“The Spirit of the Law Means More”
Whenever this date in the Revised Common Lectionary comes up (The 6th Sunday after the Epiphany in Year A) I always think of one of the Church Music Directors that I worked with in Saskatoon. Like all of the Music Directors I’ve been privileged to work with over the years, Adam was diligent about looking ahead at the Scripture readings for upcoming Sundays and considering the themes the minister planned to preach on when selecting music for choir anthems and solos.
Well, the first time that this 6th Sunday after the Epiphany in Year A came up for Adam, he came to me looking quite worried and serious. He told me that he had searched high and low among his musical sources and he could not find a single piece that would fit with today’s Gospel reading. But then he brightened and said, “But don’t worry, Amanda, I have a solution. I’ve been working on a composition of my own.” And he started to sing.
I don’t remember the tune now, but it went something like, “If your eye makes you sin, dig it out, dig it out! If your hand makes you sin, cut it off, cut it off!” Yes, he was doing the actions too! And we both had a good laugh! Obviously, we didn’t sing it for a choir anthem.
But it is a pretty shocking Gospel text that we read again this morning. Perhaps it’s even more shocking than last week’s text in which Jesus preached that our righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now he’s getting into specific commandments, interpreting them very broadly, and being very clear that violating these commands is serious and punishable.
There’s a lot packed into this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, so I think it’s helpful to notice that he basically names four commandments from the Law of Moses, and then interprets each of them in more detail.
The first two commandments Jesus mentions will be familiar because they show up in “The Big Ten” – the ten commandments that we find both in Deuteronomy chapter 5 and in Exodus chapter 20. Jesus doesn’t list all 10, but he talks about two of them: “You shall not murder” and “You shall not commit adultery.”
After that, Jesus talks about two more commandments that didn’t make the top ten list: “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” That one comes from Deuteronomy 24:1. And “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord,” which is found in Deuteronomy 23:21 and a few other places too.
What is probably most noticeable about Jesus’ commentary on these commandments is that he requires more. When the laws says, “Do not murder,” Jesus says “Don’t even be angry.” When the law says, “Do not commit adultery,” Jesus says “Don’t even think about it.”
When the law says, “You can divorce your wife as long as you give her a certificate,” Jesus says it’s not acceptable to divorce your wife just because you’re tired of her or she doesn’t make you happy anymore.
When the law says, “If you swear an oath, you must carry out whatever promise you made,” Jesus says that “You must carry out ALL of your promises faithfully, regardless of whether or not you have sworn an official oath.”
In last week’s section of the Sermon on the Mount, we heard Jesus explain that he didn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but he came to fulfill them. He came to demonstrate and to embody what it looks like when a human being lives God’s law of love in everything they say and do.
Reading Jesus’ interpretations of the commandments, it might appear at first that he interprets them more strictly than other religious leaders, requiring more of the people than is immediately obvious from the laws themselves.
But if it was just a matter of being strict about the rules, “You shall not murder” would be more likely to become, “You shall not murder a person, and you shall not kill an animal, and you shall not swat a mosquito, and you shall not cut down a tree, etc.”
Certainly, debates about interpreting the ten commandments have included discussion about what exactly murder might consist of, including the difficult questions around whether ending one’s own life falls into the same category. But that’s not the direction that Jesus goes with his interpretation. Instead, I think he gets to the heart of the commandments.
In first-century Palestine, “the heart” was considered the central organ of a person’s thought, intention, and moral life. You may remember that later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus is asked to name the “greatest commandment,” he puts it this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus suggests that all the other commandments of God should be interpreted with these greatest commandments as their foundation. If “all the law and the prophets” hang on the twofold love of God and neighbour, then we should interpret any particular law as a way of living out that love – and doing so “with all our hearts.”
With regard to the commandment “You shall not murder,” The SALT Lectionary Commentary paraphrases Jesus’ message like this: “When God gave us this commandment, do you think the idea was that we would form a community in which we constantly antagonize each other, hate each other, wound each other – and then, at the very last moment, refrain from murdering each other? Of course not. The spirit of ‘You shall not murder’ is that your bearing towards your neighbours – both in your actions and in your dispositions, your hand and your heart – should never be enmity.
Think of it this way: when you’re angry at your brother or sister, when you lash out with hateful words, isn’t that, too, in its own way a kind of violence, a lesser form of ‘murder’? Isn’t that, too, in its own way a violation of the commandment, an act of ruin against the healthy community the commandment is meant to help us create?”
Jesus takes a similar approach to “You shall not commit adultery.” “When God gave us this commandment, do you think the idea was that we would form a community in which we constantly leer and lust after each other, objectify and sexually pursue each other – and then, at the very last moment, refrain from adultery? Of course not.” “You shall not commit adultery” prohibits the entire row of dominoes, including adultery “in the heart.”
In the case of the commandment about divorce, we need to remember that divorce in that time and place could only be initiated by the husband. Wives were simply the property of their husbands, and had no legal right to end a marriage, even in situations of abuse.
Jesus is NOT suggesting that physically or emotionally abused spouses should be forced to stay in a bad marriage because divorce is always wrong. Rather, he’s challenging the men, who in that patriarchal society, were simply deciding that their wives did not please them or finding something objectionable about them, and then ending the marriage – putting their wives and children in an acutely vulnerable position.
Technically, the law would allow for that divorce to take place. But Jesus objects to this patriarchal ethos of divorce on-(male)-demand, teaching that the healthy community the law is meant to help us create has no place for such callous abandonment.
And finally, there’s the commandment about swearing oaths. Is Jesus’ suggesting that it’s sinful to swear an oath as a witness in court, for example? Not exactly. He’s saying that we need to live by our word and our promises ALL the time. People should be able to trust that we will be telling the truth every day, and that if we promise to do something, we will do it. No special swearing of oaths should ever be required.
In the last ten verses of Matthew 5, Jesus will interpret a few more commandments, calling on his disciples to do more than the bear minimum of following them, and getting to the heart and spirit of several more. And that makes me wonder if we can follow Jesus’ interpretive example when it comes to some other important matters today.
Let’s take the example of racism – a problem that plagues our societies and does terrible harm to individuals and communities. Of course, there’s an agreement in law that the colour of a person’s skin should not be considered when they are on trial for some kind of crime.
But the heart of the law would require that police refrain from pulling over vehicles driven by Black people at a disproportionate rate than others. The heart of the law would require that security guards not follow Indigenous people around stores just in case they might decide to steal something. The heart of the law would ask us all to examine our prejudices and unconscious assumptions about people who look different from ourselves, and to make deliberate changes in our behaviours and systems.
Or let’s take the example of homophobia and transphobia. Having heard from the Moderator on Wednesday evening, the questions about how we can become a more fully inclusive and welcoming congregation for members of the 2SLGBTQI+ community are on my mind, and perhaps on yours as well.
There are some specific laws and rules of The Presbyterian Church in Canada that changed a year and a half ago. Officially, ministers and congregations are now free to celebrate same-sex weddings within our churches, and presbyteries are free to approve the ordinations of 2SLGBTQI+ ministers, regardless of their marital status.
Many of us rejoiced in that official change in the law, believing it to be good and right for all people to receive the blessing of the church on their marriages and to have the opportunity to respond to God’s call to ministry in the church.
But I think Jesus would ask us to do more than just live by the letter of the new law, but to get to the heart of it as well. And I think that will mean doing some of the things that Moderator Bob Faris was talking about on Wednesday evening.
Things like adding signs and symbols that make it clear that 2SLGBTQI+ folks are welcome here. Things like changing the language we use so that non-binary people are not left out. Things like using examples of families in preaching and teaching that reflect a broad diversity of structures and forms. Things like welcoming diverse people to use their gifts and take on leadership positions in the church so that others will see themselves represented and know that they also belong.
With our Session’s support, First Church’s Welcome and Inclusion Team will keep on working on these kinds of things. We were pleased with the number of First Church folk who came out to the Moderator’s Talk, and the conversations that followed. If you felt inspired or challenged by what you heard, and would like to join in the work of the Welcome & Inclusion Team, we would welcome you to join us. Speak to the Convener, Donna Wilkinson or to me, and we’ll be happy to welcome you to this ministry.
Jesus teaches us that the heart and spirit of the law requires more. He invites us to follow his Way, seeking not just to abide by the commandments but to fulfill the law in lives of love for God and one another. We give thanks for God’s grace as we learn and grow along the way.