02/05/23 “But I Say to You…”

Matthew 5:17-32

I think I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy reading a mystery series about a French-Canadian detective named Armand Gamache. Gamache is a fantastic detective. (Actually, he’s the head of homicide in Quebec’s state police force.) But, he’s also an inspiring and patient mentor and teacher of younger detectives. One of the things that he teaches them is that the events of the present always have their roots in the past.

Obviously, our passages for today don’t require any crime-solving. But they do pose some mysteries for us. There are so many points that seem hard to understand. What does it mean to be more righteous than the Pharisees? Are Jesus’ words about things like anger and divorce new laws that we need to follow? Jesus said that he didn’t come to abolish the law, and yet he seemed to break the Law on a regular basis, and he seems to contradict the Law with his words in the Sermon on the Mount. How are we to reconcile all of that?

Our passage for today actually includes two lectionary readings. The reading for one week is the part where Jesus talks about fulfilling the law. The reading for the second week includes the verses that sound like a bunch of new rules. But, as I reflected on these verses, and thought about the conversations we had in Bible study, it occurred to me that they really are part of a whole. Separating them doesn’t give us the whole picture. We can’t fully understand one without the other, any more than Gamache’s detectives could solve their crimes without understanding what led up to them. So, today, we’re looking at both passages together, looking for the clues that will help us understand them both.

We rejoin the Sermon on the Mount where we left off last week. The passage begins with Jesus making a pretty unambiguous statement: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” He continues, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Here Jesus gives us our first clue to his meaning, and it’s in that phrase, “until heaven and earth pass away.” Here, Jesus is distinguishing what is required in the present from what will be needed in the future, when the kingdom comes in all its fullness.

The Law is God’s good gift to God’s people. It was intended to be a guide to living faithfully, according to God’s will. God’s will is that we should love God and love our neighbors. People need the Law because, left to our own devices, sinful as we are, there’s no way that we would align ourselves with God’s will on our own. So, God gave the Law, so that God’s people would have some concrete instructions to follow. When the kingdom comes—when all is perfected in love—the Law will no longer be necessary. But until that day—until heaven and earth as we know them are completely transformed—the Law is needed, and it will remain in effect. Jesus had no intention of abolishing God’s gift while it is still so desperately needed.

The problem, in Jesus’ day and in ours, arises with how the Law is used. Where God intended it as a revelation of God’s will for human relationships with God and with other people, we tend to use it as nothing more than a rule book. It became a way of keeping score—you got points for following the letter of the Law and penalties if you didn’t. In our passage, it seems like Jesus is in favor of this plan when he says, “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.” Then Jesus ups the ante: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

That sounds like scorekeeping to me, and the scribes and Pharisees are tied for first place. The scribes were legal experts, well-schooled in all the details of the Law. Among other duties, they were responsible for making copies of Scripture. They also taught the details of the Law to others. The Pharisees were known for following those details, to the letter. In fact, they would go far beyond the letter of the Law, just to make sure they didn’t inadvertently break one. Jesus must have raised some eyebrows when he warned that righteousness had to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.

We often read these words as criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. We assume that Jesus is suggesting that the scribes and Pharisees aren’t righteous, and that we need to do better than that if we want to gain admission to the kingdom of heaven. This is understandable since, in the gospel of Matthew, the Pharisees are often portrayed as hypocrites who substituted performance for substance. But, in that time and place, the scribes and Pharisees in general were respected by the Jewish people. The scribes were consulted about what the Law said. The Pharisees were examples of how to follow what the Law said. Here, Jesus has no critical words for these groups, who so cherish the Law.

What Jesus seeks to do is to lead God’s people to a deeper understanding of the Law. Righteousness is more than rule-following. Righteousness is God-following. Jesus wants God’s people—his people—to use the Law, not as a scorecard, but as a tool that leads them into righteous living according to God’s will. He wants to show that there is a better way to follow the law than simply using it as a checklist of dos and don’ts.

With that introduction, Jesus begins a series of six examples. The first three are printed in your bulletin. They’re called the “six antitheses” because all of them share a common pattern. In each one, Jesus first affirms a law, saying “You have heard that it was said…” Then he reframes it, adding, “But I say to you…” Some theologians describe second step as Jesus “radicalizing” the Law.

When we hear the word “radical,” we think crazy, wild-eyed zealots who blow up buildings and people and themselves, often (and sadly) in the name of God or country. But, as it is applied to Jesus, it has another meaning. The word “radical” comes from a Latin word that means “root.” Think back to your high school math class, when you learned about square roots. That sign that looks like a checkmark is called a radical; it tells us to get to the root of something. Jesus radicalizes the Law by getting to its root. And, the root of the Law is God’s will and God’s intention that God’s love will be known and shown in the world through our relationships.

When Jesus radicalizes the laws in each of his examples, he teaches his listeners to look beyond the surface to what the law was intended to accomplish. The root of the law against murder is God’s desire for a love between human beings that allows no room for hostility of any kind. The law against adultery was essentially a property-related law. It had to do only with relations between a married woman and a man who was not her husband. It ensured a husband’s exclusive right to his wife and her children. In Jesus’ world, both parties in an adulterous encounter were deemed guilty, and women were usually blamed, regardless of the circumstances. On the surface, the law viewed adultery as a predatory practice that infringed on the property rights of a man, but Jesus radicalizes the law by finding its roots in God’s desire for a love among human beings that doesn’t prey on others in any way.

The law regarding divorce was pretty liberal, at least for husbands. Only a husband could do the divorcing, and all he had to do was to make a decision to divorce his wife in the presence of witnesses. Some rabbis said that he could divorce his wife for anything he found objectionable about her. But, an unmarried woman was very vulnerable. She was often forced to attach herself to a man without the benefit of marriage, simply to survive. Jesus affirms that marriage is part of God’s plan for the world. But, at its root, marriage is a reflection of God’s love, and it should be treated with respect, not thrown away for frivolous reasons.

Jesus continues with three more examples—familiar ones that you’ll recognize if you look them up. The law about truth-telling addresses words made under oath. But Jesus goes to the root—that God’s people shouldn’t need oaths to guarantee their honesty. Love should always and unconditionally be truthful. The law about retaliation regulated and set limits on it, so that the punishment would fit the crime. But Jesus goes further, to love that doesn’t retaliate at all. The Law commands love of neighbor, but Jesus goes deeper: God’s love extends to all, and so should ours—even to our enemies.

Jesus gives six examples, where he first affirms the Law as it’s written and then radicalizes it. He gets to the root that shaped the Law in the first place—God’s will that human beings live in loving relationships with each other. Jesus is not creating new laws here, but instead is setting an example for his followers. As Jesus uncovers the root of each law in God’s love, so should we. The world is a complicated place. It’s not reducible to one-size-fits-all rules that apply to every situation, in every time and place. Jesus gives us permission to examine the letter of the law and find the truth at its root.

In the first three antitheses (the ones that are printed in your bulletin), Jesus adds one more piece. He gives a possible application that suggests how his radical reframing of the law might look in daily life. He uses an element of exaggeration to make sure we get his point—and maybe to make sure we don’t turn his words into more laws to add to the checklist. Anger and name-calling are clearly not the equivalent of murder. If we remember something we’ve done to hurt someone else, we’re not required to dash out of a worship service and stay out until we apologize. Jesus certainly doesn’t expect us to do an on-the-spot amputation when we desire something—or someone—that isn’t ours. Jesus would not overlook or permit abuse in a marriage. He wouldn’t deny the victim’s need to leave or their hope of a loving marriage in the future that would better reflect God’s intention for marriage. Jesus’ examples are intended to prompt us to see how the Law, rooted in God’s will, can most effectively be applied to the broken places in our lives and our world today.

Jesus affirms the Law. He radicalizes the Law by reframing it in the light of God’s love and will for the world. In three of the antitheses, he gives examples of their application in daily life; in the rest he trusts us to follow his lead and come up with our own. In all of them, he invites us to appropriate the Law for life as we know it, today, in our world.

Jesus can do this because, in this passage, Jesus is revealed as having the authority to speak as the One who gave the Law in the first place. The six “antitheses” aren’t really antithetical at all. Jesus doesn’t contradict or overturn the Law. Jesus teaches God’s will—the foundation of the Law—so there’s no conflict between the Law and Jesus’ teachings. The validity of the Law hasn’t changed. But what has changed is that the authority which was first embodied in the written word of the Law is now located in the Living Word, who is Jesus.

When Jesus calls us to greater righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees, he’s not calling us to better rule-following. He’s calling us to better God-following. And, because God is love, and grace is the undeserved love of God for us, we are called to better grace-following. In every situation, we are called to remember what the Law says to us. Then we are to ask, “But what does Jesus say to us?”

What questions are you struggling with right now where Jesus’ example can help you? Where are you hearing in your mind, “You have heard that it was said…?” Where do you need Jesus to say, “But I say to you?” Some things we’ve heard for so long that we don’t even notice how they color our perception of the world. Some of them come from Scripture; some of them only sound like they do. “You have heard it said that people who aren’t wealthy or famous or beautiful or young—or Christian or white or straight or able-bodied or American—aren’t acceptable.

You’ve heard it said that poverty or illness or natural disaster are God’s punishment. You’ve heard it said that it’s wrong to get a divorce, or end a pregnancy, or marry someone of a different color or the same sex.” One of the saddest moments in my ministry was when a woman told me that she hadn’t taken Communion in years—not since she had heard it said, in this very church, that only those who are worthy should come to the table. I was never able to convince her that, although she had heard it said that she wasn’t welcome, Jesus would say that there was a place for her at his feast.

As people called Methodists, we use four tools to help us discern the meaning of the Law for us today. We look first to Scripture—the whole of Scripture, not just isolated verses. We ask what Scripture tells us about God’s intentions for the world, as they’re expressed in the Law, in the prophets, and in the words and life of Jesus. Then we look to Tradition—the ways in which the Church has interpreted Scripture over the years. We look, not just at what has remained the same, but also at how the Church has reinterpreted the ancient words of the Bible as we learn more about the world. We use our Reason—our God-given ability to use the insights of the physical and social sciences, medicine, economics, and art to understand the world around us. Finally, we consider our own Experience—both our own day-to-day experience related to any given question or situation, and our experience of how the Holy Spirit has testified to our own spirits.

One day, we will be perfected in love, and all the world with us. Until that day, God’s law remains in effect. But Jesus gives us a better way to keep it. He gives us permission to seek the root that undergirds the Law: God’s desire that we live in loving relationships with God and with others. The examples Jesus gives aren’t new rules to follow but show us how the Law can be reimagined in ways that allow us to live more righteously.

In his novel David Copperfield, Charles Dickens wrote, “It is in vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.” I think Jesus would agree. Jesus affirmed the Law, which God gave us in the past, and which we will continue to need until the kingdom comes in all its perfection. But Jesus also showed us how to radicalize the Law—how to search out its roots—so that we may appropriately and faithfully apply it in the present. Jesus didn’t abolish the Law, but he freed us to interpret it in fresh ways. As we seek to live more righteously, we attend to what has been said in the law and the prophets. But we also keep our hearts open to the One who fulfilled them, so that we may hear him when he says “But I say to you…” Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young