But I say unto you…

 

Epiphany 6A, 12 February 2017

Readings
Matthew 5.21–37

The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which it hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated.
Basis of Union, para. 5

The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. ― Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth

____________________

We’ve got unfinished business from last week, and it’s not about cooking with salt.

It is about last week’s reading though. We didn’t look at the whole thing.

After his words that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, Jesus said,

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil… (Matthew 5.17)

What does Jesus mean about not abolishing the law, but fulfilling it?

Some people concentrate on not abolishing the law. Let me tell you about someone I knew at school.

When I was at school, one of the lads in our class was a Seventh-Day Adventist.

Seventh-Day Adventists have a very strong witness of keeping the law as it is written in the Bible. Yet much as I may admire them, I respectfully disagree with them.

My schoolfriend and I had a lot of conversations about which day should we worship, Saturday or Sunday; and whether we should eat bacon. (Now, I’m a bacon fan! Don’t try to convert me to a religion that bans bacon. It won’t work.)

I can’t remember all the details anymore, but my friend would have looked at this verse and said that Jesus had not come to abolish the law; therefore, Christians should obey the Old Testament laws. To the letter.

That meant keeping the Sabbath. On Saturdays only. And no sneaky bacon sandwiches behind the bike sheds.

The Gospel of Matthew presents us with a Jesus who does not abandon the law. Yet Matthew also says Jesus has come to fulfil the law. More than that, he says

unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

What does that mean? How can our righteousness exceed that of people who spent their lives searching how to obey the law?

Was my school friend right? Do we need to follow the Old Testament law to the letter? Not only a life with no bacon, but let me add—no prawns either?

Today’s reading shows us how Jesus fulfils the law; it is by deepening its meaning, by drawing it down into our hearts. But first, let’s just stay with last week’s Gospel just for a moment.

What does Jesus say again?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil…

The prophets are in there too. What does Jesus mean by mentioning ‘the prophets’?

In many instances, ‘the prophets’ took the law of Israel and deepened it. They interpreted the law for their day.

Last week, we read Isaiah 58. Here, Isaiah interprets the law about fasting. The people were fasting from food, but they weren’t seeing any benefits coming from it. Isaiah says,

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58.6–7)

Isaiah points them to the deeper meaning of fasting. It’s not just to fast from food.

Through Isaiah, God says it is to fast from injustice, to let the oppressed go free.

Through Isaiah, God says it is to give the bread you fast from to the hungry; is is to house the homeless; it is to clothe the naked.

Soon, the season of Lent will be upon us. Similarly, it is not only about giving up chocolate. ‘Giving up chocolate’ is not the end; it is intended to lead us to confront the greed and the misplaced priorities that have us spending money foolishly while others go without.

So when Jesus says the law continues, he also interprets it as the prophets did. It is a deeper law that we are to follow; it is a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

We can say that the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is about deepening the law of Moses. Jesus is delivering this new law from a mountain, just as Moses received the law on a mountain, Mt Sinai. Matthew is at pains to proclaim Jesus as the new Moses, indeed as one far greater than Moses.

So Jesus says

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…

Jesus deepens the law.

Sometimes the way he deepens it makes us squirm a bit in our seats.

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Oh dear.

That really is a higher righteousness than that of pharisees, whoever they are and wherever they come from.

The pharisees were largely a group of wonderful, sincere people. They just wanted people to obey God’s law. But they stuck to the letter of the law and they made it a burden.

And they still live today. Anyone may be a pharisee in some areas of life, sticking to the rules at the expense of people.

Jesus doesn’t want us just to stick by the rules, or even to obey the law to the letter.

If that sounds like it’s easy, you haven’t got it.

For example, the Ten Commandments say, ‘You shall not murder’. We can all agree that murder is a crime that should be punished by the law. At a guess, I’d say none of us have murdered anyone. So we have obeyed at least one of the the Ten Commandments! We can tick that one off.

But Jesus draws the line well short of murder.

Nursing anger can be the cause of our judgement, we don’t have to go as far as murder. Who hasn’t been angry?

Insulting someone is a step too far; who hasn’t insulted someone else?

Calling someone a fool is a deadly sin. Who hasn’t done that?

This ‘higher righteousness’ requires us to be deeper people. We have to examine ourselves, know ourselves. We have to know ourselves like Jeremiah:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (KJV)

There are those who say the Sermon on the Mount is too hard to follow, that it is meant to lead us to despair. We are meant to try to follow it and fail, so that we come to God in despair.

For me, that’s just too cynical.

I’m still working on living according to the Sermon on the Mount, and I expect that when I die I’ll still fall far short of its demands.

But it remains the standard of a servant of Jesus Christ.

It is the new law and it is not easy.

You may say, but we’re under grace! The Gospel says that we are forgiven. Yes we are; now we must go deeper and forgive others.

The new law is the task of a lifetime. It’s a higher righteousness that requires us to be deeper people.

The Sermon on the Mount has a climax, and it is Matthew 7.12. You may know it as the Golden Rule:

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

Do unto others as you would have them do to you.

That is the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. Don’t know what to do in a particular situation? Here’s a guide: Do unto others as you would have them do to you.

Notice what comes straight after:

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

The Golden Rule fulfils the law and the prophets.

Remember what Jesus said near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil…

Jesus fulfils the law and the prophets by being the one person who lives the Golden Rule.

And the Golden Rule is the law and the prophets.

Jesus doesn’t put any load on our backs here. He fulfils what God wants; because of it, he is put on the cross. Death cannot keep him in its clutches; he rises. He comes to us through the Spirit, giving us the desire to live according to the Sermon on the Mount.

This is the narrow road the leads to salvation; that is the Golden Rule; this is the law and the prophets.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you…

What a world we would live in if everyone lived this way! We are the church of Jesus Christ; this is our way of life now. Amen.

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Filed under church year, Epiphany Season, RCL, sermon

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