We continue reading through the Sermon on the Mount. We have had the beatitudes where Jesus turns all conventional worldly thinking on its head; last week we heard that we are called to be the salt of the earth – the conducting mineral that allows God’s work to be carried to every corner of the globe – and this week we hear the astonishing claim that Jesus comes not to abolish the Law, but to complete it.
It’s an astonishing because Jesus (to our minds) continually breaks The Law – he did not observe handwashing, he healed sick people on the Sabbath and so on… he was such a Law-breaker that he was crucified for it.
So in order to understand what Jesus is saying here and why it is quite so astonishing we need to consider what Jesus (and later St. Paul) meant when they talked about The Law.
There are four different ways that Jews referred to The Law.
1 – The Ten Commandments.
2 – The first five books of the Bible – literally The Pentateuch
3 – ‘The Law and the Prophets’ – the whole of scripture (what we call the Old Testament)
4 – The oral – or the scribal law.
In Jesus time, and indeed whenever Jesus refers to the Law he is referencing the final understanding – the oral and scribal law. This was the law that Jesus so utterly condemned time and time again. But why?
Well let’s start with the other definitions. We start with the Ten Commandments. They are not rules and regulations, they are simple, easy to understand principles from which people must find their own rules to live their own lives based – soaked if you like – in God’s Word.
But, as time went on the Jewish people found these great principles to be insufficient to lead their lives – yes the commandment tells me not to commit adultery… but what does that ACTUALLY mean?
They therefore set about codifying each of the principles and commandments God gave us into rules and regulations that all must follow. It was the job of the scribes to reduce these great commandments into a rule for every possible situation in life.
Let me give you an example.
Let’s take the commandment that the Sabbath day should be kept Holy.
The scribes set about defining exactly what that meant… to keep something Holy they said then there must be no work… but what is work? Well, we can figure that out too can’t we.
All sorts of things were legally considered work, but let’s take one – to carry a burden… ah, but then we need to define burden (you can already see the rabbit hole we are going down!)
So the scribes set about defining burden:
‘food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, paper enough to write a custom-house notice upon, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, reed enough to make a pen..’
…and so it went on and on and on and on…
The scribes were the men who worked out these rules and regulations and the Pharisees were the men who were separated and worked hard to keep all of these rules and regulations.
For many generations these rules and regulations were kept as an oral law – it was handed down in the memory of the scribes but in the middle of the third century AD the first summary was made and codified. That initial summary was over 800 pages long. As time went by these rules and regulations were written down in full and commentaries to explain them were produced. These commentaries run to over 60 printed volumes.
To the jews of Jesus time The Law meant the keeping of thousands of legalistic rules and regulations, they understood the keeping of these rules and regulations as their means of salvation – of eternal life.
This is The Law to which Jesus was speaking about, this is the Law that both Jesus and St. Paul condemned time and time again.
So then, what was Jesus saying?
He is telling us that he has comes to fulfil the Law – that is to say he comes to help us live our lives in the real meaning of the Law as God gave it to us – to help us to engage with those great principles, the central of which was to seek God’s will and dedicate our lives to understanding and obeying it.
The scribes and the pharisees were on the right track, seeking out God’s will and seeking to obey it, but they were wrong in attempting to bend the great principles God has given us to a host of man-made rules and regulations.
So let’s start with the greatest of those principles – the heart of The Law – the ten commandments.
Their whole effect can be summed up by the words respect and reverence.
Reverence for God and respect for our fellow human beings.
Reverence for God’s day, for the name of God. Respect for parents, respect for the truth and for another person’s good name, respect for yourself so that wrong desires will never overcome us… these are the basic principles in the ten commandments. Without this understanding there can be no engagement with The Law.
That reverence and respect is lived out – not in the following of man-made rules and regulations but in love.
Not in prohibitions, but in the instruction to love one another as God loves us.
The reverence and respect that are the basis of the ten commandments can never pass away, pass in and out of fashion, pass in and out of secular understanding – but are an eternal part of our relationship with God and to one another.
So then, does that mean that we can eject the past? Can we throw away vast swathes of the Old Testament as unimportant? As irrelevant?
Well, the simple answer is no!
What Jesus is saying in this scripture is that there is a continuation between the past and present.
The present grows out of the past and to ignore that is to – to use an overused phrase – throw the baby out with the bathwater!
The Law had to come before The Gospel because we had to understand the difference between right and wrong. We had to understand what it meant to respond to the commands of God. Our duty is not to disregard the past – and our mistakes in it – but to use the past as a foundation on which we build our future.
We build our future on the foundation of the hard work of others in the past who have built our present.
Jesus uses the past, The Law, the scribes and the pharisees to teach us about how we can live in the future – and so to disregard all that Jesus builds his teaching on is to undermine our own foundation – to build our house on sand, so to speak.
So then, we have the past – we’re exploring Jesus present – and we are attempting to understand what it means in our future.
We can then set aside all these silly rules and regulations and somehow just feel our way into doing what is right? Sounds easy doesn’t it.
We should all just bumble along together doing what we feel is lovely and nice and good.
Well… you’ll not be surprised to hear me say – no! That is not what Jesus is telling us.
Jesus warns us that being a Christian is not easy. Just because he is setting aside these silly rules and regulations does not mean that we can just go out and do whatever it is we want to do with no regard to his teaching, no regard to scripture and no regard to the great principles we have received from God in the commandments.
In fact Jesus tells us that the righteousness of the Christian – of those that follow him – must EXCEEDE that of the scribes and pharisees.
In zeal we must stand alongside them – understanding that it Jesus we follow and not the rules of man.
The scribes and the pharisees set about a life dedicated to satisfying the Law.
We as Christians are called to dedicate our lives to satisfying the Love in which God calls us to live in and with each other – based, founded, and built upon the commandments and scripture.
The scribes and pharisees can in theory fulfil the demands of the Law – in fact they dedicated each day to doing just that and were successful.
We, must fulfil the greater and endless demand of living out God’s love in the world – a task that is never ending.
How then do we engage with scripture, the great principles of the ten commandments and the Gospel to live out our lives in Love?
Jesus sets the standard high.
In fact it is a greater burden to live by the demands of God’s love than it is to live by the demands of the Law. In many ways, as strict as the rules and regulations of the scribes and pharisees are – they actually enable you to find ways AROUND God’s love. They give you an excuse the by-pass the difficult and hard things we must all face if we are to follow Jesus.
Jesus tells us that it is not just the person who commits murder – or adultery and so on – who is guilty – but the person who was angry with another person is also guilty. The person who looks at someone with unclean desire is guilty…
He commands us to cut out our eye lest we fall into these dreadful sins.
Jesus is teaching us that the great principles of following God are not simply principles of the flesh – of how we behave and act in public – but what happens in our hearts and in our minds – because it is there that the great battle between evil and God’s love is won or lost.
It may be that we have never hit someone, that we have never committed adultery and so on – but we have certainly entertained the thought of doing so – and it’s in those thoughts that evil gets hold of us.
How many of us have given in to the desire in our minds to consider hitting someone? How many of us have given in to the desire in our minds to rubbish someone’s good name? To bring them down a peg or two? How many of us have cradled and enjoyed the thought of what we may do to someone we hate? How many of us have thought bad things about people we do not like?
I would suggest all of us have.
And those thoughts will ultimately lead to action. We are betrayed by those thoughts in the world. By the way we ignore someone, or the way we don’t take action to help someone we don’t like – those thoughts are the seeds of evil in the world and we must destroy them!
The battle between good and evil starts in our minds.
This is what Jesus is teaching us. This is the fundamental truth of how we live our lives as Christians.
That our lived-out faith – the lived-out Love of God in the world – starts in the battles of the mind.
When you find yourself thinking of someone in a bad way – kill that thought.
When you find yourself thinking of someone in an unkind way – kill that thought.
When you find yourself thinking of someone in a lustful way – kill that thought.
We are constantly pulled in different directions. We have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, and each time we give into the devil in our minds the angel shrinks.
BUT we have the power to eject the devil from our thinking – by giving in to the angel.
When we think of someone in a bad way, we move our thought to how Jesus is using them in the world and see them in His love.
When we think of someone in an unkind way, we move our thought to how God loves them and see them in that light.
When we think of someone in a lustful way, we move our thought to the child that God cradles in his arm and love them in that way.
This is a constant and never-ending battle. It is far harder than following a set of rules. It is far harder than following the whims of the world around us – because it will mean standing up for what is right in Gods eyes. It will mean setting the world aside for God’s love – and that is never popular.
But you have the tools to do this. In baptism you received the power of the Holy Spirit.
‘If you wish you can keep the commandments, to behave faithfully is within your power. He has set fire and water before you put out your hand to whichever you prefer. Man has life and death before him, whichever a man likes better will be given him’.
We chose in this life the path towards eternal salvation or eternal damnation, and the battle starts in our minds.
So start training. Start feeding the angel and denying the devil.
You will fail. We will all fail. We will give in to temptation in our minds and those thoughts will lead to bad actions. But, you do not fight this battle alone.
You do it on the shoulders of those who have gone before you. Who have learnt how to fight this fight. You do it in the friendly embrace of those you come to church with. You do it in the power of the sacraments you receive from Christ in this place, you do it knowing that when you fall there are people to pick you up.
So leave here today with a new call to live a life as Jesus commands. A life of love lived out in the world, a life of love fought for in your minds, a life filled with the power of God so abundantly, so strongly that it shines forth in all your outward actions.