You have heard it said…

Let me remind you of the situation that Matthew is describing:  Jesus, recently baptized by John has taken a spiritual pilgrimage in the  wilderness – fasting and praying and ‘being tested’.  On his return, he learns that John – his mentor and teacher – has been arrested.  Jesus graduation day, if you will.  He begins himself to proclaim the message about the kingdom that John himself proclaimed.

He gathers people to his message – selects certain individuals as his disciples – his ‘inner circle’, and takes them away, to a lonely hillside, to lay out the strategy for their time together, and to give them a crash course in the philosophy that they will be asked to live by.  In these several chapters, the author of Matthew’s gospel presents this time as an education for those who would be disciples – and what an education!  “Blessed are the poor…”; a lesson in how the social structures had devalued the wrong sorts of people.  “you are the salt of the earth…the light of the world…”; placing a personal responsibility on each of them to carry the values of the kingdom with them.  And then, Jesus does something that must have confused and astonished all who heard it. “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets…”; He seems to call his friends to perfect righteousness – he appears to describe the law as something that needs to be perfected, not dismissed – and then he dares to take on Moses…Moses of all people – in a very deliberate re-stating of the law.

“You have heard it said…”; each of these statements echoes mosaic law – the holiest of orders, the most ancient rules of life for the God fearing Jew.  The disciples (and Jesus too) had known these laws as statements of divine fact!  Moses was revered as the one who had seen God – spoke to God – received guidance from God and brokered a covenant between God and God’s people.  “You have heard it said…” must have come with just a hint of a smile – no one could mistake the source of these instructions.  But then Jesus changes the game – he dares to suggest a new interpretation.  “But I say to you…”

I’m not sure we have any way to know how radical – how dangerous – this might have been.  This is like the office intern suggesting that Bill Gates needs a new marketing strategy.  It’s like the new minister suggesting a change in the order of service.  It just isn’t done.  You need experience – you need the confidence of the people – you need some time in the old system before you suggest that the old system might be flawed, or that maybe, just maybe, the old ways have been misunderstood.

If you are angry, that’s as bad as murder.  If you “lust in your heart”, you’ve committed adultery; if you divorce your wife – except for specific reasons – if you do what the law allows, you cause the law to be broken.  This is a reflection on the near impossibility of having righteousness “that exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees…”    The kingdom of heaven is open to no one if keeping the rules is the key to admittance; Righteousness is more complicated than an ancient list of rules would suggest.

And so we come to the heart of the matter – and the point at which Jesus treatment of “the rules” takes a turn.  He will continue to refine and redefine old practices – love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you as an example (but that’s next week) – but at the end of today’s reading, he makes the complicated simple again; “Let your word be “Yes, Yes”, or “No, No”.  Wild promises of faithfulness are not promises at all.  It seems that there can be no judgement in simple answers – in sticking to the truth.  Either something is or is not possible for you.

True, such honesty would make for dull politics, and empty editorial pages, but anything else “comes from the evil one” – even arguments on the finer points of law, theology and philosophy…

Okay, so Jesus is either proposing a brand new set of rules – here concerned with morality and integrity – OR Jesus is pointing to the flaws in such moralizing on behalf of God – and while I’m no expert, I suspect it’s the latter.  Irony is hard to see on the printed page – it needs context and tone of voice and a lot of other things that Matthew can’t give us.  But if these are the ‘new laws’ that must be kept perfectly in order to enter the kingdom, then I suspect all of us can go home right now.  Anger has been ours, each in our own time – and I’ll leave you and your conscience to consider the rest – but the truth to which Jesus points is that the law, whether understood simply or parsed to within an inch of its life, convicts everyone; none are exempt from its accusations; no one can live without crossing the boundary between innocent and guilty.  “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” says Paul, and Jesus seems to be saying the same thing in a much more vivid way.

You have heard it said that righteousness could be achieved – that obedience and faithfulness were measurable qualities.  You have heard it said that the list of offences was finite and could be applied to every conceivable situation.  You have heard it said that your only concern was your own righteousness.  But I say to you, think again.

Your every action affects someone else – righteousness is a relational concern; “No man is an island…” said the English poet John Donne – and this may have been what he was talking about.  The honest humility that is required to “let your words be “yes”, or “No” – this is the attitude of people who are concerned for one another – whose joy is found in company – who sincerely desire good for all.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to do the impossible.  Perfection was never his intent.   But mutual respect – corporate concern – compassion in community, these represent the foundation of the movement that begins with his baptism and will be fully formed by his resurrection.  These are the tenets of the ‘new faithfulness’ that will spring from an ancient belief system.  This is the life to which all are called who would follow Jesus.  This call is what leads us forward; not to perfection, but to a life of love, perfected by the promises of God.

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