Today’s readings were all about God’s Law, what Jesus means by following the Law, and that one can be blessed by following the Law. An example from Deuteronomy 30:16: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.” Ok, simple, took care of that sermon—done!
Not so fast, my friends! In our other readings today, which talked more about this concept, they confused the heck out of what should seem like a clear and simple command to us all. In fact, the many sources I looked at in working on this talk, emphasized that there is so much more that just doing what Moses told the Jews about to head into the Promised Land of Israel after 40 years in the wilderness some 3500 years ago.
In our Bible study this week we talked especially about what Jesus’ continued Sermon on the Mount discussions with his disciples and the growing crowd really meant. In last’s weeks Gospel reading, Jesus said, “Do not think that 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. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Wow! Seems pretty clear that we better obey God’s Law.
And it continues this week! Jesus uses three of the Ten Commandments (concerning murder, adultery, and bearing false witness) to make a big, big point. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ approach to the commandments is not to set them aside, but to make them a central part of what it means to follow God! For him it means that we not only don’t kill one another, we also avoid hatred and anger. Instead we practice reconciliation in our relationships. For him keeping the commands means that we not only avoid promiscuity, we also relate to others with pure hearts. For him, obeying God means that we avoid all the ways people use to circumvent the truth and practice simple, straightforward honesty.
God set a higher standard for his people, than even those Scribes and Pharisees, the keepers of the Jewish Law at the time of Jesus. For anyone to try to follow even just the Ten Commandment literally and then claim that they are following God—they will soon be proven that they have failed (probably first on the Sabbath or the bearing false witness ones!). So, following 610 Jewish laws from the Torah, or by extension, the thousands of laws as interpreted by the Scribes and Pharisees—forget it, a lost cause! If all this was about was to blindly follow some written down set of laws, then we will all fail miserably. We prove it every day as we go through life--driving 65 when the speed limit sign says 60, parking in a 30 minute parking zone for 40 minutes because there are no meters to pay into, not sure about this tax code so I’ll stretch it and see if the IRS hassles me on it, and so on.
Jesus acknowledges that we will fail, but tells us we should try to be faithful—to a higher standard based on Love and the Heart--God’s Love and Heart extended to us! God gave his people the Ten Commandments, and later a larger set of laws for them to observe that would show that they meant to really follow him, not just believe they were by saying some prayers and making some sacrifices. All of this got out of hand as the centuries went by, until at the time that Jesus came it became a major show by everyone for very little faith and actions, and only for profit for some money changers and the temple priests. It was all about trying (and failing!) to follows all of these laws without any love or heart in it themselves, by either the followers or the priests and scribes who were supposed to be leading the people in obeying God’s Laws.
And it has continued to this day with Christianity--from the early Roman Catholic practices of confession and absolution (along with alms provided!), and into today’s church institutions--with some people just giving a lot of money to churches to make themselves feel like they are absolving themselves of their sins and guilt, and some ministers taking it all gladly to build their stately mansions and drive their cars and airplanes as they “do their ministry”.
To get back to how simple this following God’s law can be, Jesus explained that it can be expressed in two great commandments—love toward God and love toward your neighbor (Matthew 22:36-39). The way we love God is explained by the first four commandments (Exodus 20:1-11). The way we love our neighbor is explained by the last six commandments (verses 12-17). Thus, Jesus summarized the 10 Commandments under two great summary laws: love God and love your neighbor. Jesus did not teach that the 10 Commandments were done away with but that they are grouped under two great laws.
How can this be different, what does it mean for us here today? Karoline Lewis, talking about Discipleship in Community, says: “This next section of the Sermon on the Mount begins to turn the perspective of the disciples outside of themselves. They are not disciples for their own sakes, and their own actions, but for the sake of those around them as well. There is an accountability, a responsibility to the others for the sake of good of the community. Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am also” (Matthew 18:20). Nothing we do as disciples, as believers, is an autonomous action. It has an effect on those around us.”
Each Sunday in our community-based Confession we say: (Note the word “we”)
“we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”
Again quoting Ms. Lewis: “To be accountable to a community puts some checks and balances in place when it comes to being a disciple—and when it comes to being a leader in the church. All too often, we witness leadership in the church that seems oblivious to the fact that the shaping of a community is at stake. Leaders in the church can make decisions as if no one is watching, no one cares, or that the decisions do not matter in and for the lives of others.”
Our reading from 1 Corinthians pretty well sums up how our community relationship works with God: “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose…For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”