Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8, 97-105; Matthew 5:17-20
Picture in your mind a fresh-faced, playful young boy named Joey. He is all of about 8 years old and has been taking piano lessons for about a year. Joey has gotten reasonably proficient at playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and is slowly moving on to slightly more challenging pieces. He hopes that some day he will be able to play in a band. Maybe be the next Sir Elton John. Or, at least accompany his own garage band. He has a favorite song from Harry Potter he would love to learn – someday. So, imagine Joey’s reaction if one day his piano teacher sat him down on the piano bench, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Joey, unless your ability to play the most challenging Chopin Etudes exceeds that of Lang Lang, one of the greatest pianists alive, then there really is no sense in your playing the piano at all.”
What a shock! Can you imagine? Any child (or adult, for that matter) would probably throw up their hands, and trash their piano books. The beginner in all of us would almost certainly despair. That is simply too much to ask!
“Do not think that I came to destroy God’s Law” Jesus says. “No, I came to fulfill it.” Then he goes on to pass that requirement on to all of those listening to him. “Your own righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law if your are going to be part of my Kingdom.” The Scribes and Pharisees were the professional, full-time law-keepers of their day. To be among them, one might aspire, but to exceed them? How is this possible?
Ready to throw in the towel now?
Lots of Christians have interpreted this passage to take away the sting of this demand. Some say that when Jesus said he had come to fulfill the law, he meant that he completed it, did everything it required and so made it no longer necessary. Some said that the Law belonged to a prior era and that once Jesus the Messiah had come, we were no longer under law but under grace.
‘Whew! That’s a relief!,’ one might say. And lots of people said exactly that. Glad I don’t have to worry about the Law. Its demands are too much for me. Joey the piano student might have said – nice to know I don’t have to play scales anymore, but the gift will be come to me more easily. I’ll just play around on the keys and learn to “play by ear,” so that eventually my wandering fingers will just know where to go on the keyboard.
Two things to remember here. First, Jesus is talking about all of Scripture – the whole Law and the Prophets. The whole story. Not just the rules.
Second, God’s attitude towards God’s people, the whole creation in fact, has always been love and grace. These detractors of the Law, get the Law wrong. They see it as a way of earning God’s favor, rather than a light to the path of walking with God. Scripture is a gift – a snapshot of what it looks like to live life as the children of God.
When parents take on the job of parenting, we want to protect our children. We want to pass on to them the lessons we have learned in the school of hard knocks. So we guide them and teach them to behave in ways we have learned make sense for a good life. God is like any parent, wanting to pass on what God had learned through God’s eternal existence about what it takes to live life to the full. The Law is that wisdom gift from a loving parent.
I was reminded of this truth with a quote sent last week by Timothy Schedler, who is teaching in Saudi Arabia: “You will teach them to fly, but they will not fly your flight. You will teach them to dream, but they will not dream your dream. You will teach them to live, but they will not live your life. Nevertheless, in every flight, in every life, in every dream, the print of the way you taught will always remain.” – Mother Teresa.
The Law is the gift of our divine parent’s wisdom. How we live it is the path for us to walk. The light, though, will always be with us.
Jesus was doing what Moses did. Before he died, Moses wanted to remind the people of the great gift they had received in the Law. It told them how to live as God’s own children, set apart to be a light for the nations. But if they rejected the Law, and tried to compete in the same games the nations played, they would not be able to compete. They would fail. They were too small, too new at this game. And besides, even the winners only win for a time and then a new winner takes the platform. It is not about winning at the world’s game. Instead it is about the way of the Law, a different path. It is a law not for winning, but for loving as God is love. And the law is the light for that path.
The Psalmist writes that because the Law is my guide, I am wiser than my enemies, I have more understanding than all my teachers, I understand more than the aged (Psalm 119:98-100). He understood that the law was the light to show how to live in a dark world.
But how do we see the light? How do we shine the light on our path? First, by knowing the story – our own story, held in Scripture, to guide our way. These stories help us shine wisdom on our path today. That is why preachers preach! To help us turn on the light from the stories that sometimes seem so old and irrelevant.
This is what Jesus was doing in the Sermon on the Mount. He was helping the disciples discern the heart of the Scriptures, and how to use them as light for their path. In Matthew 22 one of the Pharisees asked Jesus this question: what is the greatest commandment. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39).
Jesus had no intention of destroying the law. He was not going to come close to it! The law still holds all we need to live as God’s children set apart to be a light for the world.
Do we know the Scriptures like the Pharisees did? Like the disciples did?
How do we show that the law is the light to our path. Have we absorbed its guidance? Say you are at a family gathering and that annoying cousin starts in on her complaining tirade. One never knows exactly what it will be this year, but everyone knows to expect it. She will have some complaint with someone or the other, or the world at large. She will become the martyr yet again. What do you do? What would the law suggest? Do I know? Well, at least we can start with: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” How might you show her love? I wonder if she always has these complaints as a way of getting attention. As people become uncomfortable and try to change the subject, how might you give her loving attention which makes connection rather than sets apart? Just asking this question might lead us down new paths.
This is an election year, in case you hadn’t noticed. As most of you know, I don’t listen to the news on TV. I am hearing more and more people who are making this choice. It is my way of protecting myself from the anger and blame and de-humanizing which seems to be what the newsrooms sell. But it is more than that, too. I do not want my view of the world to be shaped by the endless chatter of power and winning and money.
Deciding who is the best candidate for an office is complex and unclear. But I would hope that, no matter how it impacts our own bank accounts or desire not to change, I would hope that the Scriptures would be where we go to find a light for our path. How can our vote say that we love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves? Do we ask our neighbors how the decisions effect them? Do we listen to the strangers of our community who seem to have no one to listen to them? How does love guide our voting? How does love guide our family gathering dinner table conversation?
We get so used to defining righteousness and the Christian way of doing things as detailed rules for behavior, the things easily measured. But what Jesus was saying was that these behaviors will look different in different situations. The Law requires us always to ask: what is the next loving thing to do? Even, say, we got off track and did an unlawful, unloving thing, still we say, now what is the next loving step, given this new reality? The answers may surprise us, require that we do the unlikely thing.
The heart of God’s Law has all along been love and always will be. So law is there to guide us in making connection, rather than following our whims.
A while back someone asked the preacher and writer Eugene Peterson what he would say if he were writing what he knew would be his very last sermon. Peterson replied, “In the kind of world we live in, the primary way that I can get people to be aware of God is to say, ‘Who are you going to have breakfast with tomorrow, and how are you going to treat that person?’ In my last sermon, I guess I’d want to say, ‘Go home and be good to your spouse. Treat your children with respect. Do a good job at work.'”
I watched “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” last week. I took away from that movie inspiration from one of the most faithful public figures in living the Law. Mr. Rogers was always about making connection. He did the scary thing of looking you straight in the eyes, seeing you fully, even through the camera lens. He remembered your name. He took your picture. He never wanted to forget you! If you were short, or sat in a wheel chair, he got to your level and looked at you. And somehow, you became the most important thing in the world at that moment. It frustrated his film crew all the time. He was always behind schedule. But they loved him and were loyal to him, because he treated them that way, too.
It’s you I like. Maybe that is all it takes to live righteousness exceeding the Scribes and Pharisees.