Monday, February 10, 2020

Not One Stroke of a Letter


Once Jesus gets on a roll, how do you know when to cut to commercial? Yesterday, as the gospel lesson, we heard the part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus pivots from his description of God's reign in the Beatitudes ("Blessed are the...") to the part where he outlines what we're supposed to do about it ("You are the light of the world"). If God's reign is blessedness for those who mourn and we have been invited into that reign, then how we live in relationship with one another must be a direct reflection of our relationship with God. That's where we pick up this Sunday with "You have heard that it was said..." I just wish that we had the second half of yesterday's gospel lesson repeated again this week:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 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.
That's Jesus' way (or perhaps Matthew's way) of letting us know that the instructions that follow are not Jesus' attempt to abrogate the law of Moses but to increase our understanding of its demands. To use a fancy word I read in a book, it's a prokatalepsis, which is an argument that anticipates later objections. Jesus knows that when he starts tinkering with the law, people are going to accuse him of picking and choosing what suits him. But he wants them--and us--to know that, if you read what follows and have any sense in which that is opening up loopholes or relaxing the expectations, you've misread it.

So, when we get to this Sunday, and we hear Jesus explain what he asks his followers to do, we can't reasonably interpret it as a hyperbolic expectation that, in fact, demonstrates the futility of the law, which is how many people interpret the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. If you've read this blog for long at all, you've noticed that my understanding of the gospel is principally received through the grace-over-law mentality. But we can't write off Jesus' words as an over-the-top sermon designed to lead us to Pauline depravity and a total dependence on grace. (I think that's where all of us end up, but not in a sermon on this Sunday's gospel.)

You have heard that it was said you shall not murder, but I tell you anyone who is angry with a sibling will be liable to judgment. You have heard that it was said you shall not commit adultery, but I tell you anyone who lusts has already committed adultery. You have heard that it was said that certificates of divorce are required to end a marriage, but I tell you that divorce and remarriage is the same thing as adultery. You have heard that it was said do not swear falsely, but I tell you that you should not swear at all.

If we try to interpret these words as a simple instruction for how to live, we will end up frustrated. It is that, but it's more than that. We have to remember the Beatitudes and the link between them and this Sunday's gospel reading. In God's reign, the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the blessed ones. If that's true--and we believe it is--then we have work to do as citizens of that reign, which is why Jesus calls us the light of the world. And, if we're the light of the world, we can't be part of God's reign if we hide that light under a bushel basket. In other words, the instructions Jesus gives us aren't prerequisites for entering the kingdom but, again, descriptions of life in that kingdom. If you are a participant in God's version of blessedness, this is how you live. Participation comes first; blessed living comes second.

Jesus tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the religious leaders in order to enter God's reign. Our righteousness is how we import God's world view into our own. If we think it's good enough to refrain from murder and adultery and issue tidy certificates of divorce, which seems to be Jesus' interpretation of the righteousness of those religious leaders, then we're still not participating in God's reign here on earth. God's righteousness--God's way for the world--is even more than that. It's that righteousness that we pursue as participants in that reign.

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