02 April 2021

Relearning the Law

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes plain his theology. He says he has come to "fulfill" the Law, not abolish it (5:17). Not only that, Jesus seems to expand upon the Law, raising the bar for his and future generations.

What seems to be a raising of the bar is actually a contextualization of scripture. When the Law of Moses (the Torah) was originally written, it was the law of the nation of Israel, a guide for the priests of the Tabernacle and later the Temple, a moral code for those living in Israel, the cornerstone of Hebrew culture, a history of Israel, and a moral code which applied generally.

All of these things were mixed together in the five books of the Torah. However, by Jesus' day, Israel had been conquered by Rome, its currency was the Roman currency, its laws Roman laws. Carrying out its own laws required Roman approval.

Jesus does not accept colonization means it is time to put aside the Law, instead, he places it in its proper context, focusing not on its role as the law of the land or even a moral code, but as an ethical guide to every kind of relationship.

When Jesus says, "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (5:20), he is foreshadowing that righteousness does not depend upon a list of rules but upon valuing our connection to others and treating our fellow human beings as equally sacred.

To prove that this is the true heart and purpose of the Law, Jesus draws not upon its moral teachings, as we might expect, but gives examples from its criminal code. In doing so, he demonstrates how a common moral teaching runs through the entire Law of Moses.

Murder is wrong (5:21-26). It's something we can all agree on and Jesus makes this his starting point. However, long before a person commits murder, they become angry. They may then dehumanize their neighbor, in Jesus' example, by calling them names. There is an escalation which leads to murder.

It is that escalation that breaks the relationship and it needs to be addressed before the relationship is lost. Jesus recommends that if you are in danger of losing a relationship with another person, you should even neglect your offering to God in order to reconcile your differences. Don't worry, God will wait for you; you can make your offering whenever you are ready.

Jesus addresses a similar situation in the case of adultery (5:27-30). Here he addresses the intention to do wrong from the perspective of a man lusting after his neighbor's wife. Often, readers place the emphasis on the lustful thoughts, but Jesus is pointing to the intention. By allowing lustful thoughts to change the way a man interacts with his neighbor and his wife (to continue the example), he has already broken his relationship with both of them.

Here, Jesus focuses on self control as a solution, saying it is better to "cut off" a body part, and thus preserve control at any cost, than have one's whole body thrown into Gehenna (sometimes translated as Hell). To be clear, Gehenna is a garbage dump where trash was burned, not a place of torment. Jesus is telling people to not be trash.

Speaking of treating people like trash, Jesus rejects the idea that it is acceptable to divorce a wife just to marry someone new (5:31-32). A divorced woman would often be left with no support, even though a certificate of divorce meant she was not in the wrong. Still, it is wrong of her husband to cut her off financially and leave her destitute just so he can marry someone new. Jesus says this is the same as adultery.

In dealing with others, it is not enough to simply keep your promises, Jesus says that you must be truthful at all times (5:33-37). If people cannot trust you to tell the truth, then there can be no relationship. If some outside force is necessary to keep you honest, then even your oath (or contract) is worthless because honesty is the cornerstone of trust.

Finally, Jesus addresses our very idea of justice (5:38-48). The Law requires equal restitution be made when a wrong is suffered. However, Jesus calls the person who has been wronged to forgive rather than seek justice. Not only that, he calls each person to recognize and seek to meet the needs of others.

Jesus tells his followers to "give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (5:42). He then asks them to go even further and "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (5:44). Jesus recognizes that even hatred comes from a place of need. He urges us to meet unkindness with generosity, hatred with goodwill, falsehood with honesty.

Jesus reminds us that we can default to the rule of law, but where love reigns, there is no need for law. When we recognize each other's needs and seek to help our neighbors, whether friend, enemy, or stranger, we transcend the need for law and are duly recognized as "children of our Father in heaven."

This is not a lesson that comes in spite of the Law, but one that Jesus draws directly from it. What other lessons might we learn when we stop looking for a list of rules and focus on supporting each other in the way of Jesus?

Peace be with you.

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