Laws are a powerful force on us. Now, laws that serve as healthy boundary markers are undeniably important. And still, any law that doesn’t have compassion underlying its intention, that suffers from lack of love as its platform, are laws that God, through Christ, asks us to either reinterpret or abolish altogether. The Christian church has a deep history of laying down the law, so to speak. It can, and has, in many cases not been helpful to the spiritual deepening of our cherished communities, but harmful to those around us, and deeply harmful to the freedom to which Christ calls us. You deserve to feel loved by your fellow, and not receive a judgement or punishment that is devoid of compassion. We Christians do have a law where this is available to us, and it is a law of the heart.
Now the law that Christ refers to at the start of our story and passage today, is the Jewish law, Torah. This is derived from the first five books in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. At the time of Jesus, there was also the concept of Messiah - one crowned king of the Jews, one who would drive out the oppressive Roman Empire and reject the elitist high priest classes that collaborated with them. Messiah, which in the Greek is Christ, in an English, “Anointed One”, would free of 1st century Palestine, or at least this was the expectation. There were many who claimed, before and after Jesus, to be the Messiah. All had their own followings. When Jesus died, two factions arose amongst his following. There were the Jews of Jerusalem, led by Jesus’ brother James, and John, and Peter. On the outside were the Jews of the Diaspora - the Jews who had settled away from Palestine for many reasons, often for being driven out by one empire’s army or another. A man, Saul from Tarsus, who would become Paul, spoke primarily to and for the Diaspora community. Now Paul claimed that through the resurrection of Christ, the torah, the law, had been abolished. We don’t have to worry about it! The Jerusalem faction said, no, Jesus was devoted to the torah, and so must we be. You can hear this tension - throw out or keep the torah - especially in this gospel of Matthew. The gospel writers and editors came to an understanding that is unique to this gospel, a powerful understanding - Christ fulfills the law through compassion. He gave us an understanding of what that compassion looks like throughout his discourse.
First, we know this particular community reading and following this gospel wanted to keep the law around. Christ says that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law. The law was staying. However, immediately following this statement is a series of “You have heard it said (by the torah) to do x, but I say to do y.” So immediately after asserting that the law abides, Christ then goes on to reinterpret the law. At first glance, it seems even more strict! If you’re angry, it’s as bad as killing. If you lust in the slightest, then it’s as bad as adultery. If you’re divorced, it’s as bad adultery. Forget making promises you won’t keep, just don’t make any promises.
And then he does go on to abolish some laws, turning them entirely on their heads. So, retributive justice, “eye for an eye” that is in the torah, scrap that - in fact, do the opposite. If someone takes from you, give them something else, too. Give to everyone who begs and asks to borrow. Oh, and “hate your enemy,” get rid of that, too. Love your neighbors and your enemies. Doesn’t mean you don’t have enemies, but love ‘em. So those hearing Jesus, like ourselves perhaps, could very easily be scratching their heads at this point, saying, well he said the law is important, but he just messed with it in these pretty big ways… Is it really still the law?
Yes, it is the law as it was meant to be - redirected towards the righteous love of the prophets that informed the beatitudes. Redirected towards protecting the least of these among us. How? Well, let’s just use the anger bit as an example. Jesus didn’t have a problem with anger. Just look later to chapter 21 when he overturns the tables of the money-changers in the temple, where God’s house was turned into a profit center for the already elite and wealthy. Jesus didn’t have a problem with what we can call a righteous anger, one that is driven out of love for those who are powerless and being taken advantage of and hurt. The anger that he dismisses is that which is born out of self-preservation, that which is born out of a dismissal for someone else’s needs in favor of your own. It is the difference between a righteous and self-righteous anger. And this self-righteous anger that is a dismissal of human need bears the same seed of sin as murder, which also dismisses the other, which says my life is more important than yours.
And how about the swearing to do something? Rather better to forget it and not swear anything. Well, what are you doing when you swear, when you promise? You pretend you have such control that you would always keep the promise. But we don’t have that control, only God does. That’s especially difficult for us to hear, who live in a county that has been saying, you need to lift yourself up by your bootstraps and you’ll be self-made, which implies that it is in fact all in our control. It’s not. Loving our enemies - that’s a big change! If we have to love our enemies, we have to love everybody my friend. The deep, hard, self-reflective, sacrificial love, that puts yourself and your sense of personal safety on the line - difficult because it will make the world better for your enemy even as they reject it.
It’s so hard, to have to give of yourself and be rejected oftentimes, too, so much so that we can want recognition for doing this kind of spiritual exercise. Here, too, then Christ reminds the disciples around him on that mountain, nope. Don’t seek that recognition. It doesn’t do dignity to this loving intention that you engage in. Don’t pray to show people how pious you are. Just say a simple prayer. (The lord’s prayer) Don’t advertise when you give to those who need it (after all, you’re just doing what everyone’s supposed to do anyway), and don’t let everyone know you’re fasting, same difference.
Then Jesus goes on to add some of his own. Ones that frame the torah nicely, because it offers an interpretational device - that is, what do we prioritize? What are the boundaries to the boundaries, the laws of the laws? The framing series begins with the reminder that we must treasure what is of God, of heaven, because that is where our heart shall be directed then. A law of the heart must be properly directed toward God. It ends with the golden rule. Everything, and by everything I mean the proverbs that go - “the eye is the lamp of the body”, You cannot serve both God and wealth, Don’t worry, Strive for God’s kingdom, Do not judge others, Do not throw pearls before swine, The Father gives as to a child asking - is sandwiched between loving God and loving neighbor.
Even with the framing and prioritizing to help us out, there are always unknowns, we know each situation has its own care needs. No matter what, there is hard spiritual work in fighting the desire to hand over all responsibility and control. We must fight the urge to either give up all decision making power to a rule or keep all control to the individual self by getting rid of boundaries. Both of these desires leave little space for grace, the fertile ground of growth. Growth, the evergreen possibility and real gift of our god’s forgiveness. I hope by now we can see that there is an inspection necessary not just for each action we take, but for each thought we think, one that opens itself to a forgiving flexibility.
We can be hard on ourselves, exacting with the laws that govern our lives. Christ offers each of us the discipline that makes discipleship. Jesus, with his bottom line of loving others, invites healthy, loving boundaries, and denies the power of punishment-centered reinforcement. We are called in this, his first teaching and discourse, to examine what in our lives now is love-centered, and what is control-centered? Rather than relenting to prescriptions of power over ourselves or another in some way, let us open ourselves up to being guided by Christ’s sacrificial love for others.
Let’s close our eyes for a moment now to do an envisioning exercise seeking that guidance. Behold in your mind’s eye the thing that most occupies your mind, let it rise to the surface. Hold it like a child. Pass that child over to the messiah, the Christ, who anoints to heal all things, who knows the heart of the matter, and its intention. Give space for God to give direction from your mind to your heart. Take a moment to give yourself a little grace. How does the Christ who holds this thing in your mind’s eye, how does a loving Christ engage it? Are you guided to keep it in your arms, to put it gently down, to throw it away, to keep it in Christ’s hands a while?
Now open your eyes, and before we resume the day together, hear Christ’s final call to action following inward growth. He said at the end of this first, his first discourse in the gospel of Matthew, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” May we build together on the foundation of Christ’s law of the heart.