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Message Supplement for Sunday 16 February 2020: “Strict Law?”

Today we review a section of Jesus’ teaching from his famous Sermon on the Mount discourse (Matthew 5:21-37).

As a rabbi (i.e., teacher), Jesus’ revealed his interpretation of the Jewish Law. Jesus had expertise in the tanakh, the Jewish scriptures also known as the Old Testament. What made Jesus’ understanding of the religious law distinctive was his perception of its deeper meaning beyond literal words.

Jesus offered a surprisingly rigid view of the religious law: “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”  (Matthew 5:18). Jesus then doubled-down on obeying the Law: “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments . . . will be called least in the kingdom . . .” (Matthew 5:19). This harsh view contradicts the widespread perception of Jesus as someone who didn’t much like rules or the traditions underlying them.

Jesus strictly interpreted the Jewish law, such as with his opinion about divorce: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery“ (Matthew 5: 31-32). Historically, Christians followed Jesus’ words closely, to the extent that divorced persons were denied leadership positions in church and in many other cases they couldn’t become members or were shunned from even attending church. This has changed dramatically in recent decades but people with broken marriages still face social stigma.

Aside from divorce, there are three other instances where Jesus expressed a harsh interpretation of the Old Testament teachings. For the example of murder, Jesus suggested that it was a form of anger and not simply an act of killing another human. Then Jesus gave the example of adultery, commenting that a person could be guilty of this sexual sin by cultivating a pornographic attitude as much as by literally performing the act. Lastly, Jesus discussed religious oaths, about which he cautioned his audience to avoid given that swearing oaths is a reckless act of pride since no mere mortal can control the future.

Detesting hypocrisy, Jesus realized that simply following the precise letter of religious law was inadequate. Then as now, loopholes exist which people exploit so they can do what they want. In this regard, the spirit of religious law is more crucial than the letter, which people can alter at whim and spin in whatever direction that pleases them. Yet even cleverly-crafted legal statements cannot capture the complexity of life, hence Jesus tried to instill a more holistic view of what the Old Testament commandments were about.

It’s good to know that the underlying power of the ancient laws and commands lay not so much in their black/white view of reality—which are inadequate and incomplete—but rather in how the laws attempt to regulate life. It’s easy to say that a person should not do this or that behavior but it is far more difficult to legislate morality. To avoid getting stuck in a minutia of new regulations, Jesus usually took a different approach. In most of his teachings Jesus emphasized love, which surpasses all religious law. Compassion supposedly guides interpersonal relations; compassion is greater than following a list of commands which can never be complete.

How can you manage a veritable plague of religious rules and regulations? No one should become a slave to religious dogma. And the great news is that you have God’s spirit to help navigate life’s circumstances. Love is the greatest guide to how to live. By embracing the Almighty’s spiritual presence you can make the best choices about what is right and wrong.      –Reverend Larry Hoxey

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