Friday, 11 February 2011

Reinterpreting the Law Matthew 5:21-37

Our Gospel reading this afternoon forms part of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. We have read verses 21 through to 37, but this particular section, which is clearly designed to be read as a whole, runs through to verse 48, and consists of six units of teaching, each introduced by the phrase 'You have heard that it was said… But I say to you….'

In the section we read today we have four units of teaching, where Jesus tackles the issue of murder, adultery, divorce and swearing oaths. We could very easily have a sermon or even a sermon series on each of these different sections of teaching, but today I want to have an overview of the passage.

Jesus is concerned with our attitude to God's law, which Jesus makes clear when he says "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them."  (Mt 5:17)

This raises the important question do the Old Testament laws still apply to us today? In the OT there were three categories of law, ceremonial, civil and moral.

The ceremonial law related specifically to Israel's worship, for example rules about offering sacrifices as sin offerings. Jesus came into the world as the Lamb of God, to die for us on the cross. The apostle John writes 'This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.' (1 John 4:10) So many of the ceremonial laws were no longer necessary after Jesus' death and resurrection. While we are no longer bound by these ceremonial laws, the principles behind them – to worship and love a holy God still apply.

The civil law applied God's law to daily living in Israel, for example how to deal with hired hands, how to treat the stranger, the fatherless and the widows, rules about loaning money and so forth. Our modern society and culture are radically different to that of ancient Israel, so many of these civil laws cannot be followed specifically in our day and age. But the principles behind these commands, such as a concern for justice and fairness and caring for the most vulnerable within our society, are timeless and should guide our conduct.

The moral law, refers to things such as the Ten Commandments, and reveals the nature and will of God, and which Jesus obeyed and upheld, and which still apply to us today.

But Jesus did challenge the enormous legislative superstructure which the scribes and Pharisees had erected as a 'fence of the law', and which placed a crippling burden upon people. For example, the broad principles of the law, such as keeping the Sabbath holy, were encrusted with a thousand rules and regulations, which must have made life incredibly difficult. Just to give you an idea of just how many petty rules and regulations there were, in AD 300 some of the laws from the scribes and Pharisees were codified in the Mishnah, which runs to 800 pages in English. In addition to this, there were commentaries written to explain the Mishnah, which are known as the Talmud. There are twelve printed volumes of the Jerusalem Talmud and sixty of the Babylonian Talmud. Jesus rejects the scribal traditions, and reaffirms the authority of the OT principle, and draws out its implications.

What Jesus was doing, was not doing away with the law as contained in the OT, but giving a fuller understanding of why God made that law in the first place. Jesus gets to the heart of what the law is about. For example, when Moses said, "Don't murder", it is not just enough to avoid killing, we must also avoid anger and hatred, because this is the root cause that can lead to murder. When the law talks about on what grounds a man (and it was the man) could divorce his wife, Jesus challenges us to live faithfulness in marriage. When the law says do not commit adultery, it is not enough to avoid adultery, we must keep our hearts from being lustful, and learn to be faithful. This is what I believe Paul meant when he talks about being transformed by the renewing of our minds. Which is why in his letter to the Philippians he writes "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." (Philippians 4:8)

Jesus' teaching is direct, to the point, and very challenging. As we listen to his words, we are challenged to reflect upon our own lives, and our values and attitudes. For example when Jesus says "If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell," (Mt 5:29) it is a challenge to examine our lives, and to deal with sin as drastically and radically as possible. Unfortunately the third century theologian, Origen, read this passage literally, and because castrated himself! But Jesus was of course speaking figuratively, calling us to examine our lives of anything that causes us to sin, and taking every necessary action to remove that sin.

Many people were good at following the word of the law, but not the spirit of the law. But Jesus reminds us that God judges our hearts as well as our deeds, for it is in the heart that our real allegiance lies. God is as concerned with our attitudes, which people don't see, as with our actions which can be seen.

The law ultimately convicts us, and reminds us that we all fall short of God's standards. Whilst we may not have murdered someone, which one of us has not felt anger towards another person at some point in our lives? Which one of us has not looked at another person and allowed inappropriate thoughts to fill our mind? Paul reminds us that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23), and the apostle John wrote, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." (1 John 1:8).

But whilst the law shows how we fail God by our actions, it also drives us into the arms of our merciful God. Because in recognising our failings, we throw ourselves on the grace and mercy of God. Discovering our failure to love as God loves is not a cause for despair. No – it is a call back to God, into the arms of God, who loves and strengthens us, and sends us out to love again; bids us love more fully, more perfectly, because although showing perfect love is impossible for us, nothing is impossible with God.

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