Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon: Fulfilling the Law

Matthew 5:21-32
Fulfilling the Law
James Sledge                                                                                       February 12, 2017

Today’s Old Testament reading is part of a covenant renewal ceremony. Moses has led Israel for decades in the wilderness, but before they finally enter the land of promise, Moses reminds them of the covenant with God made at Mount Sinai, That includes the Ten Commandments, some of which Jesus recalls in our gospel reading. You shall not murder. Neither shall you commit adultery. Neither shall you steal. Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor. Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife.
Notice there’s nothing about coveting your neighbor’s husband. That’s because women were thought of as property. To covet a man’s wife was to think about stealing his property. Similarly, adultery was a property crime in that it damaged another man’s property.
Things had not changed much by Jesus’ day. Wealthy Roman women enjoyed a bit more freedoms, but by and large women were subordinate to and dependent on men. When a man divorced a woman – which could be done easily – she could quickly find herself in poverty and danger. We live in very different times, but residue of those ancient views is still with us.
I recently read a book by local colleague Ruth Everhart. It’s a memoir that begins with a home invasion at the place she and her college roommates rented in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Two intruders held the women for hours at gunpoint and raped them repeatedly. The rest of the book is about the long, long struggle to put her life back together, to become whole again. The title of the book is telling: Ruined.[1]
Perhaps some of you saw Ruth’s column in The Washington Post just before Christmas. She spoke of a religious “culture of purity” that celebrates the virgin Mary in ways that only add to the pain of those like her.[2] Religion has often enforced and encouraged standards of sexual purity that weigh much more heavily on women, echoes, no doubt, of a time when women were reduced to property.
So what to do with religious rules from ancient times and cultures? Christians have sometimes viewed this as an Old Testament problem that gets fixed by Jesus and the New Testament, but there are multiple problems with such a view.

To begin with, the Old Testament itself wrestles with this issue. Prophet after prophet rails against wooden legalism that loses sight of the love and mercy at the very heart of God. And the Old Testament even takes its own shots at patriarchy, declaring that men and women share in “image of God” and lifting up women in rolls assumed to be for men only. When you consider the time in which the Old Testament was written, this is truly remarkable.
Then there is the problem of Jesus himself, who says,  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 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.” Jesus insists that he is not the end but the fulfillment of those religious rules, and in our gospel today, Jesus begins to explain what that means.
Jesus’ teachings are filled with the hyperbole typical of Middle Eastern speech but strange to us. This can distract us from what Jesus is up to. He undermines typical notions of God that are perpetual temptations for religious folk. We often view God is a bit like a cop on the street or a school teacher or principal, a deity whose primary job is to make sure we behave, that we are good boys and girls.
Not that Jesus comes to give us a “get out of jail free” card for breaking the Law. Rather, Jesus sees the Law rooted in God’s hopes and dreams for humanity. This is evident as Jesus interprets the commandments on adultery and divorce. Adultery ceases to be a property crime against men. It is a shattering of covenant and community that harms all. To speak of women being forced to commit adultery when men divorce them refocuses the commandment on the vulnerability women experienced in Jesus’ day.
And the notion that adultery includes seeing women as sexual objects to be acquired hardly sounds like an ancient issue. Our culture still objectifies women, still sees them as sexual objects. And all too often, the Church participates in an odd version of this where a woman’s worth is diminished if she is too promiscuous, or if she is “ruined” by an assault she could do nothing to prevent. Just ask Ruth Everhart about that.
The problem with religious rules, whether they come from the Old Testament or from the lips of Jesus, is that they perpetually get coopted by those in power as a means of control: men controlling women, rich controlling poor, majority controlling the minority, and so on. This was true long ago when the rich, religious authorities, the Empire, and law and order types saw Jesus as a threat and had him executed. And it’s no less true in our day when the powerful, the rich, patriarchy, whites, religious authorities, or law and order types wrap themselves in a religious mantle while ignoring Jesus’ teachings.
In those teachings, Jesus points to a very different understanding of the rules, much like that of the prophets with whom he so often stands. For Jesus, the rules point us to an alternative community where all are equals, where the needs of the other always matter as much as our own. This likely explains why the earliest followers of Jesus took to calling each other brothers and sisters. They had all become siblings in Christ.
The Church has struggled to live into this image of a community that is one family regardless of gender, wealth, skin color, orientation, nationality, politics, etc. Our own families sometimes provide flawed models for us, and we have sometimes trivialized church as family to mean a group of people “like us.” Sometimes we’ve even distorted it into a place for families, one not welcoming of people who don’t look like the American, suburban ideal.
Still, most of have a clear enough sense of what family is supposed to be to know what Jesus calls us to build: a radical community where everyone is a full member of the family, as deeply loved and cared for as any other member. It is a community where reconciling members one to another matters more than any religious ritual or obligation.
Jesus did not think this would be easy. In the verses just prior to our reading, Jesus spoke of our righteousness needing to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, and the Pharisees were champion rule keepers. Being light and salt for the world does not happen via privately held beliefs. It happens by the difficult work of building God’s alternative community.
It’s not unlike being part of a healthy human family. Being accepted and cared for and loved unconditionally has nothing to do with your good qualities or achievements or keeping the rules. They are gifts freely given because that is how healthy families are. Being accepted and loved is a gift, but becoming who you are meant to be; that is hard work. And in healthy families, rules and structure are less about control and more about guiding and directing you in that hard work of becoming the person you are meant to be.
Jesus loves you more than any family ever could, not because of who you are or what you’ve done but because of who Jesus is, God’s love for you made flesh. And Jesus longs to guide us in the hard work of becoming fully and truly human, as we build God’s alternative community that will be a light to the world.

[1] Ruth Everhart, Ruined, Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 2016.
[2]Our culture of purity celebrates the Virgin Mary. As a rape victim that hurts me.” The Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2016.

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