to live up to this and earn salvation. This is the way of life we are to aim for, but we will all always fall short. In this way, Jesus prepares the way for showing the people the answer. We will look at that answer next week as Jesus shines the light on grace.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
January 18, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church