The Spirit of the Law



Inspired by Matthew 5:21-37

We are quickly coming to the end of the Epiphany season. The season in which we celebrate the coming of Christ, both then and now, as the light of the world, and in this lectionary year of Matthew, as Emmanuel, God with us. We get this short green season to process what that means and how we are to live that out. The last Sunday of the Epiphany season is Transfiguration Sunday which this year is the last Sunday of February. Which is right around the corner, and then we will be in Lent already. One theologian said about Epiphany, it’s the time of year when we celebrate not just the beginning of Jesus ministry on earth, but also his continuing ministry on earth. I think that’s a good summary of this season but I would add that Jesus ministry continues through us.

Today’s Gospel reading really hones in on what that should look like by giving us some very specific behaviors that Jesus addresses here. And some of these can be quite challenging for us, but they don’t have to be. Unfortunately, these verses have been misinterpreted and worse yet, misused by many pastors and theologians within the church for centuries. If taken at face value, which by the way you should never do with scripture, then all angry people are going to hell, if you’ve committed adultery you might as well not even come to church, divorce, you’re outta here, heck you can’t even make an oath or a solemn pledge, as this translation puts it!

What angers me about this is that pastors and churches have used these verses to shame people and control people for far too long. That was not Jesus intention here. In fact, he was constantly getting on the Pharisees case for using the Bible that way! So why would he do what he scolded them for doing? What has helped me as I interpret this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, and next week’s Gospel reading as well, is to remember the difference between the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law. The Pharisees were more interested in the letter of the law, and Jesus was more interested in the spirit of the law. And here’s why, many times, following the letter of the law, is easier. Let’s see exactly how by taking a look at how Jesus interprets some of these laws.

Murder, the law says, do not do it. Well, if we follow the letter of the law, that’s easy! Well, unless you’re my wife having to live with me, in that case murder may be a very tempting option. But I think murder is something that most people have under control. But Jesus says, uh uh uh, don’t stop there, because the spirit of the law is bigger than that. There are other ways to murder people than just physically killing them. And Jesus gets very specific here and points out name calling in anger. “You idiot!...You fool!” Now, if I asked everyone in the room to raise their hand if they’ve ever murdered someone, I’m guessing no one would, but just to be on the safe side I won’t ask that. However, let me ask this, if you’ve ever called someone a name out of anger, raise your hand.

Yeah, that’s not as easy to refrain from as murder is it? Especially in this political storm we are currently in! Now, for these next two, I think it’s important to remember who Jesus audience is—males. Now, were their female disciples, of course there were. I’d go so far as to say that the church wouldn’t exist today if there weren’t. However, we can’t ignore the fact that Jesus lived in a patriarchal misogynistic society, a society ruled by men who used that privilege to take advantage of and control women. This is the society that Jesus is speaking to. Why is that important? Because that made what Jesus had to say about these two laws regarding adultery and divorce, very controversial, very radical, and a direct attack at the establishment, the men of that patriarchal misogynistic society.

Jesus was saying you can’t just say you’ve never cheated on your wife because you’ve never had sex with another woman, he adds lust to the equation. Well, thanks Jesus, the men of the world collectively reply! And no, men don’t have a monopoly on lust and unfaithfulness, but again, that’s not all that’s going on here. Jesus is challenging the establishment, because the establishment was taking advantage of certain people, in this case women. Same with divorce, Jesus was saying that you can’t just get a divorce for any reason, like your tired of your wife, or you want a younger one, or even for bareness! These are just some of the reasons that men were allowed to get a divorce! And I’m not sure how much things have improved in two thousand years but that’s for another sermon.

And again, men do not have a monopoly on questionable reasons for divorce or lack of commitment, but there is more going on here in Jesus words. Jesus is challenging the establishment, because the establishment was taking advantage of certain people, in this case women. But let’s not forget, Jesus too was a product of the same patriarchal misogynistic society. I would have loved Jesus to have taken this further. I would have loved Jesus to have said directly to women, and you know what, the same goes for you too. Why? Because women couldn’t get a divorce in Jesus day, only a man could make that decision. But Jesus didn’t take it that far, maybe because of his upbringing, maybe because he knew his audience. We can only guess.

Here’s the bottom line. In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as next week’s portion, Jesus is stressing the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. Because when you only focus on the letter of the law you can easily find loop holes, as well as use it to shame and control people. But when you focus on the spirit of the law it open up possibilities and new life that wasn’t there before. Sure, it can make the journey a little more challenging as we have seen today, but think of the amazing fruit that we enjoy from taking Jesus’ lead in this way. We ordain women today because our church followed the lead of Christ and focused on the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law.

We ordain people from the LGBTQ community because our church followed the lead of Christ and focused on the spirit of the law and not the letter of it. Pastors can give communion to children of any age rather than waiting until they reach a certain age or have taken a class because our church followed the lead of Christ and focused on the spirit of the law and not the letter of it. The church is now more interested in working with people of other faiths like Jews and Muslims to make this world a better place, rather than telling them they’re going to hell and trying to convert them, because our church followed the lead of Christ and focused on the spirit of the law and not the letter of it.

I could go on but I will stop there. The ironic thing is, many have turned this passage, into law. They have turned Jesus’ spirit of the law into the letter of the law, to shame people and control people. And that really needs to stop. And that’s where we come in. We have the blessed opportunity to share with people a kind of grace that they may have never heard from a church or from a Christian before. We have the blessed opportunity to share with people that we know a place where they won’t be shamed, where they won’t be controlled—a place where they may be challenged but where they will be valued and loved by a God who is slow to anger, and abounding in faithful love. Imagine if we shared that simple truth whenever the opportunity arose? Imagine if that was what the Christian church was known for, and not shame or control or judgement. Just imagine.

1 comment:

  1. No shame, no control, no judgement, just come as you are, as who you are! Powerful message! I pray God gives me the Grace to follow these words and to lead by example! Thank you, Pastor Ron for your powerful and wise Sermons!

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