A sermon on Matthew 5:13-20 & Isaiah 58:1-12 by Nathan Nettleton
Tonight I want to address a big question which I run into again and again in pastoral conversations. It is not usually the surface question, but underneath, it seems to be one that causes some anxiety, confusion or uncertainty for a great many people including many of you. And tonight’s gospel reading addresses the question in a way which, without wider context or explanation, may make the concerns worse, but which I think, if we explore it properly, can be very enlightening and helpful. Here’s the problem.
The biblical law, as contained in the Hebrew parts of the Bible, that were already in existence at the time of Jesus, contain large lists of laws that cover everything, from things we would all agree with like “don’t murder” and “don’t steal”, through things that we might be more divided over like rules about who you can and can’t sleep with and whether you can charge interest on loans, all the way to rules that almost nobody seems to regard as even vaguely relevant to anyone today, such as prescribed hairstyles and not putting yoghurt on your souvlaki. Most Christians are agreed that the way the biblical law is to be understood and applied has changed as a result of the salvation achieved by Jesus and the teaching he gave, but ever since his time we have had endless disputes about how to determine what laws should still be regarded as law for us. And for many many people this is a very real concern, because if the law spells out what God expects and requires of us, then knowing how we are to understand and obey it is presumably pretty important in enabling us to live lives that are acceptable to God. So the big problem is that not only are we not at all clear about it, but the most explicit teaching recorded as coming directly from Jesus on the subject is what we heard tonight:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 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.”
So, big dilemma. Jesus explicitly says that we will not even get into the kingdom of heaven unless our righteousness outshines even that of the acknowledged leading experts in the study and rigorous application of the law, and that not one jot or tittle of the law is to be discarded, and yet we clearly don’t follow even half of what those experts followed rigorously, and we have little or no idea how to even work out what we should be following. Not only does our own entry into the kingdom of heaven apparently depend on it, but according to the first part of the passage where Jesus talks about us being the salt of the earth and a light on a hill, we are supposed to be a shining light to everyone else on how to live it out too. So, of course, my job is to stand up here and solve the puzzle for you in 15 minutes!! Or not. I’ll do my best.
The first thing I suggest we note about Jesus and the biblical law is that his attitude to the biblical law was extremely controversial in his own day, and indeed it formed the basis of one of the charges on which he was eventually executed. And you can be perfectly sure that there was nothing controversial in those days about the idea that not one jot or tittle will pass from the law, so if this were the sum total of his teaching and his example, such a charge would never have been brought, let alone sustained. So, if we are to be true to Jesus, we will not end our discussion with a simplistic conclusion that every word of the Bible is equally important and equally and easily applicable to us today. It is interesting, and informative to note that Jesus began by saying, “I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets,” when elsewhere it would have to be said that he appears to clearly set the law and the prophets in opposition to one another, or at least aspects of them. Jesus was very fond of quoting the prophets as saying “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” which of course was a prophetic critique of a major chunk of the law. The law clearly indicates that God not only wants sacrifices, but wants them to comply with a very detailed set of rules, but Jesus backs up several of the prophets who say that God despises sacrifices and wants us to be merciful instead. The first reading we heard tonight from the prophet Isaiah, while not one from which that particular quote came, is a good example of the same message, because the law also laid down rules about fasting, and tonight we heard the prophet saying that God despises fasting practices which perfectly comply with the rules but which are not expressions of merciful lives. Exactly the sort of thing that Jesus frequently quotes or says himself.
The second thing that it is absolutely essential to recognise if we are to make any sense of what Jesus is on about here is the context of this passage at the beginning of the sermon on the mount. Because if you separate it from that context, then you separate it from the following list of teachings in which Jesus repeatedly says “You have heard it said in the law …., but I say to you …” So in its context, there is no possible way that you can take this passage as Jesus simply asserting that the law as previously given and traditionally understood continues to be the bottom line for us from here on. Even before looking at the specific content of the teachings, it is clear that Jesus is claiming the authority to interpret or reinterpret these laws. And because he is also asserting that nothing is being discarded, he is claiming the authority to be able to reveal to us the true meaning of the law, or what it always meant in terms of who God is and what God really wants.
Of course, if you have read the sermon on the mount, you will probably realise that the reinterpretations given by Jesus don’t make it any more likely that we will easily be able to fulfil the letter of the law. Jesus says it is not enough to just not murder, I say to you you should not even get angry with anyone, and it is not enough to just not commit adultery, you should not even look at another person with lust in your eyes. So, speaking personally, while I have never broken the old Hebrew versions of those laws, it would be a rare week that I didn’t fall short of the Jesus versions of both of them. Sorry if that disappoints the person who wrote on my annual pastoral review questionnaire that they didn’t think sex ever crossed my mind! A simplistic reading of these teachings could conclude that Jesus is still totally committed to religion as law keeping, but he is tightening up the law, but that too would be to take these passages out of the wider context of Jesus’s teachings and practice. We have already seen how he directly opposes the general thrust of the sacrificial laws, and there are numerous other stories of the religious lawyers being outraged by his apparent disregard for other aspects of the biblical law. There are laws that Jesus makes even tougher than before, and others that he seems to regard as at least matters of indifference.
So, probably all I’ve managed to do so far is rule out a couple of easy answers, but that may not get us a whole lot closer to knowing what Jesus meant by saying that he does not abolish but fulfil every jot and tittle of the law, while at the same time backing the prophetic critique of some parts of the law and reinterpreting other parts in even more challenging ways. I’ve also probably set up the expectation that I am about to give you a clear answer, but the truth is that all I can give you is a summary version, because to properly explain and demonstrate the answers requires a book or two, not the last five minutes of a sermon. So here goes.
I think the image Jesus uses of the light on the hill is instructive, because previously Israel and its scriptures have been described as a light to the nations, so in these images, what is being described is something that helps us find our direction. If you are trying to make your way towards a light on a hill, the light will not tell you all the details about exactly what lies between here and there, but it will enable you to stay more or less on track. And what Jesus seems to be telling us about the Bible that he refers to as “the law and the prophets”, is that it is more like a light on a hill than a detailed street directory, and that we are still a fair way from reaching the hill. And because we are still so far from reaching the hill, which we could perhaps name as the kingdom of heaven, this light is still contending with the darkness, and thus what we have in the Bible tells us as much about what we are leaving behind as it does about where we are headed. So, as we see in Jesus’s frequent quoting of lines like the one about God desiring mercy not sacrifice which are in fact setting one part of the Bible against another, the Bible actually contains a sustained debate between at least two radically different understandings of who God is and what God wants of us. There is an argument going on, and both sides are represented in these pages. But before you throw your hands up in despair, that doesn’t mean that we are totally left to our own devises to sort it out and decide which side to take and what to believe. What the light on the hill image tells us is that there is a clear direction emerging. If we keep following the light, the light becomes clearer and clearer. When you take the whole sweep of the Bible, the overall direction becomes clearer and clearer. And what Jesus seems to be hinting and we are certainly claiming, is that Jesus himself — his life, teaching, death and resurrection grace — are the high point of the debate, the definitive revelation of who God is, what God is like, and what God asks of us. If we follow this light on the hill, it will take us all the way from a primitive view of a fearsome God whose uncontainable power would kill us all unless he is placated by blood and we step on only the stones that the law has determined to be safe, all the way to a God whose love knows no bounds and who would rather sacrifice himself to our violence than give up loving us and forgiving us and welcoming us with open arms, and whose desire is that we model ourselves on that same love and mercy.
There have been people over the centuries who have seen this vision and concluded that we should simply throw out the parts of the Bible that were written before Jesus, or at least all all those sections that reflect the primitive blood-thirsty views of God. But, not only does Jesus urge us not to discard even one jot or tittle, but his own constant, sometimes critical engagement with those scriptures shows us how important they are if we are to understand where we are going. We need to be able to see what the light is leading us away from if we are to adequately grasp the startling truth of the grace we are being led towards.
So, when Jesus says things like “you have heard it said, do not murder, but I say to you do not even get angry or insult anyone”, he is not saying “and there is an angry blood-thirsty God keeping score of your failings who will burn you in hell if you don’t comply with this new law.” Rather he is saying something more like, “If you tried to become all that God desires you to become by turning it all into laws and complying with the laws, this is how absurdly impossible those laws would become, and there would be no end of them. You could never keep track of them or live up to them.” Instead, set your sights on Jesus — the light on the hill, the light of the world — and follow that way, and God will be delighted and the angels will be singing for joy, and all will be well. And for those who feel too insecure if there are only lights and no laws at all, Jesus says, “Okay, all the intent of the law and the prophets can be summed up in just a couple of things: love God with everything you are, and love others, even your enemies, and treat them as you would wish to be treated yourself.” And blurring the distinction between law and light, he says, “Here’s a new law for you: love one another, even your enemies, as I have loved you. Just model yourselves on me, and everything will fall into place, and not one jot or tittle will be left unfulfilled.”
For the most part, we are not a church that puts much emphasis on biblical law or on the need to be obedient to every jot and tittle of the law, or even just the jots and tittles that are currently fashionable among our fellow evangelical Christians. And I know that that sometimes leaves some of you feeling a bit insecure and unsure of whether you are acceptable to God and whether you are being led astray by our apparent disregard for various jots and tittles. But I can assure you — and this assurance comes from one who knows that he stands under the weight of lines like the one we heard tonight that says that one who teaches others to break the least commandment will be called the least in the kingdom, and that a teacher who causes others to stumble would be better off thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck — I can assure you that the whole trajectory of the biblical law and prophets is pointing you towards Jesus, in whom every jot and tittle is fulfilled, and whose own righteousness is given to you freely and generously, and if you accept his gift and model your self on his generous love and mercy, every jot and tittle will be taken care of and your righteousness, gifted to you by Jesus, will indeed exceed that of even the most dour and diligent of rigorous law-keepers. Thanks be to God!