Pastor Dale E. Austin Matthew 5:21-37
We’re fond of giving names to things so that we have a quick reference. Ever since the early 70s and the Watergate break-in, everything has been “Something-gate” so that we know what we’re discussing, without having to go into great details. It’s a convenient shorthand which gets everyone on board with the discussion quickly.
Biblical scholars do the same thing. Unfortunately, some of their shorthand titles aren’t familiar with the vast majority of church members. For example, Jesus’ comments in today’s portion of his Sermon on the Mount are often referred to as the “Antitheses”. The term makes sense, but how many of us know why?
The reason behind this shorthand title becomes clear as we read the passage. Time after time Jesus reiterates, “You have heard it said … but I tell you …” In other words, Jesus is telling us, ‘This is what you’ve been told, but I’m telling you that it’s not enough.’
As Jesus goes back over the Mosaic laws, one-by-one, a common theme begins to emerge: As important as our outward actions might be, as a demonstration of our faith, our inward motivations and attitudes are equally important. If we do the right things, but with a reluctant or even rebellious spirit, we really haven’t fulfilled God’s expectations.
You might recall that in last week’s lesson, Jesus made the claim that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Now, as he winds his way through these “Antitheses,” he begins to reveal what he meant. In simple terms his message is that everything we’ve been taught, up to this point, has been incomplete. It’s okay as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Something has been lacking and he’s here to help us see what that something is.
A point everyone seemed to miss in Jesus’ day was that the Law wasn’t handed down to be the final word in all matters human. It was intended as a set of guidelines to help us understand how we are supposed to live in relationship and harmony with each other. But people got hung up on the specific words, the strict, legalistic letter of the Law, and they couldn’t see the original intent any more. All they were concerned with was doing what they were told. If they had a bad attitude – well, never mind if your attitude stinks, as long as you do what you’re told to do.
That was the frustration which Jesus found himself dealing with time and again throughout his ministry. Particularly among the religious leaders of the day, there was a strong conviction that all they needed to do was to obey every letter of the Law, and God would look upon them with great favor. In their world, outward appearances meant everything. So they didn’t worry about their attitude. They could treat others with disdain and cruelty but as long as they were doing all of the right things according to the Law, they were on solid ground.
When Jesus talks about fulfilling the Law, he’s trying to help us understand that the outward appearance of our actions and deeds isn’t all that God expects. The letter of the Law is not the final word; the spirit, the intention behind the words is what matters.
Jesus takes it even further by clarifying actions and intentions against the Law. He tells us, “You have heard it said that this is a sin. But I’m telling you that you don’t actually have to commit the deed to be in trouble. If you even seriously consider it, then your attitudes and thoughts are not what God hopes for you.” In saying these things, he appears to be condemning all of us, because we don’t always have control over the thoughts which creep into our minds. But it’s not the momentary, fleeting temptation which concerns Jesus. It only becomes a problem when we choose to dwell on it or, even worse, act on it.
We might look at stalkers as a good example of someone who crosses that line. At first there is an attraction to another person. Unfortunately the stalker can’t let it go at that. An obsession with the other person develops which leads the stalker to follow the individual, call them, write to them and, in all ways, become a major pest. But as long as there has been no physical contact, then the stalker can justify his actions by telling himself that he’s committed no crime. “I haven’t kidnapped anyone; I haven’t raped anyone; I haven’t even committed adultery with them. I haven’t done anything wrong.” That sounds a lot like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.
When Jesus tells his listeners that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, he means that they must guard their attitudes and motivations as well as their outward actions. Simply following every letter of the Law will not gain us favor with God, unless our hearts are also subject to God, allowing His will to guide us and to shape us.
Then we can begin to look past the letter of the Law, and to see the spirit which lies behind the words. Then we begin to realize what God truly asks of us.