You Have Heard It Said...

 The Law and the Prophets

“‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” - Matthew 5:17-20

Last Sunday Miles and I attended worship at a church from a different tradition than ours. A friend of his was to be baptized, and Miles wanted to offer his support. From the moment we parked, I could notice differences between this congregation and Grace UMC. For one thing, their building is much newer and more modern than ours; however, we’ll catch up in that area over the next few months as renovations kick off! But the significant differences were not to be found in architectural design; it’s theology. Their understanding of scripture, ministry, and even baptism were different from ours. Notice I am not saying better or worse--just different. Our 2021 Confirmation class is missing out on one of my favorite parts of the process: visiting other worshipping communities. It helps to reflect on one’s own traditions when in a different environment. 

Each Gospel writer has their own unique understanding of who Jesus is, what he is about, and the purpose of those who follow Christ. Like churches of different denominations, none is superior to any other; but how their respective mission is carried out may be unique. The Gospel of Matthew uses Old Testament metaphors, images, and stories to bring the congregation along. This is not to be understood as Matthew claiming the Old Testament, or Law and Prophets as Jesus refers to his Bible, to be irrelevant or replaced. It is thought by biblical scholars that Matthew’s community must have been heavily Jewish, so they would notice these references immediately. Jesus is understood as a new Moses, bringing a new understanding of the covenant between God and God’s people. Jesus lays out this new understanding of the relationship in the Sermon on the Mount, which is found only in Matthew Chapters 5-7. 

Jesus, we have learned, is God’s Son, the Beloved, the promised Messiah. Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, is what the Bible points to: God’s ultimate fulfillment of God’s purposes. Redemption. Forgiveness. Mercy. Grace. Salvation. Jesus embodies all of these and more, but not separate from what God has done before. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil,” Jesus says. Jesus carries forward every law, every commandment, every dream of justice and peace for all of God’s people. Don’t neglect what you learned before, Jesus says to his disciples. Do these things, and even more, to truly be a part of my Beloved Community. 

Remember, Lent is a time to work on our spiritual lives--to explore what deeper meaning and further commitment God may be calling us to. Unless our faith and how we live it out exceeds that of the established religious leaders, we will continue to seek blessedness elsewhere, to our spiritual frustration. So we are pole vaulters in a track and field meet. We're running down the track, pole in hand, headed toward the bar.  Jesus sets the bar high; are you ready to fly?

There is a refrain running throughout the second half of Chapter 5. Six times, Jesus begins a teaching with the same words: “You have heard it said before… But I say to you…” When he says something about before, he gives a teaching from the Law or Prophets, the Jewish scriptures-- most often one of the Ten Commandments. Remember the Jesus as a new Moses motif. You have heard it said before:

  • You shall not murder

  • You shall not commit adultery

  • Do not divorce (not strictly forbidden in scripture)

  • Don’t swear falsely

  • Eye for an eye

  • Love your neighbor and hate your enemy (that last part is not found in the Old Testament. No one is ever commanded to hate anyone. Matthew has his polemical side!

Jesus takes these familiar practices and re-imagines-- not invalidates-- them, bringing a different perspective. But I say to you:

  • Hurtful attitudes, harsh words, and name calling are deadly too

  • Whoever is lustful already commits adultery

  • Faithful relationships require hard work by both parties

  • Do not retaliate when attacked, but also do not give in; challenge the offender by showing abundant grace

  • Love and pray for those who would hurt us

The raised bar shows that it is only by God’s grace, revealed in the Word Made Flesh, God’s own Messiah, that such faith achievement is even possible. Left on our own, we might as well not even try. It’s a caricature to say, “Nothing else matters because Jesus saved me and now I am good.” God offers so much more than that. It’s downright wrong to think, “Because of Jesus, none of that [Old Testament stuff] matters.” What did Jesus say? “I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.”

Today is the last day of Black History month, and as I read these new interpretations of longstanding practices I thought of the Civil Rights icons of the 1950s and 1960s. They challenged established practices in order to give sight to a new vision of God’s promised justice for all people. Rosa Parks was a long time activist before her arrest for refusing to move to the back of a bus on December 1, 1955. She did not accept the humiliation of moving, but also did not respond by humiliating the bus driver. Protestors sat at lunch counters peacefully and quietly, not responding to harsh words and violence inflicted upon them. Rev Dr Martin Luther King’s strategy of nonviolent resistance was heavily influenced by Gandhi’s movement against the oppressive British rule in India. The other day I read The Cross and the Lynching Tree by Dr James Cone, a great Black theologian who died a couple of years ago. Dr Cone likens Jesus’ crucifixion to the lynching of African American men and women throughout American history. Dr Cone describes Dr King’s theology in this way: 

“In considering the subject of God and the problem of race in America, King reflected that God's love created blacks and whites and other human beings for each other in community. White supremacy was the sin that separated them and America and in much of the world. God reconciled Humanity through Jesus's cross and thereby white supremacy could never have ‘The final and ultimate word’ on human relationships. God's reconciling love in the cross empowered human beings to love one another bearing witness with ‘Our whole being in the struggle against evil, whatever the cost.’ Thus, blacks and whites together were free to create the American dream in society and the Beloved Community in our religious life.” 

Dr King, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and the other Civil Rights icons understood the oppressive systemic racism of his day could not be overcome in a narrow interpretation of “eye for an eye/tooth for a tooth--” seeking revenge or responding to humiliation with violence or anemic acceptance of second-class status. What was needed was a new way to model being human. The ultimate goal was for both the oppressor and oppressed to embrace full humanity for all. As recent events in our country have revealed, we are not there yet. Still, Jesus calls us further and deeper. Are you ready to soar above the highest bar?

“You have heard it said before…” “But I say to you…” Jesus offers a deeper relationship, one more fulfilling, in which God’s covenantal love is revealed in a new way form of community. He isn’t dismissing Judaism; nor is he demonizing his religious opponents. Likewise, we will not become the Beloved Community by demonizing other faith traditions or by embracing whatever best reflects our own personal belief system. Jesus is not throwing out, he is building upon a great foundation. He is fulfilling, not replacing, a specific value system. As we journey through the Season of Lent, let us consider how we are living in to this Way of Blessedness Jesus offers.

  • Does our righteousness exceed God’s expectations?

  • How are we practicing reconciliation?

  • Are our cravings/desires causing us to lose focus?

  • Are we glorifying God and each other in our relationships?

  • Does our life echo God’s truth?

  • Are we seeking retaliation or vengeance or a just resistance?

  • Are we exhibiting God’s love for everyone--even our enemies?

Jesus ends Chapter 5 with these words: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Talk about a high bar! Perfection is the goal of the Christian life. God’s grace sanctifies us throughout our lives, making it possible to achieve perfection in love. May we soar above the high bar of Christian faith, knowing God’s grace empowers us, launches us, guides us, and thankfully, gives us a soft landing! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.