The Law of Jesus: A Reflection on Matthew 5.13-20

Last week’s readings asked the basic question, What does God want from us? We saw that the answer the Prophet Micah gave — to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God — is a pithier version of answers provided in the rest of the Old Testament, which can be summarized as loving God and keeping God’s commandments. For his part, Jesus accepted this answer but clarified what the looked like: love your neighbour as yourself, and, the values-upending ethic of the Beatitudes, which insists that this world’s losers are God’s winners. The question of commandments requires us to think about the Law of Moses. And today’s Gospel reading, which follows directly from last week’s (and directly into next week’s) deals directly with this question of Jesus and the Law.

Today’s Gospel begins with his analogies of salt and light, which we looked at in my post for the feast of Epiphany this year, and which describe the weirdness of the Beatitudes in our world: If the Beatitudes are shocking to our sensibilities, it’s because they’re supposed to be. Jesus makes it clear that his disciples are to be different within society, just as Israel, as God’s people, were to be different within the wider world. What passes for ‘the way things work’ in the world are, for Jesus and those of us who follow him, ways of destruction that need to be overturned. (Blessed are the poor in spirit … Blessed are the meek … Blessed are those who mourn…) In a bland world, Jesus’ disciples are to be salt; in a dark world, Jesus’ followers are to be light. For Israel, what was to mark them as different was their adherence to God’s Law. But what about for Jesus’ disciples? That’s a more complicated story.

As nice and simple as Luther’s separation of Law and Grace may be, it’s pretty clear that what Jesus actually teaches is much more nuanced. Far from rejecting the Law, Jesus upholds it:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This is where the portion assigned for today ends. And it’s a bit of a cliffhanger. It doesn’t really tell us how to be salt or light, or how we might conceive of being more righteous than the Pharisees, a group notorious for their precise Law-keeping. So let’s look at next week’s text too since it helps to put the pieces together. What we see is that what Jesus does — and calls us to do — is radicalize the Law: While he upholds the letter of the Law, a petty legalism is not what he has in mind. He wants us to break the Law down, to understand the principle underlying it and live that out:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council ….

He goes on to do the same thing with adultery, divorce, and oaths. It doesn’t matter which Law we’re talking about, true righteousness is not about what we do or don’t do, but about the disposition of the heart in what we do. It’s certainly better to be resentful than to murder, but it’s not holy. It’s certainly better to lust after someone quietly than to commit adultery, but again, it’s nothing to be proud of. It’s far better if our hearts are changed so that we stop viewing others only as means to the ends of our wants. This is to say, if we want to be truly faithful, we need to see the people around us as persons, as bearing the image of God, and not as obstacles to be removed or objects to be acquired.

This teaching fulfills the Law because it leads to the freedom of heart and mind that are at the heart of the Law. The law was never opposed to Grace, but was one way the faithful were led to live Grace out. The Law is Grace because we haven’t really understood and received God’s Grace until we are able to share that grace with those around us.

If all this seems daunting to you, you’re not alone. There’s a reason why these have been historically called ‘the Hard Sayings’ of Jesus. But they exist as wonderful examples of the radical, and radically different — salty, leavening, and enlightening — way we are called to live.

May God give us the courage, strength, and perseverance to remember these teachings and live them out to the best of our abilities, by God’s grace.

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