“You Have Heard That It Was Said, But I Say…”
Scripture: Matthew 5:17-48 “You Have Heard That It Was Said…”
This passage is difficult because Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the law, not to abolish it (nor the Prophets). But then he goes on to quote the law about murder, adultery, oaths, retaliation and enemies and goes way beyond it in most cases. “You have heard that it was said, but what I say to you is…”
Jesus seems to be on the side of the conservative interpreters of the Torah, stating that not one smallest part of a letter of it should ever be changed. The Jewish scholar, Dr. Amy Jill Levine, in her Annotated Commentary on the New Testament, reminds us that not everything in the Torah is a law, and that way back at the time of Hillel, Jews believed that there was an oral Torah and a written Torah, and both had equal value. But the one can be interpreted by the other. The Hebrew word for law (nomos) can be translated “teaching” and so gives further credence that not everything in the Torah, whether written or oral, has the force of law.
Still, Jesus seems to be pointing the way to a higher standard of conduct. He didn’t seem to have much tolerance for external observances, rituals or practices that were not accompanied by an interior purity of intention. He knew that what comes out of our character and motivation and instincts means more than what we profess to believe. He knew how difficult it is for us to accomplish even the most unselfish-looking deeds without having mixed motives for doing so.
For those who celebrate or know about Ash Wednesday, with ashes so recently traced on our foreheads and the accompanying words assaulting our ears: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” perhaps we have a context in which to interpret this difficult passage from Matthew’s Gospel.
Our lives go so fast—we are old before we realize the years have passed. We can’t believe the ages of our children and grandchildren. You never thought you would live to be forty, and then suddenly find yourself in your sixties or seventies or eighties! Ashes indeed. I know this is a little far out, but what if Jesus, in these words recorded by Matthew, were trying to teach us something about life and death?
We are, are we not, used to playing up certain laws in Scripture and ignoring others. I was in a discussion group of teachers just the other day, and they were complaining about how little respect students seem to have these days. They don’t respect each other, nor do they respect their elders, their parents, their political leaders nor people who have a LOT more education, resources, and knowledge than they do! Why, they think nothing of calling their professors by their first names! Incivility seems to be increasing by the day. Road rage is common. Bad language crowds out polite speech.
These are not new accusations, of course, and our own parents and grandparents would probably remember being scandalized by the youth of THEIR day. What a step up in ethical behavior, don’t you think, if people would just observe the Ten Commandments!
But then, let’s look at the standards Jesus is holding up to us in Matthew 5, right after he has enunciated the Beatitudes. What a different world it would be if all of us observed the Beatitudes! But in comparison with the Ten Commandments, they are mostly ignored, even by religious people. And that may be because they are nearly impossible for us to live by, just as it is nearly impossible to live by the words in this “difficult passage.”
Think about it: Who does turn the other cheek? Who gives a thief or a beggar more than he wants to have? Who walks that extra mile and never harbors a lustful desire, never uses abusive language, never dislikes someone to the point of hatred, and always says ‘yes’ when he or she means ‘yes?’ Who?
Lent is a good time to try all of these things, but we all know that our chances of failing some or all of these benchmarks are very high. Don’t bet too much money on anyone’s total success here.
I understand that some American Indian tribes see life as a spiral instead of a staircase. We are where we are in the folds of that spiral. We may take one step forward and two steps back, but that’s okay. What if God is continuing to create and humanity is continuing to evolve as is everything else in this universe?
Nothing is lost. Whereas our news reporters delight in finding crime and selfishness and graft and political scandals, what if God is an investigative reporter looking for goodness and for instances of people approaching the standards of this difficult passage? Even we, myopic as we sometimes are, can find lots of examples of extreme generosity, kindness, forgiveness and compassion, self-sacrifice and even heroism. We’ve managed some of them ourselves, haven’t we?
Some people routinely “pay it forward,” volunteer to take day-old bread to hunger centers, look out after older people living alone, travel to countries where they share their knowledge and skills, teaching people to raise fish, sew, plant. And many more people just “show up” at their daily duties, performing these as well and as cheerfully as possible, even those involving an angry child or a high maintenance spouse.
And what if this same God who knows we most often miss our target standards and even in Lent cannot lose as many pounds as we need to—what if that God cherishes this creation and helps, prods, motivates and challenges it to throw off its encumbrances and dance!