Saturday, February 22, 2014

Reflections on the Text - Sermon on the Mount

Circumstances have kept me from posting in February, but following the lectionary we have been focusing on the Sermon on the Mount from Chapter 5 of St. Matthew.  What follows is the last installment in this series.  If you would like to read my other sermon reflections on this text I refer you to my reflections on this same text from 2011 -

Read the text here - Matthew 5 
The Fulfillment of the Law
This is our last week on the Sermon on the Mount until the summer.  The Gospel prepares us for this sermon by clearly setting us in a very real, human world with mistrust, oppression, violence, temptation, anger, despair, illness, loss and so on.  In fact, as we saw last week, Jesus is addressing the “crowds” which are made up of people who are on the margins.  He begins his sermon with words of blessing.  Far from being a series of “how-to” precepts or a list of conditions or even a new law, it is clear that the Beatitudes are a blessing.  Jesus is blessing those who are hearing (and reading) this sermon – “if you are feeling overwhelmed, meek, mournful, if you try to do the right thing even if you fail, if you try to bring peace YOU ARE BLESSED!”  And he goes on to say that YOU are Salt; YOU are Light.  Your Baptism has made you a part of God’s family and through you God flavors this world and your community; through you God shines the light of forgiveness, love and grace in the midst of the darkness of loss, grief, judgmentalism and so on.
And then there is a shift.  Jesus begins talking about the law – “you have heard it said… but I say to you…”  It is very easy for us to read this section as a completely new approach to the law, and indeed, over the years a number of Christians have interpreted this section like that.  The result has been judgment and hardship.  Which is exactly the opposite of the point Jesus is actually trying to make here.  The key to understanding this section of the Sermon on the Mount is found in verse 17 – “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets… but to fulfill.”
So what does all this this mean?  We good Lutherans have been taught that “the law shows us our need for God’s grace, and the Gospel fulfills that need.”  This is Luther’s understanding of the law.  But what is the point of the law in the first place.  Too many have assumed that the point of the law was to show us the way to earn our way into God’s favor.  God is so holy (the argument goes) that God cannot be in the presence of any kind of sin, therefore we have to purify ourselves by following the letter of the law in order to be able to qualify to come into God’s presence.  Of course, none of us can really do that, but we have to try and what we don’t manage to accomplish ourselves, Jesus takes care of by his death on the cross and his resurrection.  I am sure you have all heard some version of this at some time.  This is the popular view of the purpose of the law.  And if this is your view, then Jesus’ extreme teachings on anger, lust, divorce and so forth play right into this and are taken as the standard that we must all accomplish.
It should go without saying that I completely reject this interpretation, and so did Luther.  This is essentially the core of the conflict that led to the Reformation (isn’t it interesting then that so many Christians who consider themselves Protestant and Evangelical have adopted this Medieval Catholic approach while the Catholics themselves have evolved in their understanding in this area.)  So then, if it is not to give us a framework for earning our way into God’s favor what is the point of the law.  The answer is simple – Relationship!  God created us for relationship with God and with each other.  Genesis 2 gives us a vision of a creation that is in perfect unity with the creator.  This is broken by the human desire or need to throw God out and make ourselves the center of our own universe (see Gen. 3).  But God continues to try to restore this relationship.  God gave the law to Moses, not in order to put a burden on God’s people, or show them the way to holiness – but to provide a framework for the restoration of relationship; to teach us how to live in harmony and unity within our communities and with God.  But it was not enough, and ultimately God was born into this world through Jesus to affect the reconciliation of relationship.  Obviously God is not so squeamish around sin, otherwise God would not have chosen to be born as a human into this very dark and sinful world – a dark and sinful world that is very bluntly set out as such by Matthew in the first 4 chapters of the Gospel.
The power of human self-centeredness was so strong that we murdered Jesus by crucifying him, but God would not be so quickly defeated.  God is so committed to us humans and to the creation, that Jesus is raised on the 3rd day and calls his disciples to continue his work of the restoration of relationships.  In this section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes it quite clear that it is his work to fulfill the law.  We cannot possibly do it ourselves, because then our righteousness would need to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees – and there is no way that is going to happen.
So does that mean we can ignore the law – NO!  In response to God’s gifts, especially God’s gift of the restoration of relationship we continue to try to respect and follow the law as by doing so relationship and community is created, maintained and strengthened.  So the law is not a burden, it is a gift – for it brings with it the gift of restored relationship and ultimately the gift of complete well-being or Shalom or completeness.
Which is how this chapter ends.  Our English translation here provides us with a most unfortunate translation – “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  This gives the impression that perfection (moral and otherwise) is within our grasp and all we have to do is work at it.  This is not at all the meaning of the Greek word “telos” which is translated “perfect here.  “Telos” means to complete or to fulfill.  A fruit tree reaches its “telos” when the fruit is perfectly ripe and ready to be picked, for example.  Jesus is saying here that as we live our lives in God’s love we should always strive to be open to God’s love and grace, to reach out in care and love to others – to allow our salt to flavor our world and community, to allow our light to shine forth and in this way we will fulfill our potential; in this way will we be restored to relationship and thus made complete.  And remember verse 17 – it is Jesus who fulfills the law, who affects restoration and who completes us in our work and in our lives.

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