Take the Fork that Leads to Love
A sermon based on Matthew 5: 13-20
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 5, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott
There’s saying about court cases, if you can’t find a lawyer who knows the law, find a lawyer who knows the judge. From my days as a lawyer I can tell you that law school and bar exams are as difficult as you’ve heard, so most lawyers and judges actually know the law, but the trouble is you sometimes run into one or two who do not seem to follow it, or apply it justly . . . most do, but some don’t.
The saying I started with is about those times when law is overruled by connections–something lawyers call being “home-towned.” And let me add that, truthfully, I found most judges were very careful not to let their connections with local lawyers interfere with their rulings. Usually judges and lawyers are in conflict over interpretation of the law, which actually is what the last half of our lesson is about and a number of the verses that follow it. When judges and lawyers interpret the law they do not think they are changing the wording, just explaining it. That’s what is going on from verse 17 onward.
Back when Matthew was written, in that time and place, the law being referred to was Torah, the first five books of the Bible, a good deal of which is hundreds of commandments, everything from love your neighbor to don’t steal to don’t eat pork to treat aliens the same as citizens, and lots and lots of other rules.
The provision in the our lesson that refers to the law and prophets contains what one commentary says “is perhaps the most difficult passage to be found anywhere in the Gospel.” 1. The passage is the short phrase at verse 17 that reads “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
Like I said, the law Jesus means is Torah, and the prophets he means are just what you’d think, the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. Scholars believe that verse 17 was originally written because following Jesus looked to those inside and outside the Jewish sect of Jesus followers as setting aside the Torah and tradition. So the saying was recorded to try to assure the early Jewish Jesus followers that following what we now call Christianity, was not tossing aside the law or the prophets of the tradition. 2 Verse 17 was also meant to answer arguments by those outside the following who criticized the early Jewish Jesus sect as following a teacher and a way that abolished the law and the prophets. 3 Since Jesus and his Way did indeed challenge at traditional understanding of the law and the prophets, the issue needed to be addressed to both insiders and outsiders. To many in the ancient world Jesus Way seemed to set aside or change part the law and tradition of Judaism. This made some in the community of Jesus followers uneasy.
Some followers needed to know– wanted reassurances– that Jesus did not challenge their traditions, did not radically shake up the status quo. We know that he did so the phrase is difficult to wrestle with.
And there are also newer modern levels of difficulty with the saying. At one level it can now be read, if pulled out of place all alone to suggest that Christianity is actually Judaism because nothing’s changed– it’s all just been adopted by Jesus Followers. That is something today that not many Jews or Christians would agree with, at least not literally. Judaism and Christianity are different. Moreover, some in modern Christianity who want to use ancient Torah laws to persecute others often point to the text and claim it literally means those laws still apply.
It is my experience, however, that these modern arguments are considered to only apply to the parts of the ancient Jewish laws that prohibit conduct those modern Christians disapprove of, they rarely (if ever) have the same level of concern, or none at all, about the Ancient Jewish laws that they themselves violate. An obvious example is a modern reading of verse 17 to mean that the laws that appear to have banned male homosexuality in ancient Israel – must be applied in modern America and need to be enforced not only by churches, but by our governments. There are even vigilantes – in America– who use violence claiming to enforce this law.
This zealously for church and government and Christian vigilante enforcement of one of Ancient Israel’s laws seems virtually non-existent for numerous other such laws. For example, we do not hear these folks urging churches and us and the government to prohibit mistreatment aliens or oppression of the poor issues front and center in our day and age. Or to make it a bit more personal when it comes to sexuality laws I’ve yet to hear anyone insist that churches and government must, like ancient Israel lawfully coerce heterosexuals to be virgins before marriage, and maintain fidelity after marriage– let alone to do so on pain of death an ancient law in Torah that applies to them. They want it both ways, ancient laws of the land of Israel for non-heterosexuals, and modern laws of the land of America for heterosexuals. That is clearly no doing to others what you want done to yourself.
We’ve talked about this before, and it’s important that we do so every now and then, because we do consider the Bible as a Sacred text. Christians across the spectrum do, and we need to understand what hermeneutic, what our theory of scriptural interpretation is. Are we randomly picking and choosing what we like and don’t like, like Fundamentalists seem to do, or is there rhyme or reason? Or better yet, is there a scriptural anchoring to our approach?
As we can see, this short text – verse 17– raises complex issues.
My response to Fundamentalists who claim to interpret the Bible as literalists is to first use their own hermeneutic against their actual approach. If they believe scripture must be applicable to others then they need to make it applicable to themselves too . . . all of it.
They cannot fairly pick and choose which laws to apply and to whom they apply– under their rules all of the Torah literally applies to everyone. So I say when they can show me they apply all of Torah and the prophets to their theology and way of living we can talk, otherwise, it’s disingenuous, and nothing short of hypocrisy, to tell me they want ancient laws applied to homosexuals, but not to heterosexuals. They strictly interpret Torah commandments to apply to others but not to themselves.
And I’d also probably add that since Fundamentalism was created in the 19th Century, it is not in the Bible, so any scriptural anchoring is of their own wishful design.
But the argument that is most effective is that Jesus named love of neighbor as a commandment that cannot be superceded by any other commandment or tradition. So that commandment is the lens through which we MUST approach all of the law and the prophets. Love was Jesus’ hermeneutic, his interpretive tool. Which is the answer to how we can find modern meaning, ancient meaning, and meaning for all time in today’s reading.
Verse 17 makes it clear that at least the first five books of the Old Testament and all the prophets and books about them, matter to Jesus and the Jesus following. Jesus is Jewish and a rabbi, as such he is anchoring his movement in Torah and the prophets, so it should not be a surprise that Matthew notes they matter– and actually Matthew got the quote from “Q” the book source that the writers of Matthew and Luke used to help craft their retelling of the Jesus narratives.
But Jesus saying he was not abolishing the law and the prophets is difficult at first glance, because four verses after saying “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets . . .” Jesus goes on for the next twenty-seven verses to deconstruct it and rebuild the law in new ways through interpretation. He is not abolishing, though, he is interpreting.
As one commentary notes those twenty seven verses:
are not antithesis, where Jesus quotes from biblical tradition and then abolishes it. Rather he quotes the passage and interprets it. 4
The commentary then summarizes the six interpretations:
[Jesus] instructs the disciples to be reconciled community (5:21-26), to curb male lust and power concerning adultery and divorce in a patriarchal society ((5:27-32), to speak trustworthy words (5: 33-37), to employ active, nonviolent resistence to evil (5:38-42; Wink), and to love neighbors and enemies (5:43-48). 5
I am not going to go over each of those interpretations today, but I want to point out that the interpretation that is most startling is the one on non-violent resistence in verses 38-41 where Jesus brilliantly takes the seemingly violent Torah law of an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth and makes his followers hear it from a completely new direction, a hermeneutic that is anchored in the love command.
We can hear through Jesus interpretation that it’s not about taking an eye for an eye but giving one more instead. If they slap your cheek, give them another cheek. If they take your coat, give them another other. If they make you walk a mile, give them two. Listen to Jesus’ genius at deconstructing and rebuilding in verses 38-41
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Mat 5:38-41 NRS)
This way of hearing the texts fits so well with what Jesus was doing, applying love to everything — radically reinterpreting the law by applying love to it. Jesus is pushing his Jewish following, including himself in a revolutionary understanding of the Hebrew texts as intending to put love of God and neighbor and self as the bottom line to all God’s laws and God’s prophets’ work.
Jesus mentions radical love of neighbor and enemy in Matthew 5, but toward the end of Matthew in chapter 22 he nails down how nothing can supercede it. When a lawyer asks
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” [Jesus] said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’8 This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mat 22:35-41 NRS)
I cannot preach on this enough. Especially in this day and age when our news media, our forms of entertainment, our national leaders, our religious leaders try to make other things like our religion, our nationality, our sexuality, our gender, our skin color, our looks, our wardrobe, our way of life, and our wealth greater than love of God and others.
As a Christian and a pastor the very core of my theology, the very heart of my Christianity and the authority of all scripture and tradition – is that they must be interpreted and derived from an understanding focused on love. I anchor this all in an unshakeable belief in Jesus greatest commandment –which he got from Torah– I base it on Jesus’ Way and the claims in the Bible that God is love, as well as my personal experience that that is true. Consequently I believe as I’ve stated more than once up here that that Christianity, our Sacred texts and tradition are best understood as experiencing God as Love; believing in Love; loving Love; and being Love.
Why? Because Jesus is clear that love of God, self and others must dominate and is so Holy a command it singularly trumps all others.
He’s asked “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And his answer is “‘You shall love the Lord your God . . .You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Christians call this “The Greatest Commandment” not only because it is the one we hold in highest esteem, but because it is the one through which we moderate our conduct, anchor our identity and judge all authority. For Jesus it is the heart and soul of Torah and the Prophets and he had no intent whatsoever to change one letter or stroke of a letter of that love anchor– and what Torah and the prophets are supposed to mean.
And that’s right. Jesus does not change that which Torah and the Prophets are anchored on.
Jesus’ way is love. Christianity is supposed to that way too. Always. Accordingly, if what we hear or read or interpret or do does not express love, it is not a proper part of the law or the prophets or Jesus Way. It does not come from the loving God of Jesus. This includes secular and religious traditions, scriptures– all laws and prophets. If IT is not loving we have an obligation to question and challenge it, oppose and reject it if it leads to unloving thoughts or action toward God, ourselves and anyone else. That is the law and the prophets, understood Jesus’ way. Which needs to be our way. Simply put at every fork of the road we are to take the one that leads to love.
1 Hare, Interpretation Bible Commentary, page 46
2. Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels, What Did Jesus Really Say? 140, see also, Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol 1, p 332-337.
4. Fortress Commentary on the Bible, The New Testament, 2014, p139
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