The Legalistic Jesus?! (A sermon on Matthew 5:13-20)

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil 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.”  (Matthew 5:13-20)

“You are the salt of the earth!” What a wonderful thing to say!

I’m not exactly sure what it means to say that somebody is the ‘salt of the earth’ but I know it’s a nice good thing to say. I think it means that you are fundamental to creation – that the world can’t do without you just as the earth can’t do with salt (or I assume it can’t).

“You are the light of the world!” That’s even less ambiguous and it’s certainly a lovely thing to say! It means you’re bringing enlightenment to your peers, doesn’t it? It means that you’re an example and a guide to the rest of the community. It means you’re an archetype of what humanity is meant to be!

These are lovely things to say and the best thing about them is that it is Jesus who is saying them, and the even better thing about them is that He is saying them to us!

Yes! YOU are the light of the world – YOU the disciples, YOU who gather around Jesus and are doing your best to follow Him – it’s YOU that I’m talking to!

If there was any doubt about who was being blessed in Jesus’ opening words in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’“blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek …” – there is certainly no ambiguity about who is being blessed here. It is the disciples!

You can see Peter and his fisher friends blushing as Jesus says this. You can see Mary Magdalene breaking out in a great toothless grin! “Really Jesus? Us?”

“Yes, YOU”, says Jesus! “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are the people that this world has been waiting for! YOU!”

And it was really tempting to stop here and limit today’s sermon text to these wonderful opening words that begin this section of Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Unfortunately though Jesus does not stop here:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil 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.” (Matthew 5:17-20)

Cicero’s first rule of public speaking was “render your audience benevolent”. In other words, you should always make sure that your audience likes you before you try to lay anything on them!  That’s why I always begin my sermons with a joke. OK, I didn’t today but that’s because you guys are already benevolent (most of you).

Was that what Jesus was doing with all the ‘salt of the earth/light of the world’ talk? Was He trying to get everybody smiling before He laid the law on them? Certainly these words of Jesus are harsh. He is (quite literally) laying down the law!

“I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets … but to fulfil them”

What does that mean? Well, Jesus spells out what it means: it means that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished”

If you’re familiar with the old translation of these verses it’s “not a jot or a tittle” will be going anywhere. People nowadays aren’t so familiar with jots and tittles, of course, and I frankly doubt whether most people a generation ago knew what jots and tittles were either. In point of fact there’s actually plenty of debate over exactly what Jesus was referring to by these terms but the basic sense is clear enough: ‘not a single punctuation mark is going to be moved. Every ‘T’ will be crossed and every ‘I’ will be dotted’. The Mosaic Law, in other words, in all its Byzantine complexity, is going nowhere, so you’d better learn to live it!

I have real problems with this, and I must admit that when I first looked at the Gospel reading set for this week my reaction was “I’ll preach on something else.”

What do we do with this Jesus, the upholder of the law, who expects every minute detail of the ancient Mosaic regulations to be followed to the letter? Dare I say that this Jesus seems to me a lot more Islamic than Christian?

I mean no offence to my Islamic sisters and brothers but according to Islam, ‘Prophet Jesus’’ ‘gospel’ did indeed consist of new laws that he had come to lay down!

It is quite possible that the Quran’s understanding of Jesus was developed on the basis of statements from Jesus like this for indeed Jesus comes across here as another Moses – another law-giver – expanding on the Mosaic regulations and hence perhaps ‘fulfilling’ them, but by no means erasing a single detail of the complex and extensive legislation that Moses and the other prophets had laid down.

Few of us would have a thorough knowledge of that legislation as spelt out in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and elsewhere, but if we’re going to be followers of Jesus then perhaps we’d better start getting familiar with it!

“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.” (Matthew 5:20)

As I say, I have real problems with this, and my problem is not simply that I don’t like what I hear. My problem is that this ‘legalistic Jesus’ does not fit comfortably with the rest of the New Testament!

This exhortation that we need to get every letter and every punctuation mark of the Torah correct certainly does not square with the teachings of St Paul who describes himself as a ‘minister of a new covenant’“not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6)

We know full well that the early church simply dispensed with great chunks of the Mosaic Law:

  • The necessity of circumcision
  • The food laws, such as those forbidding the eating of pork
  • Even the Sabbath regulations quickly passed into disuse, and “remember the Sabbath Day” was one of the big ten!

There was no emphasis on keeping to the letter of the Mosaic Law by the early church. On the contrary, the whole reason they split from the rest of the Jewish community and the whole reason that they were persecuted in their early days was because they dispensed with all the jots and tittles of the law, and this all just seems completely inconsistent with what Jesus is saying!

Now, if you’ve been a good Bible-believing Christian for any number of years you’ve probably heard preachers and Bible-study leaders get around this apparent conundrum by pointing to the clause Jesus adds to his exhortation to keep the law.

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(Matthew 5:18)

It was only “until everything was accomplished” that we had to worry about the law, the argument goes. Once ‘it was finished’ on the cross or once the resurrection had taken place or once the Spirit came at Pentecost we entered a new age, where the law is not written on tablets but on human hearts! (Jeremiah 31)

This doesn’t help at all to my mind for it suggests that during the three years of His earthly ministry Jesus expected His followers – Peter and James and John and Mary Magdalene and the entire motley crew – to be even more scrupulous in their observance of the Mosaic Law than the Scribes and Pharisees who had made a full-time profession out of their scrupulosity! This would hardly have been possible for the group Jesus chose for His disciples and it simply is not true to the depiction of the life of Jesus and His team as we see them in the Gospels at all!

Once great piece of wisdom that I learnt early in my career as a fighter was given to me by Matthew Kim, my first Martial Arts instructor. It’s an aphorism that I quote often as it applies to so many areas of life: “Your mouth can life. Your body can’t lie.”

In a martial arts context it means that you don’t listen to the guy who says “let’s just have a bit of a gentle muck-around in the ring. I don’t want to hurt anybody.” Don’t believe what he says. Look at what he does.

I apply the same rule when I hear the US administration and NATO and any number of politicians talk about how they want to help the people of Syria and how their only concern is to see that justice and democracy are upheld!  Don’t listen to their words. Look at what they are doing! They are pouring in weapons that are killing people. “Your mouth can lie. Your body can’t lie.”

In the New Testament context, I’m not suggesting for a second that Jesus was lying but I am suggesting that if we want to understand what He meant when He talked about upholding the law, we should not simply listen to His words but also look at what He did, and when you look at what Jesus did with regards to the Mosaic law, you find that the very flexible attitude taken by the early church was derived entirely from precedents set by Jesus Himself!

In short, Jesus paid scant attention to the letter of the law! When it came to the Sabbath regulations, Jesus seemed to go about breaking the law deliberately! It’s not as if there weren’t clear instructions as what you could and couldn’t do on this holy day (eg. Exodus 16:4-5 and 14-29) but Jesus and His disciples showed very little interest in them (Matthew 12:1-2)!

When challenged by the Pharisees on His failure to observe the jots and tittles of Sabbath regulations Jesus, instead of trying to defend Himself as a Sabbath-keeper, simply declared Himself “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8)!

Likewise when Jesus healed a lame man on the Sabbath and told him “Rise, take up your bed and walk” (John 5:2-9) He knew full well that He was commanding the man to do something that the law specifically forbade him to do (see Jeremiah 17:21-22).

Of course the Pharisees got upset! Jesus told them to get a life! “My Heavenly Father works on the Sabbath; and I work on the Sabbath, too” (John 5:17)

Likewise with all the meticulous food laws as laid down in the book of Leviticus, detailing everything that was clean and unclean food, what was Jesus’ take on this?

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:11)

Likewise with the whole range of regulations detailing who you could hang with and who and what you can touch …

When the woman with the uncontrollable menstrual bleeding touches Jesus, seeking healing (Mark 5:25-34) does Jesus respond to her by saying “My God, woman, don’t you realise that according to the law of Moses you’ve made me ritually unclean, and now I’m going to have to go and purify myself with a series of ritual baths before I can get back to doing God’s work!”

No! He says “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

I won’t continue listing the law-breaking activities of Jesus as I’m sure you can fill out the picture for yourself. The bottom line is that if you want to understand the words of Jesus you’d better look at them in the context of the actions of Jesus because, quite frankly, His actions do often speak louder than His words, and whatever Jesus meant about not letting go of a jot or a tittle of the law and about ‘exceeding the righteousness of the Pharisees’ He certainly didn’t mean that we are supposed to regulate our lives according to the details of the Torah because He certainly didn’t!

In truth, there’s no great mystery here, is there? We who love the Lord Jesus know full well the answer to this conundrum, don’t we? The answer is ‘love’, as the answer is always ‘love’.

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength and love your neighbour as you love yourself’ (Mark 12:31-32). Just love!  All the law and the prophets come back to that – every single jot and tittle, in Jesus’ understanding of the law, comes back to that. Love!

It’s not really complicated to understand. It’s just difficult to live!

Love! And don’t just do it quietly and unobtrusively either. Hey! You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world! Let your loving light so shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 2nd of February, 2014.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four. www.FatherDave.org


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About Father Dave

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four.
This entry was posted in Sermons: Gospels and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Legalistic Jesus?! (A sermon on Matthew 5:13-20)

  1. Adriana Johnson says:

    Father Dave,

    I really enjoyed your sermon. I like so much when teachers bring out what love is. How God sees the human heart. ‘Law not written on human tablets but on human hearts’. ‘Answer is always love’. Thank you for being online. I cannot thank you enough for that. What I like about your ministry being online with video is I see and hear and feel part of the congregation.I like how your hands move about. I admire this in many Pastors and Priests, teachers, college professors, teachers of all grades, music conductors, lawyers, I see the passion, I see you and others express love, wisdom, knowledge, truth, understanding, gratitude, emphasis with the way your hands sway through the air. I can related to this highly.

    I also highly adored your metaphors. I simply dance in metaphors. I learn well with metaphors. I like to use metaphors when I speak sometimes depending on the person I am talking to. I like the example you gave in ‘the law of public speaking’ that you gave. I really enjoyed the quote from your first martial arts instructor. It is so true with the things I uniquely and others out there can see yes indeed the body can lie. Blessings brother.

    Adriana in Arizona USA

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