How Jesus Reinvented the Law

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

-Matthew 5:38-42

Last week we started a little series on the sermon on the mount. We talked about the beatitudes and being salty and shiny. (You can find that article by clicking here) Today we are continuing our way through Jesus’ sermon as we look at the section where he reinterprets Jewish law. Jesus starts off this section with a plain and undeniable assertion that he has not come to supersede the law.

Despite what many later Christians would say, Jesus wants to get it right out in the open that he did not come to abolish Jewish law. In fact, he gave a pretty stark warning to those who would dare turn away from any part of the law. He said:

Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven

The message is clear, no one has been following the law properly and we’ve all got to do a lot better if we want to enter the kingdom of Heaven. It was a very bold statement to say your righteousness has to surpass that of the Pharisees if you want to be right with God. In fact, he is boldly and plainly calling out the clergy of his day and saying that they are not following their own teachings and in their current state are not fit to be citizens of God’s kingdom. What an introduction!

After he had made very clear that he was about to teach the true meaning of the law of Moses and that the clergy of his day were anything but righteous, he went on to bring into question a number of commonly held traditions and beliefs. He spoke about murder, adultery, divorce, swearing oaths, retribution, and dealing with your enemies.

Each of these subjects had a commonly held belief that Jesus identified by saying “you have heard that it was said…but I tell you” one of the most familiar expressions like that is one we’ve all heard “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Ironically, most people use it as an example of what you shouldn’t do. I can hear a friend of mine saying “I’m not just going to turn the other cheek you know, I’m going to fight back” and everyone agreeing and supporting him.

The laws which Jesus gives are not easy to follow, they aren’t in place to make your life easier, they aren’t clever advice on how to avoid trouble and be successful. They are difficult and rigorous commandments which any person in any time or place would be hard pressed to follow. Jesus actually tells us that if anyone sues us we should give them double what they’re asking for.

Imagine that, someone takes you to court over something you disagree with (Because they wouldn’t be suing you if agreed) and you show up to the court house and give them twice what they ask for. Your friends and family would call you a sucker and if you kept up that kind of behaviour you would end up broke. So, why does Jesus tell us to live this way?

Why does he tell us that even being angry with someone is tantamount to murder or that being attracted to someone without acting on it is adultery? If we were all charged for murder every time we got angry the whole world would be serving a life sentence. If we were guilty of adultery for simply being attracted to someone then we could never turn on our TVs.

It’s because the worldly understanding of law is about fairness and keeping anarchy at bay. We have laws to keep society civil and to make a consistent framework for business to happen on so that we can play the game properly. That understanding of law gets us into the same trouble the Pharisees had gotten into, and dare I say it’s gotten the church into the mess it is in today as well. We’ve taken the gospel and turned it into a manual on how we should act and what we should do, when it was really meant to give us a glimpse into who we should be.

Murdering someone is what you do, and remember Jesus said the law still applies in that fashion, you still shouldn’t murder. But being angry is who you are – and Jesus is clear that it is equally important. The same goes with lusting after other people. If you are laying next to your spouse wishing you were laying next to George Clooney or Julia Roberts then there is probably something inside your soul you need to look at and work on. Jesus is insisting that what we do is only part of the equation, and we can’t neglect who we are inside either. We’ll talk more about that next week when we look at how to pray and how to give to charity.

Our laws today talk about actions and relationships but they also talk a great deal about property, and so does Jesus. His command to give to everyone who asks of you, to give twice what is asked if you are sued, to do twice as much as the government requires of you is meant to show that we should not value our possessions or even our labour above our eternal souls.

Nothing in this world can ever compare with the importance of the Kingdom of Heaven and being a good citizen therein. Jesus also talks about keeping promises, entering into mutual relationships, and swearing oaths. Jesus’ very brief discourse on divorce is this:

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

We have to remember that marriage was a very different thing in those days than it is today. Divorce was permissible in Jewish culture for men, women could not file for divorce. A man who had grown tired of his wife, or who was disappointed that she couldn’t bear children, could give her a certificate of divorce and leave her.

Gender roles were very strict back then and a woman without a husband had no means of supporting herself. This meant she would either have to remarry, become a servant in someone else’s house, or beg on the streets. Divorcing your wife in those days was a very harsh sentence. She could theoretically remarry but the culture at the time considered only virgin wives to be pure and desirable.

When Jesus said that divorcing a your wife makes her the victim of adultery he meant that she was going to be labelled as a harlot if she remarried and that any man who accepted her would be shamed as well. He isn’t saying that a divorced woman shouldn’t remarry but he is saying that you should consider the life you are condemning her to if you divorce her.

The common practice of divorcing a woman who no longer suited you, or had fallen ill, or who couldn’t bear children, was not permissible in Jesus’ eyes. He didn’t care that it was legal – he demanded that his followers be more compassionate than that and keep their social contracts. The integrity of your word is more important than following the exact letter of the law. In fact, Jesus valued the importance of a person’s word so much that he urged people not to swear oaths.

In my own Quaker tradition my ancestors were jailed and some were even killed because they refused to swear oaths on the Bible in court and it was based off this very passage. It was felt that to swear an oath is a double standard – as if you were going to lie until the law bound you tell the truth. I believe Jesus agreed with this principle, which is why he said “let your yes be yes and your no be no” It’s about who you are not what you can get away with. Are you a person who always lives in the truth or are you a person who will lie unless you think God is watching because you have your hand on a Bible?

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

-Matthew 5:43-48

It’s all about who you are and the ultimate test of that is what Jesus ended this section of his sermon with – a command to love your enemies. He says if you only love those who love you and you only have regard for your own people then your love is really selfish. It’s about what you can get from it or about keeping it in the family for your own sake.

Jesus gave us one last very difficult command to follow when he told us to pray for those who persecute us and to love those who we consider our enemies. He tells us not to consider our own feelings in who we show love to but to freely and openly care for all people – even those who we hate. The Christian life is not an easy one, we are supposed to be meek in a prideful world, we are supposed to pure of heart in a world where the law is used to hurt people, and we are supposed to love people who we know will never return it.

It’s not enough to just follow the rules – Jesus told us to be perfect, therefore, as our heavenly Father is perfect who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. So, my friends, when you follow Jesus, if you dare to do so, remember that the letter of the law kills but the spirit of the law gives life. Do not allow yourself to commit what you know is injustice simply because it is within the bounds of the legal framework you follow. The laws of man change from age to age but the laws of the Kingdom of Heaven are eternal and they are written directly on our hearts. You know if what you are doing is kind and humble, so do not let following the rules be an excuse to sin.

Therefore, sisters and brothers, as you live your life, I invite you to consider the values you’ve been taught by society and by the church. Take a long hard look at the law you follow and see if it lines up with what Jesus taught. Do our laws require us to turn the other cheek or to take an eye for an eye?

Ghandi once said that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. And if our laws are focused on what is fair instead of what is right our blind justice will not be anymore righteous than that of the Pharisees. When Jesus examined the laws of his people he was saying “everything you have known your entire life is about to change” He was saying “the way you grew up and what you were taught in church needs to be called into question”

Jesus respected the law and the tradition, he respected it so much that he dared to ask if it was being followed the way God intended. What he found was that people were, as Paul would say later, following the letter of the law and not the spirit. The letter kills but the spirit gives life. So follow the spirit in all that you do, for the law of Heaven is not written on paper but in the hearts and minds of the people.

Paul quotes the book of Jeremiah in his letter to the Hebrews when he says:

This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

Be God’s people dear sisters and brothers. Follow the law written in your heart and not the law of men. Be followers of Jesus even though it’s hard – because once we all live the way he has described in his sermon the Kingdom of Heaven will be realized and the world will know only peace.

Read the next sermon in this series by clicking here

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