February 16, 2014 Deuteronomy 30: 15-20 Matthew 5: 21-37
Rev. Catherine Purves
There is no one more calculating than a child who is trying to figure out how much he (or she) can get away with. There are various ploys and strategies that children use with great success. Of utmost importance is figuring out where the absolute line is, the line that must not be crossed. Children soon learn that they can get very close to that line, as long as they don’t go over it. Another useful trick is to counter a transgression with a good deed. Washing the dishes or tidying your room earns you lots of points that might allow you to escape an imminent punishment. A strategy that sometimes works is pleading ignorance. I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to take out the car in the middle of the night for a joy ride with my girlfriend. As long as everyone remains fixated on the letter of the law, this kind of ‘innocence’ plea seems reasonable. If a specific law about that was never verbalized, then how was he to know that it was forbidden behavior? Children can be very calculating whether they’re worried about the time-out chair or whether they’re trying to avoid being grounded with no allowance for a month. What Jesus is saying to us in this very challenging passage from Matthew is: Stop behaving like children!
Stop trying to figure out how much you can get away with. Stop calculating where that absolute line is, the one that must not be crossed. Stop cosying right up to the edge of that line and calling yourself righteous. Stop bargaining with God, claiming credit for good behavior and then expecting forgiveness for misdeeds. Stop making your sole aim the avoidance of punishment and start choosing a life worth living.
Another peculiar trait of children that most of us eventually outgrow is the tendency to take things literally. Consider this typical mealtime conversation as it is overheard by a child. “This is the best soup in the world.” [The child thinks: Really? Have you ever tasted soup from Greenland or Paraguay?] “I wish I could eat this soup every day of the week.” [Are you kidding? I’d be sick of it by Wednesday.] “This soup is fit for a king.” [What? Is a king coming for dinner?] “You know, I just married you for your soup.” [Oh! I thought you loved her and wanted to live with her forever.] “Ahhhh! Great soup! I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.” [You’re dead now?] Taking things literally can get you into all kinds of trouble. You miss the subtle inferences, the humor, the exaggeration that is intended to make a point. If we read this passage from Matthew literally, like children, we will not hear or understand what Jesus is really trying to say.
Remember that most of the teaching of Jesus was in parable form. He told stories. He used metaphors. For instance, he said that the kingdom of heaven was like all sorts of strange things: a pearl, a mustard seed, yeast, a net, a harvest, a dinner, a treasure hidden in a field. Certainly, he didn’t intend for his disciples to take those descriptions literally. He was trying to open up their minds so that they would think about the kingdom in new ways. He often used surprise endings and vivid images in his parables that would grab their imagination and give them something to think about and work out for themselves. Jesus never expected us to take his parables literally, that is, to listen to them like children.
In the case of this passage from Matthew, Jesus is not suggesting that you pluck out your eye or cut off your hand. He is not saying that you must never look at someone of the opposite sex or that you will go to hell if you get angry and call someone a fool. Leaving your gift at the altar in Jerusalem – that would have been a live animal or bird, by the way – and travelling days to get back home to be reconciled with your neighbor before returning to offer your sacrifice is a bit impractical. Why would we take that literally, like children? What was Jesus really trying to say in all of these exaggerated teachings that sound more like parables than new laws?
I think he was trying to help us break that childish habit of looking for the absolute line that is not to be crossed. He doesn’t want us to live our lives based on what we need to do to avoid punishment. He doesn’t want us to be constantly calculating what we can get away with. He doesn’t want us bargaining with God, pleading innocence when we know we’re guilty, or fixating on the letter of the law. Jesus is challenging us to live by the spirit of the law. In each of these turn-about statements Jesus is asking us to hear the true meaning of the law which was never meant to be a singular regulation, but rather a way of life. He is showing us God’s intention, God’s will for us, that lies behind or that is hidden within these laws.
So, the commandment “You shall not murder” certainly doesn’t mean that you can do anything to anyone as long as you don’t kill them. The spirit of the law is that you must not do anything to diminish the life of another, to hurt or to wound another. This abuse of human life is not the way it will be in God’s kingdom. This is not God’s will. Anger, insults, broken relationships, lawsuits – all of these defy the spirit of the law.
Or consider what Jesus was trying to say about adultery, divorce, and swearing or taking vows. What is the spirit of the law here? Surely it is that we should be true to our relationships, faithful in marriage, honest in all that we say. Tearing out eyes and cutting off hands is not the point. The point is that honoring the people we love, living our vows, and treasuring one another in marriage is that important, and Jesus wants us to know that it’s that important. This is not a new, super-law. It is the spirit of the old law that we, when we act like children, simply ignore, because we’re just looking for the line that must not be crossed.
In our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy, we have Moses, the great lawgiver, giving his final, farewell speech to the children of Israel. At this point, we are told, Moses was 120 years old. He had journeyed with his people for 40 years in the wilderness. Now they were about to enter the Promised Land. Moses would not be going with them. Joshua was going to become the leader of Israel who would take them across the Jordan. Moses had received the law on Mt. Sinai and had delivered it to the people. What more could he do before he left them, given the fact that their track record for understanding and living the law was not terribly impressive?
Those 40 years in the wilderness were meant to get them past the childish literalism and legalism that had resulted in self-justified rebellion more than once. They seemed determined to opt for the known experience of slavery over the challenge of walking with God. A golden calf of their own fashioning was preferred to the unpredictable pillars of cloud and fire that went before them. What could Moses say to this people?
Knowing that they did not understand the spirit of the law given to them on Sinai, Moses could only lay before them, in the simplest possible terms, the choice that they must make. Moses told the people, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you.” This was the heart of all of the commandments. This was the spirit of the law. It was not about avoiding punishment, or identifying the line that must not be crossed, or impressing God with your righteousness. Pure and simple, it was about choosing life and not death, and that would result in blessings rather than curses. Surely, Moses wanted them to see that God wants us to choose life and God wants us to be blessed. It is we, in our childish stubbornness, who choose death and curses by defying the spirit of the law.
Jesus and Moses were both trying to wake us up to the fact that those who wish to live in a mature faith will recognize in the spirit of the law a spirit of freedom and grace and blessing. It is a spirit of relationship – relationship with God and with one another. You cannot legislate for relationship. In trying to determine the limits of relationship, you have already destroyed it. This is what Jesus meant when he explained the true spirit of the commandments about murder, adultery, divorce, and oaths. We can only try to live faithfully in relationship by honoring and blessing God and our neighbor and our loved ones. That is what choosing life means. That is what living by the spirit of the law means. We are called to a mature faith. Therefore, let us leave behind our childish ways and choose life.