Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, February 9, 2020
Isaiah 58:1-9a, Psalm 112:1-9, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Which is a very interesting thing to say, considering that in just a few verses Jesus is going to start changing the law. If you read just a little further, the next part of the Sermon on the Mount (and by next part I mean literally starting the verse after our reading for today ends) is Jesus saying “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder,’ … but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment …” And he goes on to talk about the commandments and give much more stringent interpretations of them than the letter of the law. Jesus says the law can’t be changed right before he goes … to change it. What the heck is up with that?
Here’s the thing. There is a huge gap between how Jewish people understand the concept of law, and how Christians understand the concept of law. Jesus was Jewish, and he’s using the Jewish perspectives on law, not Christian ones that developed long after he was dead. So let’s explore what Jesus—or anyone else in the Bible—means when they talk about the law. We’ll start by defining terms. First of all, the Hebrew word for “law” is “torah.” And it means a lot of things, because the Jewish concept of “law” is a lot broader than the Christian concept. Torah also means teaching, or instruction. Torah is the thing that teaches you how to be a good person, how to be a child of God. In a broader sense, “Torah” is also what Jewish people call the first five books of the Bible. The laws in Leviticus? Torah. The stories of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants? Torah. Adam and Eve in the Garden? Torah. It’s all Torah. Teachings, instructions, laws, given from God to God’s people. When a Jewish person talks about “the law and the prophets” they mean Scripture. Because the Hebrew Bible—what we Christians call the Old Testament—is made up mostly of the Torah, the Law, and the Prophets.
So on one level, when Jesus says “I have come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them,” he is telling us that the Hebrew Bible is just as important to him and anyone who wants to follow him as it has always been to all Jewish people. We can’t just take Jesus and the New Testament and throw out the rest of the Bible. Jesus’ whole life and ministry and death and resurrection is based squarely on his position as the same God who created Adam and Eve, the same God who called Abraham and Sarah, the same God who freed the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, the same God who chose them for God’s own people and gave them instruction and commandments on how to live and was with them in good times and bad. Christians and Jewish people interpret many of those stories and teachings differently, but they are still the same stories and teachings. And they are important. If you have ever heard someone talk about the Old Testament God vs. the New Testament God, or anything that implied that Christians didn’t need to pay attention to the Old Testament because we have Jesus, or anything like that, they were being unfaithful to Jesus and his teachings. The God of the Old Testament is the God who sent Christ Jesus.
But when Jesus is talking about how important the Law is, and how it can’t be changed, he meant more than that. And, again, it goes back to the word Law, and how we don’t really understand it. See, when we think of law, we think of modern legal codes. Things written down in books, or, these days, posted on official websites. They’re big, and complicated, and no one person could possibly know them all, which is why we have specialist lawyers who focus on, say, tax law, or corporate law, or criminal law, or family law, or whatever. And when you want to know what law applies to whatever situation, you look it up in a big book, and that tells you. And if there is a gap between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, well, you go with the letter of the law. Because in most cases, it doesn’t matter what the people who made the law wanted it to do, if that’s different from what the law itself says. If they wrote the law badly and the letter doesn’t match the spirit … that’s unfortunate, but nine times out of ten we go with what the letter of the law says. The law is a settled thing, for the most part.
That’s not how laws worked back when the Bible was being written. First of all, most law wasn’t written down. It was about custom, about what the society thought was right. And even when the law was written down, it wasn’t as inflexible as modern law is. It was a guideline, a level, a way of thinking about right and wrong and how people should live their lives. Education consisted of copying down the wisdom and laws and stories of your people, and discussing them with others, and figuring out the heart of what they meant. The purpose of writing down laws was not to make a reference book to look things up in when you need to and forget about the rest of the time. The purpose of writing down laws was so that you could have a whole class of people copying them down, discussing them, meditating on them, debating the finer points of how they would be applied in various circumstances, being shaped and molded by the ethical norms enshrined in those laws. Listen to how the Psalms talk about God’s law: “their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.” “The law of the LORD gives wisdom to the foolish.” And there are a ton of psalms that talk about how the law of the LORD—the teaching, the instruction, the torah—are written on the heart. If you want to know how people in Jesus’ day looked at the law, read Psalm 119. It is a hundred and seventy six verses long, and it is all about how awesome God’s law is and what it means. God’s law isn’t about dead words on a page that are a straightjacket for all time. God’s law is about shaping us in God’s image, and making our moral view of the world conform to God’s will, instead of to whatever the society around us happens to think. It’s not about the letter of the law. It’s about the spirit of the law. It’s about getting the spirit of the law so deeply ingrained in your mind and heart that it shapes everything you say, do, and think. And what’s the spirit of the law? Well, according to Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
In other words, all the rest of the law depends on that central truth. All the rest of God’s Law are merely ways of organizing people to live out that law in their life and society. If you ever read through the laws in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, the question you always have to have in your mind as you read through is “how does this help me love God and my neighbor?” Because no matter how weird or harsh any given commandment may sound, that’s what it was designed to do. And even though we don’t live according to the letter of the laws as written down in the Old Testament, we absolutely still live by the spirit of those laws, or at least we’re supposed to. What it looks like to love God and your neighbor sometimes changes, as the world we live in changes. How we live out the command to love God and our neighbor may change. But the core of the law, that doesn’t change. And the core of the law is that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves.
May we learn to keep this law always in our hearts and minds.