“Undermining the Law, or Making it Stronger?”
a sermon based upon Matthew 5:17-26
For a third week in a row, we are listening to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We started on Scout Sunday thinking about the Beatitudes… What kinds of people did Jesus say were “blessed”? The meek, the merciful, the pure in heart… Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Those who mourn, those who serve as peace-makers in a violent world.
Such people, like the prophets who went before them, can expect to be mocked & reviled, even persecuted, with all kinds of evil rumors spread about them falsely by their opponents. Now that the “primary elections” have come upon us, insults are being flung between candidates with wild abandon and “reviling” has become almost like a competitive sport among campaigns. No blow is too low; no rudeness is called out as shameful any-more. Having a tough skin and a rich wallet is what counts!
The meek & the merciful, the pure in heart and the peace-makers, get no facetime whatsoever in today’s polarized partisan media. It’s only in settings like this church sanctuary where the deeper values of God’s good order are articulated. We honor and bless those people who, in everyday humble ways, carry forward the ministry of Jesus and the message of God’s great love for all the world.
Last Sunday we thought about the two metaphors Jesus used to express how his movement would change the world. Some of his followers would serve as “light” – brilliant & bright, driving shadows away and illuminating the good works being done in Jesus’ name, bringing glory to God and healing to all. Others would serve more like “salt” – invisible & spicy, warming frozen hearts like salt melts ice; and cleansing open wounds so that they not become infected, preserving what might otherwise decay. Diffused into society, like salt dissolves in water, his movement would enhance life, bringing out the best flavor while not boiling over as quickly as others. We need a little salt today.
On this third Sunday in February, we come to these words: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfil them.” Eugene Peterson in his version called “The Message” puts it like this: “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures – either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to abolish, but to complete. I am going to put it all together; pull it all together in a vast panorama.”
Assyrian native George Lamsa, in his book “Gospel Light”, says that the Eastern text reads: “Do not expect that I have come to weaken the law or the prophets; I have not come to weaken, but to fulfill.” The Aramaic word nishrey means to “untie, to loose, to weaken.” When a new government is voted in (writes Professor Lamsa), the new officials give assurances that the laws will be made easier and the tax burdens reduced. Old and established laws are often undermined by lax interpretations [or by lack of enforcement] in order to carry out the policies of the new government.
Jesus was a new prophet (he writes). His teachings deviated from that of the recognized leaders of his day. The Jews charged him with organizing a different faith. In their eyes, his teaching was undermining the influence of Torah Law and the prophets; and his refusal to comply with the customs and traditions of the elders exposed him as a heretic.
Jesus emphatically denied this, explaining that his mission was rather to strengthen the Law and fulfill it; that is, make it perfect. [Bring it to life. Get it done!] The Law was read and respected by the Jewish teachers [by the scribes, & priests, & civic leaders], but it was not practiced by them. Jesus actually put it into practice and realized its deepest purposes. (unquote)
Jesus says: “Truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass away from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called “least” in the kingdom of heaven! But he who does them, and teaches them, shall be called “great” in the kingdom of heaven.”
Not just having people know the Law and the prophets, but to teach them! And, then, not just be teaching them, Jesus is looking for people who are actually doing them. Here’s how Eugene Peterson puts it: “God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after the stars burn out and the earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working. [If you] trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law, you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously; show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom.”
There are some of us who get really excited about “new” things -- the new way that Jesus was pointing the world. We are hopeful of change for the better, even after 2,000 years. We are chomping at the bit to get the Gospel lived out in more lives around us; we hunger and thirst for righteousness, for mercy, for peacemakers. Like those ancient Assyrians, we want a new order of things -- a weakening of the heavy load of law!
For folks like that, things aren’t moving fast enough. (!) Change can’t come soon enough. C’mon Jesus, show us the way! The last thing we want to hear is that you’re not going to lighten the load; you’re not going to change the Law! Not a single jot or tittle, Jesus? Not a single iota, will pass away until it is accomplished. That’s a set-back for the radical reformers in our midst! How patient do we have to be, Jesus?
However, when Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets,” you can imagine that the traditionalists in the crowd felt relieved, because that was just what they feared he was doing! All their lessons and memorized verses, all their cultural patterns and habitual religion, would be able to continue… if Jesus was not going to abolish the Law!
When he added, “I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them,” they might have tensed up again, wondering what he could possibly mean by “fulfill”. … Then, when he said, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” everyone probably looked dismayed. How could anyone be more righteous than that fastidious crowd? [I mean, who would want to be!?]
As Jesus continued, it became clear [that] he was proposing a “third way” that neither the compliant traditionalists nor the non-compliant challengers -- neither the rule-keepers nor the radicals -- had ever considered before. (!)
“The kingdom of heaven” won’t come through unthinking conformity to one’s tradition, he tells them. And it won’t come from defying tradition, either. It will come only as we discern and fulfill the highest intent of the tradition – even if doing so means breaking with some of the details of tradition in the process.
Brian McLaren (in his book “We Make the Road by Walking”) says: If tradition could be compared to a road that began in the distant past and continues right up to the present Jesus dares to propose that the road isn’t finished yet. (!) To extend that road of tradition into the future – to fulfill its potential – we must first look back to discern its general direction. Then, informed by the past – [aware of every iota of the Law, every dot… even the least of the commandments!] – we must look forward and dare to step beyond where the road currently ends… venturing off the map, so to speak, into new territory.
To stop where the road of tradition currently ends… would actually end the adventure and bring the tradition to a standstill. (!) So [according to Jesus], faithfulness doesn’t simply permit us to extend the tradition (and seek to fulfill its “unexplored” potential), it requires us to do so.
But what does it mean to “fulfill the tradition”?
Jesus answers that question with a whole series of examples [taken from the traditions and the teachings of Judaism of his day]. Each example begins [with Jesus saying], “You have heard that it was said to the men of old…” which introduces what the tradition has taught. He refers to the command, “Thou shalt not kill” [for example, as we heard Jim McNeil read for us this morning. Later] he refers to adultery, he refers to swearing oaths, and to retaliation (“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, life for life”), and traditional teachings about who to love.
Each time Jesus introduces the tradition under discussion with the words “You have heard that it was said…” but then he dares to say: “But I say to you…”
With those words, Jesus extends the road of tradition into unchartered territory!
Now, his critics will claim that to do so “abolishes” the tradition; that it’s an act of destruction and disrespect toward the teachings of the elders. (!) But Jesus says that he has no intention of “relaxing” even the least of the commandments, but rather to creatively fulfill the intent of the tradition.