26 February 2014

Sermon – “It’s the Law” (Matthew 5:17-26)

I wonder how many of you watched the latest episode of Sherlock this past week. For those who haven’t been following it, Sherlock is a British adventure series loosely based on the character of Sherlock Holmes, but set in the London of a hundred years later, in the early twenty-first century rather than the early twentieth. Sherlock still lives at 221B Baker Street, owned by the faithful Mrs Hudson. Yet as the series progresses we are let in on a few details about Mrs Hudson’s former life that certainly do not fit with the character invented by Arthur Conan Doyle. As in the original, Sherlock is accompanied by his assistant Dr John Watson—although now Watson does not write a diary but a blog.

In the most recent episode Sherlock is pitted against his most evil and elusive opponent ever, Charles Augustus Magnusson, a slimy media baron and blackmailer who has dirt on every power player in England, which means he effectively controls the country. I won’t tell you too many details of the story, but—and here comes the spoiler alert—in the tense penultimate scene Holmes puts an end to Magnusson with a fatal shot through the skull.

Now I am accustomed to Sherlock Holmes moving outside convention to bring down his opponents. That is part of the charm of his character. But this time Sherlock moves not merely outside convention, but outside the law. At the very least he presents an interesting conundrum, as do real-life people in our own day such as the controversial Edward Snowden. It asks the question, are there times when it is acceptable to put the law aside in order to uphold justice? And if so, who is to decide?

What is the Law?

In this morning’s Gospel reading we find Jesus teaching his disciples about the Law. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;” he says to them. “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” We tend to think of the law in terms of those red and blue flashing lights that we see in our rear-view mirrors and start to go into a cold sweat. But for Jesus and his disciples and any Jew in the ancient world the Law meant something considerably more than that.

Boiled down to its very minimum, you could think of the Law in terms of the Ten Commandments—and Jesus will have much more to say about them as we move farther into the Sermon on the Mount. In addition to the ten, the rabbis identified 603 other commandments in the first five books of the Bible. Those five books themselves, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, are also referred to as the books of the Law, the Hebrew Bible being made up of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. More generally still, it was not uncommon to refer to the whole of the Old Testament as “the Law”, as Paul does repeatedly in his letters.

But what was “the Law”? In Hebrew the word is torah. Its essential meaning has nothing to do really with that we would think of as laws in the legal sense. Basically it means “teaching”, like the wise father teaching his son. “My son, do not forget my teaching,” we read in Proverbs. The word here in Hebrew is torah. “Do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments.” And so the Law is essentially God’s teaching for his people. The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament puts it this way:

God, motivated by love, reveals to humankind basic insight on how to live with each other and how to approach God. Through the law God shows his interest in all aspects of a person’s life, which is to be lived under his direction and care… The law has a broad meaning to encompass history, regulations and their interpretation, and exhortations. It is not merely the listing of ethical and moral statements…

Thus the Law is never seen as a burden, but a delight and a privilege, to sit under the instruction of none less than our loving, caring, all-powerful God:

Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way… All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. (Psalm 25:8,10)

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple. (Psalm 19:7)

I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart. (Psalm 40:8)

Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. (Psalm 119:18)

Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long. (Psalm 119:97)

So it is that Israel looks forward to the day, when not just they, but people of all nations, will have the privilege of coming under torah, under God’s loving instruction:

Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction [torah], and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3,4)

The word torah is related to the verb yarah, which can refer to arranging stones in a certain place. In Genesis Laban sets up a heap of stones and a pillar as a boundary marker and a witness between himself and Jacob to their covenant of peace. So we can think of the law as being like a set of boundaries, or a sheepfold, within which we may dwell in safety. In Job we read of God laying the cornerstone of the earth. And so the law is like a cornerstone, which gives proper direction and orientation to the whole structure of life. And Jesus tells us, “Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

The aim: Righteousness

Jesus then goes on with this challenge: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So it is that the aim of the Law, its whole purpose, is righteousness. And here too we meet with an often-misunderstood word. We can easily confuse righteousness with self-righteousness, or think of it as a rigid adherence to laws. But that is not the picture that the Bible gives. In the Bible the word righteous is put alongside other words like “gracious” and “merciful”. The righteous, the Bible tells us, are those who are generous and keep on giving (Psalm 112:4; 37:21).

Irish theologian Alister McGrath writes that righteousness, while it means adhering to a certain standard, “in its basic sense, refers to an actual relationship between two persons”.[1] And so righteousness is all about right relationships; and the whole purpose of the Law is to foster those right relationships—our relationships with our fellow human beings and our relationship with God. Hence Jesus sums up the whole of the Law in the two great commandments, which center in those relationships: Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.

So how does all this work out in practice? In the next sixteen verses of the Sermon on the Mount, beginning at verse 21, Jesus reinterprets three of the Ten Commandments for his disciples: “You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery,” and, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

A case in point: Murder

I find it telling that Jesus chooses to skip over the first five commandments and move directly to the sixth. Why, I wonder, is this so? The thought that comes to me is that of all the commandments you might call this one of the “easy” ones. After all, how many people commit murder? Statistics suggest that the likelihood of your committing murder in the course of your lifetime may be about 1 in 1360. So the chances are relatively high that the sixth commandment is one that neither you nor I are going to break.

Or are we? Jesus tells us that there are other ways of doing away with people without resorting to a gun or a knife that are equally worthy of condemnation—and he outlines three of them. In the first instance he warns us, “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Well that certainly brings the statistics up from 1 in 1360! Who among us hasn’t had a moment of anger at another person? What Jesus is talking about, however, is not those passing flashes of annoyance that come to all of us from time to time. They are a part of ordinary, everyday human experience. St Paul recognized that when he wrote, “Be angry but do not sin.” Then he went on, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” No, the anger that Jesus was talking about is the kind of anger that broods and festers, the anger that will not let go and only wishes ill for another person. That is the kind of anger that eats away at the soul. Ultimately it drives us away not only from the other person, but from the love of God as well.

Secondly Jesus warns about insulting our brother or sister. Quite literally Jesus’ words are, “Whoever calls his brother or sister ‘raca’ will be liable to the council.” “Raca” means something like “idiot”, or Lucy’s favorite insult to poor old Charlie Brown in the Peanuts cartoons, “You blockhead!” You can almost hear the laughter all round, and that is the point. Even though on the surface we may intend it as humor, what we are doing when we speak to another person like that is to demean them. Some people refer to it as “cutting them down”, which in other contexts is away of saying murder. Paraphrasing James we might well ask ourselves, “How can we bless the Lord and Father, and at the same time curse those who are made in the likeness of God?”

Jesus’ third condemnation is leveled against those who call another person a fool. This may seem to fall into the same category as what I have just said, but there is a difference. In the Bible the word “fool” does not refer to someone who may be lacking in mental ability. It has nothing to do with IQ, but with character. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ ” “Doing wrong is like sport to a fool,” the Bible tells us. “To turn away from evil is an abomination to fools; the fool throws off restraint and is careless.” And so to brand a person a fool is to tarnish their name and their reputation. We sometimes call it character assassination.

At this point we may well be inclined to throw up our hands in despair. Jesus does not leave any room for us to wriggle out. We are all condemned. May they lead us not to despair but to the one who alone is our righteousness and sanctification and redemption, “who, when he was abused, did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.”

[1]     Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A history of the Christian doctrine of Justification, Vol 1, (Cambridge: University Press, 1986) 7-8

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