Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to destroy them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
(Mat 5:17-20, NIV)
You may remember that I concluded my sermon last week by giving an apology of sorts to those who might have felt short-changed by the way in which I attempted to remove the moral force from the Beatitudes interpreting them, as I did, not as commands to be followed but as general blessings that Jesus was showering upon everybody.
I then added, as a word of encouragement to those who might have felt short-changed, that there were plenty of moral imperatives and good old-fashioned rules and regulations to come in the succeeding paragraphs of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, and here they are (or so it certainly appears at first glance).
The second half of Matthew chapter 5 (beginning at verse 13) contains within itself some very direct and positive statements about the role of the moral and religious law in the life of the believer:
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them, but to fulfil them”, says Jesus (Matthew 5:17)
And then He goes on to make the even stronger statement:
“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not one letter or one stroke of a letter will disappear from the Law until everything has been accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)
And as if that wasn’t direct enough, the passage concludes with a warning:
“So whoever sets aside 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 greatly exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 5:19-20)
Far be it from me to teach anyone to set aside the least of these commandments! The consequences are clearly dire! On the contrary, it is evidently beholden on me to teach and encourage you to outstrip the scribes and the Pharisees in your piety and religiosity, which I confess is a daunting challenge, for if you know anything about the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, you’ll know that they were some of the most meticulously religious people that human history has ever seen!
So forget gentle Jesus, meek and mild! Here we have Jesus the guardian of the law, Jesus who is determined to outdo Moses with this mountain-top law-giving venture. This is the legalistic Jesus, dare we say ‘the Islamic Jesus’, for as I’m sure you know, it is the teaching of Islam the whole purpose of Jesus’ ministry was to deliver to us another set of rules, along the lines of Moses and the prophets, so that we might know how to please God in the way we live by bringing our lives ever more into accordance with the Divine Law!
That’s certainly how the passage appears at first glance, at any rate Jesus the law-giver, Jesus the rule-maker, Jesus the ethicist who demands moral perfection of His followers! And yet there are a couple of indicators in this same passage that this might not be the whole story.
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them, but to fulfil them”
Why does Jesus start out here on the defensive (“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets”)? Why would anybody think that Jesus had come to destroy the Law or the Prophets or any of the rules of ancient Israel? We know the answer to that question, don’t we? Why would anybody think that Jesus had come to destroy the Law? Because He seemed to pay scant attention to it! That’s why!
Any of us who have read the Gospels at all know full well that Jesus was under constant attack from the very same scribes and Pharisees that He mentions in this passage for His repeated failure to live in accordance with the Divine Law!
Jesus was particularly notorious for His failure to keep to the rules emanating from the fourth commandment “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy”
On the Sabbath Day, you will remember, you are not supposed to do any work (neither you nor your man-servant nor your maid-servant nor your ox nor your ass) but Jesus seemed to be quite happy to work as hard on the Sabbath as He did every other day of the week, and when pushed on the subject would say things like, “well, my Father in Heaven is working, so I’m working too!”(John 5:17), which is hardly a response that I think Moses would have accepted.
And it wasn’t only the Sabbath laws that Jesus was accused of violating. He seemed to pay scant attention to the whole range of ceremonial rules about who you should have contact with and how you should wash and what you should eat and drink. Jesus had the reputation, you will remember, of being “a glutton and a drunkard, and the friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” (Matthew 11:19) hardly an example of religious scrupulosity!
So whatever Jesus meant when He said, “I have come to fulfil the law”, He evidently didn’t mean what we normally mean when we talk about ‘fulfilling the law’, by which we normally just mean that we are going to keep to it.
Jesus seems to want to do something with ‘the Law’, and He obviously didn’t simply want to dismiss it, but neither was He simply going to repeat it and uphold it either. He was going to ‘fulfil’ it, He says, which seems to involve re-interpreting it in some way if we go by the teachings that follow this passage in this Sermon on the Mount.
Even if we stick to this passage though we do get a clue as to what Jesus was up to here in the rather dire warning He gives at the end of today’s reading:
“Unless your righteousness greatly exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 5:20)
That seems like a rather intimidating thing to say at first glance, for if you know anything about the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day you know that there was never any group of people so pious and righteous and religiously scrupulous as they were!
And we don’t have to go extra-Biblical literature to verify this. Clear examples of the scrupulosity of the Pharisees is evident in the New Testament itself.
You will remember the depiction Jesus gives of His religious contemporaries in the story he tells about the Pharisee and the tax-collector who find themselves praying in the temple at the same time. The Pharisee, we are told, opens his prayer by reminding God of all the commandments that he never breaks (lying, stealing and adulterating) and then goes on to start listing the laws he does keep:
“I fast twice a week, and I give a tenth of my entire income.” (Luke 18:12)
When it comes to keeping to the letter of the law, the Pharisees (and their mates, the scribes) were exemplary. They stayed away from all the ‘Thou shalt nots’ and they constructed their entire lives around the ‘Thou shalts’. Nobody was more ethical or religious or morally upright than they were.
So when Jesus says that we’ve got to ‘greatly exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees’ either He is being entirely tongue in cheek or what He means by ‘righteousness’ had nothing to do with what we normally mean when we say that someone is ‘righteous’ meaning that they are pure and clean-living people who don’t smoke, drink or chew or go with girls who do.
And so it seems that the more we push into this passage the less Islamic (dare I say) Jesus seems to look. And I mean no offence to my Islamic friends, yet it seems clear to me that while Jesus says He doesn’t want to get rid of any of the laws, He doesn’t seem to be interested in keeping to the letter of them either, and while Jesus indeed tells us that we need to be seriously ‘righteous’, He doesn’t seem to equate righteousness with obedience to any rigid set of rules!
Now I’m not going to try to look any deeper today into exactly what significance Jesus did attach to the written law as I think this doesn’t really become clear until we look at the ‘commandments’ (of sorts) that Jesus does lay down for us in the latter part of His Sermon on the Mount. Even so, I think we do get some strong clues as to the direction Jesus is going in here from the statements that He makes at the very beginning of today’s reading (statements that, up to this point, I have skipped over):
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty again? It’s good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled on by people. You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill can’t be hidden. People don’t light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people in such a way that they will see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16)
If I were to ask each of you here today to compile a list of, say, ten people who are alive today who you think of as ‘lights to the world’, I wonder who you’d come up with people whose lives are such that when we look at what they have done we cannot help but pause and give thanks to our Father in heaven.
In truth, I suspect that for most of us our lists would be roughly the same. I’m guessing that Nelson Mandela would be on most of our lists, probably along with Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama perhaps. Perhaps Aung San Suu would be there along with Mary Robinson?
Other famous leaders such as Jimmy Carter would be on my list, along with less famous souls such as Norman Finkelstein and Mordechai Vanunu.
If we include people who were alive at some point during our lifetimes, we’ll almost certainly want to add Mother Theresa to that list along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi.
I think it would actually be an excellent exercise for us to each compile such a list. The only disappointing thing I found when I compiled my own list was that there weren’t any Australians on my list apart from Salvation Army Captain Paul Moulds who is a personal hero. I couldn’t think of any Australian politicians at any rate, alive or dead, that I would describe as ‘lights to the world’ and that, as I say, is a little sad.
Even so, the most instructive thing that came out of the exercise for me was the realisation that not all of my leading lights were particularly religious people (in the traditional sense of the word), and with those that were, it was not their religious activity as such that I was giving thanks to God for!
Even with clergy and preachers on the list, the light they shone seems to have had nothing to do with the fact that they kept all the commandments. Indeed, we know that (sadly) a number of those shining lights were complete failures in the ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ department. Even so, they lit up the world. And that doesn’t make the commandment redundant as it doesn’t mean that even the least of these commandments is irrelevant to our calling but it certainly does remind us that there is more to lighting up the world than keeping to all the rules.
We don’t remember these greats for their moral failings any more than we remember them for their moral scrupulosity. We remember them rather for their compassion, for their courage, and for their energy and vision. And it’s not as if those things are unrelated to living in accordance with God’s law but it is the case that none of these people became lights to the world by simply following the commandments either.
Now, as I say, we can go deeper into Jesus’ relationship with the commandments another day but let it suffice today to say that the people Jesus wants us to be are people who will change the world and not simply people who will keep to the rules.
We are to be the salt of the earth, lights to the world, a city built on a hill that the whole world will see and give thanks for. And that requires more of us than mere religious scrupulosity. It requires energy, vision, courage and passion. It requires the Spirit of Christ living through us and through us reaching out to the world. Amen.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, February 6, 2010.