It’s about transformation not keeping the rules

Matt 5:17-37

   The ten commandments are rules that have shaped our society.  While many people say religion is a waste of time they are happy to accept much of the heritage that comes from religion in the form of moral teaching and values that come to us from many years of human experience and reflection.  Jesus assumes we need moral guidance to live well, but he makes the bold claim that rather than have rules imposed from the outside we need an internal guidance system.  The rules that came from places like the ten commandments are good, but we need to build them into our internal being if we are to find happiness and fulfilment in life.   He doesn’t say the old rules should be ditched;  “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” but he adds, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfil”.  To underline what he’s saying he pick out the fastidious rule keepers the Scribes and Pharisees and says , , “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.  How could anyone be more righteous and fastidious than that pious crowd?   

   As Jesus continued it was clear he wasn’t looking for stricter adherence to rules but was proposing something else.  Jesus talked of people becoming alive, but true aliveness wouldn’t come through strict conformity to tradition like a cracked record going around and around.  Nor would it come from throwing the baby out with the bathwater and ditching tradition altogether.  The traditions weren’t dead meat – they contained life, but only when we discerned and fulfilled the true intent of tradition as a life giving power that takes root in our hearts and minds.  

   Maybe we could see tradition and past teaching we find in our scriptures as a road that began long ago but continues to the present.  Jesus proposes that the road isn’t finished yet.  There is a whole new landscape that has grown up around us.  To extend the road into this new landscape we need to look back and  get basic guidelines, but we must also be prepared to step beyond where the road currently ends, venturing off the map so to speak into new territory.  To stand still and hold fast to the letter of the law is to risk turning into a pillar of salt.  Our faith tradition was born in what is called the reformation and we are a reforming church.  In such a community faithfulness requires us to walk beyond what we know and make the road that will discover the life of God now and take us forward into the future. Faithfulness invites us to take the essence of our traditions into our hearts so that our lives are transformed and we become travel guides in a world that is looking for direction.

   Having laid out the general principle Jesus give us some very practical examples that relate to our human lives.  Using some of the key commandments he unpacks and re-orientates them with fresh vision.   No longer are they some rules to keep or not keep but they are seeds within our hearts that sprout and grow new life within us.  Food for our core being, our soul, our internal battery, our guidance system.    

   Starting off with one of the Ten Commandments he reminds us not to murder.  Most of us will say to ourselves, ‘safe on that one! –I’ve never been up for murder and never likely to be.’   But that’s the issue with outside rules we can easily tick them off and say passed or failed that one.  Jesus goes deeper. This commandment is really about the sacredness of human life and the taking away of this life can happen in all sorts of subtle and not so subtle ways.  Jesus raises three possibilities.  Firstly he tells us that when we are angry with someone else we invariably risk diminishing their sacredness and will murder them in some way with thoughtless words or actions.  It’s a huge issue in our society leading to violence ad all sorts of abuse and we are all infected and affected in some way.   Secondly the verbal put downs that I suspect we have all used to dismiss someone by calling them names or a useless fool takes away their life and sacredness.  It doesn’t need to be something we say face to face, but is there in our heart as we look at someone or some group of people.   We name and we write them off as someone I value.  And thirdly Jesus points out we murder people when we refuse to actively work towards reconciliation.  When we allow the fences to remain and put others on the other side out of sight and refuse to engage in meaningful ways that will resolve our separation.  

   Dear Jesus this commandment was something I could keep at arms length and even give myself a pat on the back with but you have introduced a whole new picture.  You are calling me to plant this commandment in my heart and in my soul and to live it.  To treat every human life is sacred, special, God breathed.   You are saying to take this rule into every sphere of my life.  How I see my own life, how you see my friends, how I see those I don’t get along with so well.  You are asking me to listen harder to those I want to dismiss, to make space for those I want to keep at arms length, to stand up for those others want to demonise.  You are asking me to be very careful with my angers, the way I put people in boxes, and neglect relationships that involve fences.  When I hear someone writing off Chinese people and saying they are all responsible for spreading a virus I will not remain silent.   When I celebrate Waitangi Day I will do so knowing we still have work to do to resolve the injustices of the past, and to shape a society in this land that is not only bicultural but multi cultural – a land where we welcome difference and diversity while honouring the good from all our traditions. 

   Jesus takes another seed when he says you have heard it said you shall not commit adultery.  But I say to you anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  For some reason Jesus seems to aiming this at men!  However what he is really aiming at is looking at anyone as an object for your consumption.  It’s treating others as an object to be used, abused, manipulated, or enslaved for your own purposes.  Again we find ourselves drawn into planting this seed in our heart and soul.  From thinking we may have got a pass mark we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line.  Greed and competition fuels or society.  Stepping on others to get ahead is part of the game.  If you can get a bargain no matter what the workers are paid go for it.  If someone else is a sucker and takes on a role of leadership and responsibility and I can sit back why should I?  There are all sorts of way we use others for our benefit and Jesus is asking us to treat our relationships with respect and honour. 

   After sowing this seed Jesus does a little side sowing and addresses the issue of divorce.  Divorce was legal in Jesus’ day and in reality was very common because all a man needed to do was sign a certificate of divorce and send a woman on her way.   It remains so in many societies.  But Jesus says you can’t treat women in such a degrading way.  He accepts divorce will occur, but is saying the easy divorce of his day was unjust and women who had been thrown on the scrapheap of failure through being rejected should in fact be considered still married and honourable

    And another seed concerning the swearing of oaths.  Turning to a higher being or authority to reinforce your word was a common practice in Jesus’ day.  We still do it in court when we swear to tell the truth on the Bible.  I guess the thinking is that failure to tell the truth will get us into trouble with God.  But Jesus says don’t promise your loyalty to any system or authority – let your word be enough.   Welcome to a world where we talk with absolute simple truth to one another and our word is good.  It’s a world we can trust one another, where we are no longer suspicious of someone asking for help, where we no longer play games to get what we want.  In our world of image, fake news, manipulated truth, I long for this world Jesus talks of.    

   Simply keeping the letter of the law was not enough in Jesus’ eyes.  To be one of his disciples we are expected to live out the heart of the law, and let the law take root in our heart.   For Jesus keeping the law is not about keeping the rules, but is about what’s going on in our heart and in our thoughts.  The rules say, as long as you don’t sleep with another woman you don’t commit adultery, or as long as you don’t pull a knife on someone you don’t murder. But for Jesus keeping the law is all about something deeper.   It’s about transforming our deeper beings and desires.   It’s about growing a new person by nurturing the seeds from our heritage and tradition in our hearts and letting the essence of those seeds shape us as individuals and as a community of that honours Jesus.

Dugald Wilson 9 Feb 2020