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Psalm 119 & Matthew 5:21-37
Often in our Bible study class on Sunday mornings we wrestle with the scripture because of what we have inherited. Some of us come from a more legalistic background, some of us were raised memorizing scriptures but not really studying them, and almost all of us were raised in an atmosphere where the Bible is the “word of God,” infallible and without error, a claim that holds a lot of water, until you actually read the Bible. Then you find things that are troubling, even appalling, written in it’s pages. You find contradictions and rules that seem, at best, archaic. And so many take the option that seems most logical – they throw it all out. Oh, they may still attend church, even read the Bible, but it’s power has been stunted.
Still, I don’t think that we can just jettison scripture. Jesus, after all, uses scripture.
Like any other rabbi of his time, Jesus holds to Torah, the “Law” as it is sometimes referred to in Judaism, and the Prophets. He quotes them and even says that he is not here to abolish the law but to fulfill it. And fulfilling the law, it would seem, means changing it to some degree. Jesus consistently and openly flouts seemingly sacred taboos, like not working on the Sabbath, not meeting with women, not eating with sinners and non-Jews, not touching lepers, and many of the so-called “purity codes” in general. He minimizes or even replaces commandments, as when he tells a rich young man that it is good that he has obeyed the Ten Commandments, but what he really needs to do is sell everything and give the money to the poor. And Jesus feels free to reinterpret the Law—like here, for example, when he says, six times in a row, “The Law says . . . but I say…”
It is a direct rebuttal to those in his own day and time who would say to the people that every line and word of every law must be explicitly and unwaveringly obeyed, or you have failed in God’s intricate and nearly impossible goal for your life. We, too, know of those who make such a claim today, even in the name of this same Jesus. They hold up the Bible as a rulebook, a measure, which they are only too happy to use as judgment against you and your “lifestyle” choices, wielding the scriptures as if they were a prosecutor in a trial lifting high the statutes of the district.
But before I totally disparage that approach, let’s take a moment and give some benefit of the doubt. If you have no rulebook, how do you play the game? It’s like trying to put together a piece of IKEA furniture without the directions, it is really hard…heck, it’s hard to put it together with the directions. Living by a set of inflexible rules may seem oppressive to some, yet can we allow that it might be seen as easier than living in the dynamics of relationship? If you have to feel your way through building that furniture – well, that’s just too challenging for some to imagine. Just think for a moment about a close relationship you have. Wouldn’t it be easier if you knew what to expect, if there were clear boundaries on everything and you didn’t have to spend time and energy communicating or interpreting, if you didn’t have to negotiate things because the rules were completely dictated? It would be easier. Not necessarily better, not more fulfilling…perhaps much more boring…but easier. And, Jesus tells us with his apparent disobedience of the Law, easy may not be our charge as disciples.
This living “outside” the law, or by the “law of love,” isn’t unique to Jesus. In many ways, Jesus is carrying on the rabbinic tradition, encapsulated by a famous saying of Jesus, that isn’t his at all. It is traceable to story from the Talmud, the compilation of Jewish rabbinic commentary. In this story, two first-century-BCE rabbinic sages, Hillel and Shammai, debate. Hillel is the Jewish archetypal tolerant “loose interpreter” of the Law, while Shammai models the exacting and inflexible “strict constructionist.”
A gentile comes to both, intending to provoke them, and asks to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one leg. Shammai is indeed provoked and gives the man an angry whack with a measuring rod. Yet Hillel replies, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — now go study.”
This is not a dismissal of the Torah, not a belittling of the Law. Quite the contrary, it is asking for deeper study, for reflection, for an absorption that brings the law beyond a wooden rule into a deeply lived experiential guide. The letter of the law gives way to the spirit of the law in a maturation that is a critical part of spiritual development.
What Jesus offers us here is not oversimplified into spiritual anarchy – there are no rules!! Let’s go crazy and God’s Grace will cover us all. God’s Grace does cover us all, but not to release us from responsibility or consequence. At a time in which laws and traditions are being very publicly and visibly bucked in the name of personal ambition, we ought to make sure we understand what Jesus is modeling here.
In his brilliant letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. King wrote, “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” The trick, of course, is in the discernment. How does one know when a law is unjust? What is unjust to you may seem perfectly reasonable to someone else. And what is the disobedience meant to produce? Is it ignoring boundaries that are inconvenient or limiting to you personally, or disobeying unjust laws to facilitate the dismantling of systems that oppress and control entire groups? Those are very different things.
This, of course, presents us with a particular challenge. Psalm 119 couldn’t be any clearer –
“Happiness comes to those whose way is blameless,
who walk in Your law, Holy One.
Happiness comes to those who keep God’s decrees…”
The tradition seems to tell us unequivocally to obey the law, to be sticklers for it’s observance. If you read this alone, without context or interpretation, it might seem like the best way to be loving, since if you love someone you want them to be happy, is to enforce the rules, to get into the business of “sin management,” checking off the list and seeing who’s naughty and nice, like a sanctimonious Santa Claus. Yet that same tradition is full of stories of people who don’t follow the rules. Genesis has many accounts of the great heroes and sheroes of antiquity disobeying the standard practices, ignoring the traditions and rebelling against the rules that have been supposedly laid down by God in the name of God. Jesus is another in a long line of folks who see God leading them away from the tradition, expanding the limits of the time with the blessing of a God who is always saying, Behold! I am doing something brand new! Do you not perceive it?!
All of this brings to question the authority of scripture. Jesus is actually setting that authority aside, or at least taking it down a peg. And in our world of “The Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it,” this is a major stumbling block. Jesus has a willingness to claim scripture not as an ending point that “settles it” but as a beginning point from which we pull base-level values, and re-form them in our own context. Biblical authority then is not slavish devotion to a written word, but a dedication to the inspirational process, the engagement with the Holy Spirit, in our language, that began when that scripture was first uttered, but doesn’t stop there.
Here in the UCC one of our slogans is, “God is still speaking.” It is a quote from the famous theologian, Gracie Allen. Just to be inclusive in the references, Gracie Allen was once the comedic foil to George Burns, and his wife, for many years on radio, stage and TV shows. What it means has many layers. It means that we don’t just take the King James translation – itself a work of process and interpretation – and act as if that is the written word of God. It means that we understand that the Bible is a human product, or at least a divinely inspired product interpreted through human eyes, which means we have to approach it with care, study, discernment and humility about it’s authority. And finally, “God is still speaking” means that, like Jesus, we believe that God’s Grace and Power does not end with the Bible, it is at work right now, urging us to expand our own vision, to take the principles our ancestors left us and advance them when and where we are – right now!
What our slogan claims for us is that the Bible might indeed be the final authority if God were dead, or somehow removed from the lives of humanity. But we don’t see it that way. In fact, we see God as active and participating in our lives, and God’s Love as the creative and moving force that compels and inspires us to act in the world. We don’t reject the authority of scripture, we simply want to re-evaluate it’s position on the authority hierarchy. If we, “have prophetic powers,” the Apostle Paul wrote, “and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and…have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, [we are] nothing.” Love must be the operative law, the one that moves us forward, expanding the previous boundaries. Jesus’ words still ring true – “The point is not to be faithful to the Scriptures, but to be faithful to the living God who continues to be present among us.”
The Rev. D. Mark Davis, pastor at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California, says it this way – The accounts of creation, the Ten Words on Mt. Sinai, the stories of the people of Israel, assorted types of Psalms, proverbs, and prophetic utterances, as well as the words that Jesus is speaking in this text, are all ways of “scripturing” – a verb rather than a noun. It is not the written accounts themselves, but the real incarnation of God’s word through God’s people that is the point. “Scripturing” is the act of giving witness to that presence. As such, Jesus’ words here do not signify the ‘final revision’ of old Mosaic laws. They signify a way of “scripturing” God’s presence, which will always be a way of being faithful as long as God is living among us.
When Jesus says, You have heard it said, but I say,” he is not doing away with rules or boundaries. In fact, he just establishes new ones with his pronouncements. He makes the rules more challenging – asking us not to return violence for violence, but to reach for a better way…asking us not to judge others but to recognize the sin in our own hearts…telling us that loving the neighbors we already like isn’t enough – we must love even our enemies. God is still-speaking because God is, through our prophets and our discernment, still asking us to go deeper, to love more fully, to draw our circles wider and to offer the same grace that God offers to us, living our lives as an act of “scripturing,” giving witness to the living God who is still-speaking in our midst, the God who is making all things new.
This is the whole of our Law. The rest is commentary — now go study.