‘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.
I’ve spent most of my Christian life confused about Law and Grace.
I never really did understand my mothers’ obsession with wearing my Sunday best and behaving in church when I was young. She said it was honouring God but it seemed more like keeping up appearances or ‘with the Jones-es’ to me. For me it always seemed more life-giving and honest (even worshipful!) to break such ‘laws’ than to keep them… except for the consequences! At times I’d feel guilty for upsetting my Mum, or for not caring about caring more. However, whenever I’d confess she would get very concerned and sit me down as if I’d done something even worse. She would look me straight in the eye and say.. “Don’t feel guilty, Jesus died for that guilt!” It was a lot for a young lad to get his head around!
It still is to be honest!
Nevertheless my hunches are that this ‘grace and law’ tension runs deep within our culture and our own hearts as individuals. I think grappling with this tension is a big part of what it means to become ‘fully human’ so it doesn’t surprise me that ‘Respect for the Law’ is out there early in our ’40 ways’ from Matthew writing up Jesus’ seminal “Sermon on the Mount.”
As a child I got the whole ‘raise your kid in the ways of God’ thing and of the Law being a gift and a guide. “A light unto your feet and lamp unto your path.” I have respected and valued being raised with stories and a ‘path.’ It’s an invitation to live with some sort of deep, substantial shape and an ethical framework that stands out when things get fuzzy and dark around us. Living the law can literally let you ‘shine’ in the times and places it’s most needed as we were considering yesterday in the text that precedes this one.
Reading my bible as a kid, the giving of the Law all started well with some dramatic narrative. Moses up mountains in Exodus literally ‘shining’ (“Turn in down with the shine Mo… wear a veil!”) as he rescued his enslaved people from the darkness of Egyptian slavery and the wilderness. Unfortunately by the time I got to the long lists in Leviticus the law had become burdensome and confusing, so I was done.
The ‘no guilt’ guilt, I experienced came from my rabidly Protestant upbringing. Coming from a dark medieval context, Luther rediscovered a gospel of grace that transcended the oppressive law of his own day. He was reading the Apostle Paul who was converted from a first century, legalistic, religious Judaism. Paul eventually concluded that the Spirit was OK with people eating what they wanted; and that circumcision was not essential. Not that the church in Jerusalem were ever totally down or ‘cruisey’ with that.
This is where Matthew’s Jesus is distinctly different to the Jesus of Mark’s Story for instance, who, like Paul, is net-negative on the Law. Matthew takes out or tone’s down most of Jesus’ crazy lawbreaking statements and stunts because he’s talking to a different crowd. He’s an insider seeking to present Jesus as the great Teacher who’s goal is the deepening, spiritual, full-fill- ment of the Law. Make no mistake, as we see from the way the gospel story turns, the critique from within can sometimes be more radical and polarising than just rejecting the Law and playing the outsider role!
Reading Jesus take on the Law is mind-bending-ly dissonant. It has the power to transform and/or confuse. He longs for the motivations behind and deeper Spirit of the Law beyond adherence to the external details.
At times I have read the Sermon on the Mount and despaired at its demands.
Dave Andrew’s suggests that when people have tried to reclaim the Sermon on the Mount as a frame-work for ethics, they have often unfortunately misinterpreted the content and turned the Sermon on the Mount into a set of idealistic, but unrealistic set of (‘no anger’) guidelines which make Jesus seem completely unreasonable and/or irrational.
Luther’s view was that the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus preaches sets out an impossible ideal in order to show us our inability to full-fill the law and to throw us back onto the mercies of God. In my tradition this meant largely ignoring its ethical demands!
But, as for a a child, these words of Jesus are not for ignoring but for study, internalising and living. Alyce McKenzie suggests
” When we read the Sermon on Mount or a portion of it out of context of the gospel of Matthew, all that is left for us to do is criticize it for being extreme or criticize ourselves for being inadequate. When we read it out of context from who is speaking it, we forget that the one speaking is the new Moses, the anointed Son of God…We are to read it as a way of living in keeping with God’s moral vision for humankind made possible by the demanding, but also forgiving and empowering presence of God in Jesus.”
No one is more respectful and demand when it come to Law than Matthew and yet no one is more critical of the law makers of his day. Far from an oppressive teacher, Matthew’s Jesus uses the teaching image of his day and invites us to :
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:29-32)
We will consider this command in WAY #29.
An important and liberating hero in Grace and Law for me was the great Baptist preacher and lawyer Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. As a lawyer he knew the American Constitution well and had a way of preaching it’s Spirit back those who were its mediators. When I hear MLK I can’t help but riff it up alongside Jesus. Unless your FREEDOM exceeds that of the FOUNDING FATHERS, you will never enter the UNITED STATES of heaven. (or what King described as ‘The Beloved Community’). King was calling them to their Law’s higher Spirit, which is more demanding, but in a way that was not opppressive but rang of true freedom.
Central to this campaign and ‘Full-fillment of the Law’ message was a strategic campaign of law breaking and civil disobedience designed to expose the problems, hypocrisy and oppressive power inherent in the Law as it was practiced. This was not anarchy but came out of deep study and reflection, a respect for the Law and a practical engagement in it’s transformation in time and space. And they sang cool songs…
(I love that as a Baptist Pastor our Code of Conduct allows me to break the law on matters of conscience, but out of respect for law it indicates that I must also be willing to accept accountability for the legal consequences of my actions).
We don’t live in Luther’s oppresive Dark ages but I can’t help but sometimes feel that the triumph of grace over law in Christianity has often led to a cheap grace/freedom in our culture that at worst can result in an ‘each to their own’, survival of the fittest individualism, where people are disenfranchised from the political process and where the rule of law is reduced to the spin of the 24 hour media cycle and its addictions.
In contrast this weekend, I’m playing cricket with indigenous Australians who, as I listen, seem to have another take on Law (or Lore). Losing their Law was not a liberation from oppression but a result of it and so I observe a great respect to recover the importance of Law at the heart of their identity, culture and in this landscape in which we live. To be sure, the good old days we’re not always good, and there is no going back to the ‘old Law’, but any grace lit lamp for future paths must surely come from a deep respect for Law.
This Lent I’m going to wear my ‘Sunday Best’ a bit more often as a way of giving honour to God.
Consider your own relationship with Grace and Law.
What law/s have been oppressive for you?
Is there something in the spirit of such a law that you can re-imagine and respect in a fresh way in order to practice a new sense of liberation for yourself or others?
Visit someone for whom the law has meant imprisonment. It’s a much less abstract place to do your head in on this stuff! You may even be visiting Jesus! (Matthew 25:37-40)
Meur Ras Ha Kres, Much Grace & Peace,