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The Life of the Law

ESPERANZA LUTHERAN CHURCH https://myesperanza.org

Epiphany 6A2023
Matthew 5:21-37

When I was 15, my sister and I attended the new years party of our friends who happened to be the sons of the other pastor at our church. (Our dad was one of the pastors, so we were at the home of his colleague.) We were good kids who basically followed all our parents’ rules, so when we left for the new years party, our parents just said: Have a good time! And we walked the four blocks to the parsonage right across the street from our church—in a small northern Minnesota town. At this wild new years party, we ate popcorn and drank pop, watched movies and listened to music, and talked for hours. Nothing untoward happened at this party, I swear. But when 7:30 am rolled around and my sister and I were still laying on the couches in the parsonage basement, along with 4 other friends, the phone—the land line, of course—suddenly rang. One of the pastor’s sons quickly grabbed the phone nearest him, but his mother, upstairs, had already answered. He heard his mother say to my frantic mother: Oh, the kids left at 1 am. Over the top of my mother’s panic, our friend assured her: They’re here! They’re here! And then, my mother requested that my sister and I come home. That day was a Sunday, and when my parents got up and discovered we were not in our beds, they of course panicked. Upon our return home, my parents sat us down on the piano bench and explained in high volume how worried they were, how they were about to call the police, how they were imagining us dead along the side of the road. When they finished expressing their concern, I calmly responded: You didn’t tell us what time to come home. Because they didn’t. Apparently annoyed, my mother said: You know we assumed you would come home a little after midnight! And I cheekily replied: No, I didn’t know. You didn’t say anything about a time.

I want to say for the record that I was right. …but so were my parents. In terms of the letter of the law, my sister and I were blameless. In terms of the spirit of the law, we were, indeed, guilty. Of course, we knew that 8 am was not an acceptable return time from a party. Of course, we knew that we needed more than an hour of sleep. Of course, we knew what would worry our parents. Of course.

Today, Jesus continues preaching his Sermon on the Mount, and he reflects on Old Testament law. To our 21st century ears, Jesus’ teaching is very harsh and, in the parts about plucking out body parts, metaphorical, not literal. But Jesus’ harsh language is only part of our problem. We can handle You shall not murder and You shall not commit adultery. Like all the rest of the Ten Commandments, I and probably all of us can safely check them off one by one, completed, each and every week. Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Check. Went to church. Honor thy father and mother. Check. Called my parents. You shall not murder. Check. I didn’t kill anyone this week. You shall not commit adultery check. Check. I am safer than safe on this one.

But I think part of the reason we don’t mind the Ten Commandments is that, on the surface, we can follow them. It’s only when we start asking questions that we get uncomfortable. And that’s exactly what Jesus does today. For today, he speaks not only of the letter of the law but of the spirit of the law. While we may get indignant and defensive and citing the letter of the law—we followed it!, Jesus invites the disciples to consider why God would command such a thing in the first place. Because we’ve got to assume—or at least, I assume—that God does not arbitrarily enact law. God decrees law that we may have life, life abundant in community. Though Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter five make us wonder, God is not consumed with a desire to punish—but only a desire to see human flourishing. And God knows better than any of us what will lead to human flourishing.

It’s the spirit of the law—not the letter of the law—that concerns Jesus here. The spirit of the law is a desire for human flourishing. When we are really honest with ourselves, we know what leads to human flourishing and what doesn’t. If we have something against a sister or brother in Christ, we know that going to them and talking about it brings reconciliation and a glorious clearing of the air. If we are wondering if our conduct with someone else’s spouse is bordering on inappropriate, we know it’s time to give ourselves some space from that person. If we are wondering if our business dealings are ethical, if we should be signing the agreements we are signing—which is similar to the vow-swearing to which Jesus refers in the gospel, then, we know our integrity is in question.

To be clear, no matter how diligently we follow the law, no matter how pristine our attitudes, no matter how thoroughly we love God, we are not going to be saved by following the law. Even if we follow the spirit of the law and not just the letter of it. What we do is not going to save us—whether we follow the law or ignore it. Which seems kind of unfair when we go to the trouble of following it. But then, the law was never meant to save us, only to give us life, abundant life in community. The law becomes a vehicle for life, one for which we can proclaim: Thanks be to God! Amen.