SIRACH 15:15-20 | 1 CORINTHIANS 2:6-10 | MATTHEW 5:17-37
Jesus had just told his disciples that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We heard that message last week. He immediately followed that wonderful declaration with a serious caution. “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Why was there so much antagonism between Jesus and the religious leaders? It had to do with religious laws.
The laws contained in the scriptures were considered the voice of God by the religious leadership, the scribes and the Pharisees, and by Jesus. The purpose of these scriptural laws was to lay out principles for harmonious living and personal spiritual development. They were broad so that they could be wisely applied to individual situations. But over time, the interpretations of these laws, these broad principles, were given as much weight as the original laws themselves.
Over time, the scribes and Pharisees squeezed every possible interpretation out of each law. They stretched the basic 10 commandments to 613 laws! This was only the tip of the religious iceberg. Many volumes of interpretations evolved over time, and each interpretation was followed by an interpretation of the interpretation. The law was meant as a universal spiritual guide for better living. The religious leaders, by their proliferation of laws, distracted the people from the beauty and simplicity of the spiritual principles. This was the core of the battle between Jesus and the religious leaders.
We can feel Jesus’ frustration as he continues his teaching. “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Jesus gets to the heart of it all. Following the law isn’t a matter of simply not killing. It’s the more serious matter of dealing with anger personal, national, international. “I say to you, whoever is angry with a brother will be liable to judgment.”
He went on. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He continued by extending the law to marriage. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’ But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Remember that women in Jesus’ day had very few rights. Being written off by her husband a woman was condemned to a life of poverty and even more seriously, rejection by the community. The commandment wasn’t just about a legal relationship; it was a call for purity of heart and the challenge of emptying one’s life in love for another. The law was a call to respect the dignity of women. Once again, Jesus gets to the heart of the law. “I say to you, everyone who looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Jesus added two thoughts that deepened this teaching. They were very important. “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” The second seems simple, but it’s not a common practice. “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” These two principles are the foundation of spiritual life. The commandments rest on them and receive life and spirit from them.
These aren’t easy teachings that we hear today, but if each one of us listens to them, really and honestly listens, each of us will hear a personal message. This is the marvel of Jesus’ teachings; they speak so personally. The law, as Jesus teaches it, challenges us to respect and love everyone including our enemies. He challenges us to value each other, to love purely. The law will point us to areas in our lives that need improvement and development. As Jesus said, “Whoever has ears ought to hear.” (Matthew 11:15)