Good enough for God

Epiphany 6 – 2011

Matthew 5:21-37

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us to radical obedience in service of the kingdom. Amen.

Most of you will know that the readings which we use at our services are pre-determined – not chosen at the whim of the celebrant. At St Augustine’s we use the Revised Common Lectionary which provides us each week with an Old Testament lesson, a Psalm, a New Testament reading and a portion of one of the gospels. This most recent lectionary has created a cycle of readings to ensure that over three years we cover as much of the Bible as possible. During that time, we read Matthew, then Mark then Luke. The gospel of John is read during Lent this year and during the season of Easter next year.

Readings from the Old and New Testament are similarly spread over three years.

This is year is the first year of the cycle – for convenience known as Year A. That means that with the exception of Lent when we will read from John’s gospel, we will be following the gospel of Matthew throughout the year –  hearing the story of Jesus from the point of view of the author of the gospel bearing that name.

You may have already noticed some aspects of Matthew’s narration of the story that are different from those of Mark and Luke.  For example, Mathew’s gospel begins with the genealogy of Jesus and in Matthew’s gospel, it is to Joseph that the angel appears. Only in Matthew do we find the story of the Magi, the flight to Egypt and the return to Nazareth. Five times in the first two chapters we are told “this was to fulfil what is written in the scripture”, indicating that the author wants to demonstrate the continuity of his community with the promises to Israel.

It is widely believed that the author of this gospel was a Jewish Christian whose community was engaged in a debate with a community of non-believing Jews. Evidence for this point of view is supported not only by the fulfilment sayings, but also by the author’s attitude to the law – “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” and by his insistence that the community for whom he writes are more righteous than the Pharisees.  Among other things, it appears that the author of this gospel wants to demonstrate to those with whom he is in conflict that his (Christian) community is not only heir to the promises of the Old Testament, but that it is within his (Christian) community that the law, as Jesus commands it, is truly lived.

The conflict between Matthew’s community and the synagogue forms the background for today’s gospel.  In chapters 5 and following, Matthew has collected together a number of sayings that he believes contribute to a common theme – in this case the law. The scene for today’s gospel is set in the preceding verses which include the saying about fulfilling every letter of the law, insist that who ever loosens even the least of the commandments will be considered least in the kingdom of heaven and state that unless the communities’ righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees they will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

According to Matthew then, Jesus does not abolish the law, but more firmly establishes it. The difference is that Jesus is not the servant of the law, but its Master. Jesus appropriates the law, radically interprets it and places at its centre the love, justice and mercy that Deuteronomy commends.

It was and is relatively easy to keep the laws that were recorded on the second of the tablets which were given to Moses – do not steal, do not kill, do not bear false witness. According to Matthew, Jesus demands that his followers go beyond this. It is not enough to stop short of killing someone – any negative attitude towards another is just the same as murder.  In the same way it is not good enough to simply avoid adultery – looking at someone desire indicates a propensity to that sin.

These demands of Jesus seem almost impossible, as do his remedies – plucking out eyes and cutting off hands. Jesus is taking the law much further than anyone else has dared. The repeated statement: “You have heard it said …. but I say to you …..” indicate that this is Jesus’ re-interpretation of the law. Jesus is making the law his own and demanding that the community formed in his name adopt his radical approach to the law of the ancients.

Jesus’ attitude to the law, especially as it is represented in Matthew’s gospel, does two things. Firstly, it challenges us to try to understand and to keep all that the law implies. A superficial understanding of the law is not sufficient because it leads to duplicity, hurt and misunderstanding. A minimalist approach to the law is not only simplistic, it also reveals a certain laziness on the part of the person who does only what is absolutely necessary to observe the law.

Secondly, by elaborating on the law in the way this way, Jesus confronts the complacency of those who congratulate themselves on keeping the law and who believe themselves to be right with God as a result. In effect, Jesus is saying that there are not degrees of sin – a person is either sinless or they are not. We can’t congratulate ourselves on being less sinful than our neighbours unless we do not sin at all. Jesus’ statements with regard to the law have the effect of reminding us that we are all sinners because it is impossible for any of us to achieve the sort of perfection under the law that Jesus demands.

It is shocking, confronting and humiliating to recognise that if we are angry with someone or think them to be a fool, that we are just as much a sinner as if we had in fact, committed murder. If this is the case, what hope do any of us have? It is as impossible to keep the law as it is to be perfect,  however that is no reason for not trying. The more we try, the more we realise how far we fall short, the more we realise how far we fall short, the more we place our trust in God, the more we place our trust in God, the more we allow God to work in us, the more we allow God to work in us, the closer we become to that perfection which Jesus demands.

It is not a matter of being good enough for God, rather it is a matter of recognising that even though good enough is beyond our reach nothing is impossible for the God who loves us and who died for us and who, if only we will allow him, will transform us.

 

 

 

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