When I was a camp counselor, a common practice was to start the week by having the kids brainstorm a common set of rules that they would agree to follow. At first, they would all giggle and think this was great fun— surely if they make the rules, they will have more fun than if the adults make the rules. But pretty soon it would start to snowball— everyone had a rule they wanted on the list. Everyone had a rule they wanted enforced. And if we didn’t give them some clear direction as the conversation happened, we ended up with many more rules than when the adults made them because, as it turns out, kids like the rules when they get to make them.
In some ways, we see the same thing happening throughout Scripture. The Israelites who are freed from Egypt need to figure out how they are going to live together now that they are not slaves, so Moses goes up the mountain to where they believed God lived, and comes down with the 10 Commandments. 10 Rules. That seems easy enough. Except the people find that it isn’t easy at all. The nuances of the laws were too much to live within, so they begin to expand the rules and pretty soon there are over 600 laws given to them to clarify God’s law. Over the years, even that isn’t enough, as people expand and clarify and simplify and then make them complex again.
So when Jesus comes, his followers want to know—is he going to follow the law exactly? Or is he going to throw it out and start anew?
In the 2000 film Chocolat, a mayor by the name of Comte de Reynaud is in charge of this little French village about fifteen years after World War II. Comte de Reynaud is extremely clear about his values. He wants everyone to live their lives perfectly in line with the laws. He is com-fortable editing the priest’s sermons each week when they err too far on the side of grace. He shames any villager who steps out of line one way or another. And when a woman by the name of Vianne comes to town as a single parent of a little girl and sets up a chocolate store during Lent, he cannot cope. He sees Vianne as a mar on his perfect town, a thorn in his side, a weed to root out. And so he goes about doing everything he can to get rid of her, especially when she makes friends with the nomadic gypsies who come to town. What Comte de Reynaud does not recognize, is that the more he tries to keep his town in line, the more harm he does to his rela-tionships, until at last he finds himself alone and completely out of control.
Vianne is his antithesis. She does not believe in God. She does not follow the laws and customs. She loves with abandon and encourages others' relationships. But even though she is the more likeable of the two, her way isn't working for her either. Her lack of tradition, her whimsical ways are actually rooted in fear and her lifestyle is harming her daughter just as much as Comte de Reynaud's lifestyle is pushing away those he loves.
Follow the law and tradition, or throw it out for something new?
It’s the same question we have of our leaders, isn’t it? Become part of any church and before long you will see that there is coded language to mean certain things. Is this a Bible-believing church? Do we follow God’s law? Do we believe God is still speaking? Are we reliant on the Holy Spirit? Are we reconciling? The language means specific things to specific people. But it's not just church language. We ask the same things of our governing officials and of our Supreme Court judges. Are they interpreting the law or following it? Will they conserve the ideals of the past, or will they be liberal in their understanding for the future? Will they decide the way we want them to? Or do we hope for someone with more wisdom than we have?
People are asking the same things about Jesus. Will he do as the Pharisees do and follow the law exactly? Or will he do as the Zealots do and decide when they will give God some help by taking governance into their own hands through violence? Living under Roman rule, the people want to know. Where does Jesus stand on all of this?
So Jesus gets up to speak and he begins with the beatitudes which we looked at last week. Only last week he blessed all of the people we would've never guessed would be blessed. The poor in spirit, those who are mourning, the meek, those who are persecuted. He looks out on the crowd and basically tells them, "You who don't feel that you deserve blessing are exactly who God wants to bless." But this week? This week we heard the next part of the sermon, and in it, Jesus does not mince words. He speaks very abruptly. He knows that everyone would love to draw a box around him— that's what we do as people. There are many in the crowd who would love to dismiss him for following the law too closely. While others would love to walk away if he doesn’t take the law seriously enough. A politician, of course, would be looking for the words that would avoid offending anyone. But Jesus is not politician. Instead, he offends every one. Jesus tells them that he is absolutely not there to give us a new law— he is obeying the old law down to every last dotted i and crossed t. Jesus says what he is there to do, is to fulfill the law. And then he begins with this list of laws and instead of relaxing them, he makes them all the more difficult. No longer is it enough not to murder, you must not entertain your anger. No longer is it enough to love your friends, you must love your enemies. No longer is it enough to not commit adultery, you must not even lust.
So if we take the approach of the Pharisees, who were known in Jesus' time to be the ones who followed the law most closely, if we take their way of living and try to apply it to what Jesus is saying, which is to walk in the footsteps of these more robust laws as closely as we possibly can and try to follow them exactly, we will not only surely fail, but we will end up without any limbs. And that hardly seems like the abundant life Jesus talks about.
So what do we do?
I think Jesus was trying to show us that there's another way. He’s not asking that we follow the law like you climb a ladder— intently placing your feet at every step and knowing when you’ll reach the top. But I also don’t think he’s asking us to forget there are footsteps at all and just fly wherever we like. We don't have to be a Pharisee or a Zealot. We don't have to be conservative or liberal. What Jesus is trying to get us to remember, is that all of the laws were always made to bring us more fully into relationship. We follow God through the law into relationship. We don’t use the law as a way to prove that we are right or wrong.
Not harboring anger keeps us not only from murdering, but also from breaking down relation-ships. Making amends and offering and seeking forgiveness is more important than any offering we think we have to give to God. Praying for our enemies is the only way to be transformed from the inside out. Refraining from entwining lustful thoughts is the only way to create healthy community in which men and women are leaders. Jesus tells them to do more than the Phari-sees not quantitatively, literally trying to one-up them; but qualitatively-- seeking to live a life fully connected to God instead of checking things off a list. Jesus is calling us to a new way of living. Jesus is inviting us to trust in God so fully, that we will be open to our neighbor. To trust in God so deeply that we will be willing to risk our own beliefs, rules, ideals, our very lives— in order to follow Jesus in loving our enemy and our neighbor as ourself. To trust in God so richly, that we are able to keep our eyes open without judgment; loving those around us and loving God.
When we use the law, the Bible, Jesus' own words, to hurt people or to show that we are right and others are wrong, to prove our own righteousness, than we have already lost-- we are living in hell. This life we have, and the people in it, are from God. And God invite us to be transformed by our relationships with one another and with God. Jesus invites us to step into a new kind of life by realizing that how we treat one another is pretty much all that matters all the time. Because how we treat one another is how we are treating God.
*Sources that I looked to this week: *The Interpreter’s Series: Commentary on Matthew by Doug-las Hare; We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren; The Working Preacher blog on the Matthew text by David Lose.