By Rev. Stephen Baldwin
Jesus would’ve made one fine lawyer. That man was convincing!
In today’s passage, his argument is, “You have heard it said…but I say…” in reference to religious law. Which makes it sound like Jesus is abolishing or rewriting the law.
Let me tell you, after spending the last six years with people who want to rewrite half the laws and abolish the other half–many of whom were lawyers and who did not particularly remind me of Jesus–I can say with a healthy dose of certainty that Jesus is doing something altogether different. He’s interpreting the law for the people. And the way he does it is…masterfully convincing.
He starts with the most egregious example of bad behavior. “You’ve heard it said that you shall not murder.” Can’t you picture everyone’s head nodding in agreement?
Next he goes to marital infidelity. “You’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t commit adultery.” Heads nodding. Everyone agrees.
Then he goes to divorce. “You’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t divorce without a certificate.” Most heads are still nodding, but people are starting to squirm.
Next he goes to lying. “You’ve it heard it said that you shouldn’t swear falsely.” Heads are suddenly quite still. He’s losing his audience.
Everyone can agree you shouldn’t kill someone, but…sometimes you have to tell a little white lie for the greater good, right?
Jesus is a masterful teacher. He has them on the line, like a fish in the water, and he’s reeling them in slowly.
You’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t murder, but I say you shouldn’t even be angry with someone else.
You’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t commit adultery, but I say if you look on someone else with lust you’re guilty.
You’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t divorce a woman without giving her a certificate, but I say even a certificate isn’t enough.
Let me explain that one, because it’s out of context in today’s world. Because men were the sole breadwinners and divorced women were often left to the mercy of the community’s goodwill, the law in Jesus’ day was intended to ensure that women weren’t left homeless and hungry. That’s why they were given a certificate. He says that’s not enough. Do everything you can to not put her in a position where she could even come close to being homeless and hungry.
You’ve heard it said you shouldn’t swear falsely, but I say you shouldn’t swear at all.
When Jesus began, I can picture heads nodding and everyone shouting amens as he teaches! But by the end, I am sure it awkwardly quiet. Because it’s easy enough to say you won’t kill someone; it’s much harder to say you won’t even be angry with someone.
You’ve heard it said this passage is another chance to get your New Year’s resolutions right, but I say that cheapens it.
You’ve heard it said this passage shames and blames people for the sins they commit, but I say that couldn’t be further from the truth. Jesus wants to uplift us and bend us towards doing right.
Why was Jesus reeling them in like this? What was he really saying? He was teaching them how to live the law. They couldn’t do everything but murder, cheat, and lie. He is setting a higher standard than the law. He’s not just teaching to refrain from doing the worst things, he’s teaching them how to do good things.
What we are talking about is the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. The letter of the law is intended to keep us from wrong. But the spirit of God’s law is intended to teach us to do right!
Jesus wants us to go beyond the letter of the law to its spirit. The spirit of the law is grace. Grace…is love.
Here’s the truth. None of us measure up to the law. We all fall short of God’s glory. And yet, God makes a place for us. Why? Because God has the grace to love us. God has the grace to love us.
We know what love is, for God loves us. And we know how to love others with grace, for God loves us with grace.
You’ve heard it said an eye for an eye, but Jesus says to turn the other cheek.
You’ve heard it said to forgive and not forget, but Jesus says to forgive someone who wrongs you seventy times seven times.
You’ve heard it said that you should hate your enemies, but Jesus says to love your neighbors. All of them.
It takes grace to love. More grace to love some than others, can I get an amen? Tell God something God doesn’t already know. Yet God loves us. All of us. The grace to love is a gift given to us by God, who shows us the way. May we all find the grace to love this week in our homes, in our communities, and in our hearts. Amen.