Matthew 5: 17 – 26
I enjoy watching mysteries and courtroom dramas, but one of my greatest pet peeves is when a white-collar villain gets caught red-handed in some malicious financial scheme and says to the hero, “You will find that what I’ve done is perfectly legal.”
I always shout, “just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s RIGHT!”
Jesus knew that it was possible to abide by the letter of the law, like the Pharisees and Scribes, and still wreak havoc on the lives of others. Jesus knew because he watched rich, foreign lenders come in and capture the ancestral lands of his people when the farmers had to default on their loans during bad growing years.
Jesus knew that the “might” of the “law” didn’t mean “right” as he watched agrarian families drown under the burden of Roman taxation and mandatory temple tithing that made the rich more powerful, and made the poor indentured servants on their own land.
Jesus knew the law could be cold-hearted. He knew that it could be used to demean and oppress. He knew that a law that was left in the realm of letters and court rooms could often be used to accomplish the exact opposite of what it was originally intended for.
This is certainly still true today! We can do business in ways that are completely legal that leave workers destitute, can put their lives and health at risk, and that can ravage our environment without constraints.
It is getting easier and easier to brandish the law as a weapon, to use it with lethal accuracy to manipulate the world to benefit a few at the expense of far too many.
Jesus knew that when we do this, and when we allow this to be done, the law becomes incomplete, broken, a shadow of the glorious social-glue that it was meant to be.
Jesus knew that no matter what laws we write, no matter how well-intentioned, they can be twisted and manipulated, and that there is almost always some loophole to be found.
Jesus knew that we can NOT legislate integrity or a moral compass.
That is why Jesus moves the law from the realm of the letter, to the realm of the heart. Jesus was living the words of the prophet Jeremiah who said,“this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says the LORD. “I will put My instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people.”
Jesus is refining and deepening the law to enhance rather than to impede and divide human relationships. Jesus says, “You have heard it said, you shall not murder…but I say to you that If you are angry, you will be judged.”
Jesus preaches that it’s not enough to just physically refrain from killing someone. Jesus is preaching the radical message of the complete law, calling us not just to uphold the letter of the legal code, but to uphold the dignity and humanity of our companions in this world.
It is not enough to avoid killing. We must also avoid the anger that can lead to hatred and violence, the anger that can become spiteful or jealous; the anger that can fester and eat away at us; the anger that can tear down and destroy the dignity and reputation of another. If we seek life and wholeness, we will refuse to degrade others with our angry words – be they insults, gossip, or manipulative “back-stabbing”.
Jesus goes even further and says, “when you are offering your gift at the altar, and you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister.”
Jesus tells us that it is more important to seek reconciliation with our brother or sister, than to seek favor from God, that we should leave our gifts for God before the altar and immediately seek to make amends. Our first and foremost duty to God is to heal our relationships with each other wherever and whenever needed.
Following God’s laws and statutes and the 10 commandments, doesn’t make things better for God, they make the world better for us, for all of us – They make us better human beings and get us closer to God’s vision for a united and harmonious creation.
Following God’s law is not how we win God’s favor, it is how we participate in building God’s kingdom here on earth.
God’s most repeated law is variations on protecting widows, orphans, and sojourners – another word for refugees and migrants.
In Deuteronomy it says, “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge….You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the refugees who are in your land within your towns.”
Many Psalms echo these sentiments and the prophets repeatedly proclaim them as we hear from Malachi, “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.”
First John puts it most succinctly, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth.”
God expects us to take care of each other, to make room for the refugee, the widow, and the orphan…NOT to reject and arrest refugees, or to make their children orphans, or to create widows by tearing families apart, or denying them entry and sending them back into violence and fear we cannot fathom.
Our modern symbol of justice is blindfolded. This “blind” justice is intended to be unaware of status, fame or economic resources, ensuring that all people are equal under the law. However, that blindness too often includes turning a blind eye to the humanity of those being judged by the law.
Law for law’s sake, can only end up as cold-hearted legalism, and while it may preserve a kind of truce among people, it can never lead society, or the individuals in it, to God’s dream of a creative, connected, glorious wholeness.
The new law that Jesus brought about – or rather the fulfilled law, the complete law – is not blind. Rather it sees with incredible clarity and compassion, right through to the dignity and humanity of all people. Jesus new law, invites us all to release our obsession with the letter of the law, and allow our hearts to be inscribed, to allow our hearts to be the place where God’s law does its work.
If we will follow Jesus into this “living by heart” we will discover that God’s law, in its complete, heart-capturing form, leads us to life, and teaches us to be life-bringers with everyone we encounter.
God’s law will only be complete when it is written on our hearts. It can only give us life and bring people together when it is carved into the very core of our being and becomes who we are and how we are together…
…in compassionate, caring, community, united as one body and one heart, in and through Jesus Christ.
Jesus says, “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.”
Did you hear?
Those who break the commandments shall be called least…
But did you notice one more thing?
They are still in God’s kingdom.
Jesus doesn’t throw anyone out.
Neither should we.