Read this text here: Matthew 5:21-37
Rules and Relationships – Reflections on Matthew 5:21-37
You are blessed, you are salt, you are light! What a wonderful way to start a sermon. Perhaps at this point you have relaxed and feel affirmed and maybe even a little complacent. Well, what Jesus says next should shake us all out of any sense of complacency and self-righteousness:
Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 5:20
And then Jesus goes into a long series of examples: anger = murder; lust = adultery; divorce = adultery; swearing will get you into hell and so on; if you sin with your hand – cut it off and throw it away; if you sin with your eye – pluck it out and throw it away! Wow! Jesus seems so uncompromising here. What happened to the sermon of grace? How do we come to grips with a sense of the grace of God as shown in the life and ministry of Jesus and these harsh words?
There are two traditional ways of looking at this passage. One is to see Jesus as laying down a new and uncompromising law. There is no wiggle room in this view. Jesus expects that we follow the law perfectly. The problem is, of course, that we human beings are not perfect, we are flawed and we fail. This approach to this passage will on the one hand lead us to despair and discouragement as we never seem to be able to measure up; and on the other hand can also promote a sense of judgmentalism and self-righteousness which is antithetical to the Gospel. And besides, where is the grace in this? Is faith in Jesus only a series of rules to follow? As David Lose writes, “did Jesus really have to die so we could have the Ten Commandments on steroids?”
The other traditional approach goes in the opposite direction: Jesus is taking the law to its logical extreme in order to show us our need for God’s love and grace and forgiveness. The positive part of this approach is that it places Grace as the foundation. But it also teeters on the edge of cheap grace. Not only that, but the problem with this approach is that it also seems to suggest that Jesus didn’t mean what he was saying and that he really didn’t care about the law of Moses, which is simply not the case.
So how do we approach this passage then? Taking both an inspiration and suggestion from Dr. David Lose, I would suggest a third approach. We start by returning to the source of this passage, the 10 Commandments, and there we need to recognize that at the foundation of these commandments is about community and relationship. Jesus himself says as much when asked to name the most important law in the Torah. His response: Love God; Love your Neighbor. The 1st table of the law is about our relationship with God (Commandments 1 to 3) and the 2nd table of the law is about our relationship with others (Commandments 4 to 10). The Commandments are not a series of rules to be kept for their own sake. Why are we not to murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or covet? Because those acts dishonor the neighbor, those acts destroy relationship and community.
In his explanation of the 10 commandments in the Small Catechism, Luther makes the same point. In answer to the question “What does this mean” Luther explains that keeping the commandment is more than just following rules.
#5 – You shall not murder –What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.
#8 - You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. - What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.
It’s not just that we are to refrain from physical murder, or refrain from lying about our neighbor, but we are to go the extra step and to actively help and support him or her. This is how we treat our neighbor with honor and respect. This is what it means to be in community. This is what it means to be a part of the kingdom.
The Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst and is a community of those who are called and blessed by God. At the heart of the Kingdom is relationship – our relationship with God - Father, Son and Holy, Spirit; and our relationships with each other who are all part of God’s Kingdom. The point is not that Jesus is advocating a system of plucking out the eyes and cutting off the limbs of those who transgress and fail. The point is that in the Kingdom, God takes relationship seriously. All are honored, and respected; all are treated with love.David Lose writes: “Law understood primarily in legal terms, you see, ends up being a moral and all-too-often self-justifying check list: No murder today; check! No adultery; check! Jesus wants more from us. Actually, Jesus wants more for us. He wants us to regard each other as God regards us and thereby to treat each other accordingly. Jesus is getting radical about the law precisely by calling us to look beyond the law to see its goal and end: the life and health of our neighbor! In this way Jesus calls us to envision life in God's kingdom as constituted not by obeying laws but rather by holding the welfare of our neighbors close to our hearts while trusting that they are doing the same for us.”