Monday, February 06, 2017

The Law is the Law

Isaiah 58:1-9a
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

“If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right.  But do not care to convince him. Men will believe what they see.  Let them see.”  Henry David Thoreau


The Beatitudes are filled with Divine Promise.  In the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which would set the tone for His ministry, He begins by assuring us the very worst of this world may get us down, but we will be raised up if we “wait patiently for The Lord” (Psalm 37:7). 

The problem with the Beatitudes, especially in the way we generally read them and understand them, the Promise seems to be reserved only for the Day of The Lord, when Messiah returns to “judge the living and the dead”.  We rarely seem to understand that the Beatitudes are not only promises we may expect – they are also promises we are to fulfill!

Just as we are thinking The Lord is offering us everything, Jesus very subtly redirects the narrative.  We still hear the Promises of the Beatitudes when one day The Lord will make everything right.  Just perhaps not today.

However, moving aside from the Divine Promise, Jesus turns to His audience and points a finger - not in accusation but in designation; YOU are the salt of the earth … YOU are the light of the world”.  Meaning what?  In one breath, Jesus offers the very best of the Kingdom of Heaven to the downtrodden, to those victims of humanity’s very worst.  In the next, He seems to infer that YOU (meaning “us”) will be the ones who will raise up those who are “poor in spirit”, “who mourn”, “who hunger and thirst for righteousness”.  These, and many more, are to be given their due by those who faithfully represent and live the Kingdom’s highest ideals. 

Actually, the redirect begins to take shape in verse 7 (Matthew 5) when the Promise is suggested to be fulfilled not only on the Day of The Lord but in the here-and-now!  “Blessed are the merciful …”, “blessed are the pure in heart …”, “blessed are the peacemakers …”  It means something is going to have to come from us.  We are to be “the merciful”.  We are to be “the peacemakers”.  We must be “pure in heart”. 

Considering Jesus’ audience in this setting is largely (maybe exclusively) Jewish, Torah (what we Christians narrowly refer to as “The Law”) has everything to do with what Jesus is talking about – because I am convinced everything Jesus is talking about is more “communal” than it is “personal”.  When we try to make it “personal”, it becomes subjective and exclusive; but when it is “communal”, there are universal inclusive elements of objectivity.  That is, what is good for one is good for all.

As we see in today’s political and social climate, especially on social media and in angry street mobs, there is no fear in anonymity or in mobs.  However, there is also no respect for even the fundamental “sacred worth of every individual person” (United Methodist Book of Discipline 2012, ¶161, pg 111) – especially those with whom we disagree.

Yet there is no escaping this certain reality: what we say and what we do represents an element of our own being, good or bad, alone or in a crowd, just as our Lord teaches that “our mouths reveal what is in our hearts” (Luke 6:45).  We may try to assuage those whom we have hurt by saying we “didn’t really mean it the way it sounded” or that we “didn’t mean it personally”; but when we are licking our wounds from words that really do hurt much more than broken bones and do damage lasting far beyond the moment, empty words are of little consolation.  And when it feels as though an entire mob or crowd or clique is mercilessly gathered against us as individuals, there is little else that feels more isolating, more anti-communal – entirely anti-Christ.

These angry mobs and crowds and cliques, however, are a human reality; and as long as they continue on their hate-filled rants and curses and slander, their condemnation is all but assured – no matter how “right” they believe themselves to be.  Yet our Lord Jesus, the Holy God’s Anointed, calls HIS people to be the communal sanctuary those victims most desperately need.  And this sanctuary is provided for, enshrined in, and ratified by The Lord’s Holy Law, the Torah, the “instruction” on how The Lord’s people are to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world, conduct themselves, and offer care and comfort to those who are victimized by the world’s hatred.

There is no more soul-stirring statement through all of this than Jesus’ warning to us all: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20).  And it should stir us deeply because this powerful statement expresses the profound difference between those who would enforce the Law of The Lord (usually meaning those who claim not to be “under the law”) and those who would embrace Torah and live faithfully.  The scribes and the Pharisees were more involved with enforcement than with justice and mercy, and it is the reason they had such issues with Jesus.  Our Lord constantly knocked them off their high horses!

Yet Jesus even gave these religious authorities their due when, while speaking to another crowd, He said, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.  They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear; and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:2-4).

Toward the very end, Jesus upholds the finest points of The Law as being faithfully taught and faithfully lived; not once did our Lord excuse His people from living it.  Even when the religious authorities proved themselves unwilling, the faithful were and are not excused.  Even the seemingly anti-law St. Paul expresses our obligations to one another AND to the weakest among us in this way; “The entire Law is fulfilled in keeping this one command; ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.”  (Galatians 5:14).  Jesus Himself wraps up the Sermon on the Mount in this way; “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.  This is the essence of the Law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:14).

I tend to think of “legalism” as when we expect much more from others than we are willing to give ourselves to others in holy living.  It is the difference between being “the light of the world” to give hope to the hopeless - and being a spotlight on a guard tower for no purpose other than to brutally gun down those who would dare try to escape our wrath.

The Divine Promise of the Beatitudes is still held out to those who are victimized through no fault of their own, but that same Divine Promise is extended to we who make sure those who mourn are “comforted”, that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (that is, the weakest and lowest among us) are “filled”, that those who extend mercy even to those who seem undeserving “will receive mercy”.  The Law is, indeed, the Law of The Lord; but like justice and mercy, it is all theoretical, academic - and “legalistic” - if it will not be lived and experienced.

Being presented a choice between Jesus or The Law is a false choice and a misreading of all which is written for us; for while we are justified by the One, we are sanctified (perfected in love and faith) by the Other.  For it is Jesus, all of it, as The Word, the Law, the Prophets; and all this as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  The Only One there is, the Only Life we have to live – in Him, for Him, and for one another.  For this is the Kingdom of Heaven.  Amen.

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