The Bones – Jesus and the Law, sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 & Matthew 5:17-20
Sermon on the Mount Series #3
for Feb. 1, 2014
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
“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. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
When we were shopping for homes, our realtor sometimes told us “This house has good bones” meaning that the core structure was solid. Sometimes she would say that because there was clear need of updating of appliances or fixtures or eliminating overgrown landscaping. She tried to get us to look past the changeable parts of the house to the skeleton itself. If the bones of the home were in good shape, you could always deal with the problems later.
The Bones of Jesus’ Teaching
Today we are looking at Jesus as he begins to teach his core teaching about the bones of our faith. When I say “our faith,” I am consciously aware of the fact that our Christian faith is simply an outgrowth of Jesus’ Jewish faith – the faith of Abraham, Moses and the prophets.
Remember, this is Jesus’ first sermon in Matthew. Up to this point all we have heard him say is “Repent” or “Change your thinking, the kingdom of God has arrived.” Then he goes up the mountain as Moses had done, and begins to teach.
He has just finished his beatitudes – statements of congratulations to the people who live the values of this kingdom. And he has just told the people listening that they are as indispensable to the world as salt – in fact that they are the very light of the world. Now we are ready to hear what comes next.
We are going to hear Jesus as he explores the bones of this faith of ours. Like walking into a solid old house, he shows us two things at once: that the structure is solid. But also that there is serious renovating needed.
In fact, the way Jesus understands it, he is not just bringing a new coat of paint. He was clearing overgrown bushes, cutting down trees whose roots were damaging the structure, pulling down interior walls, opening up rooms, and of course putting in lots of new windows.
Jesus, in other words, is not redecorating; he is renovating. But not modernizing for the sake of current fashion. Rather, he is restoring the house to the original architect’s vision, which had never been fully realized in previous phases of construction. Finally, the house will be the home it was always intended to be.
What kind of home is it? It is not a prison house, a club house, or a hermitage. It is a home in which a family is meant to live and grow.
The bones of the faith of Jesus is the Torah, or the “Law” of Moses. It is a pity and actually a distortion to use the word “law” to translate Torah, which really means “instruction and guidance” but that is now our custom.
There are, indeed, “laws” in Torah – like Sabbath laws, Kosher laws, purity laws, and the famous Ten Commandments, but these are all part of the “instruction” that was meant as “guidance” for the people of faith. The bones, the core of Torah, as Jesus understood it, were far deeper than these individual laws.
We have already seen in Matthew’s gospel how Jesus was a person of deep personal spirituality. He communed with God whom he came to know as his Heavenly Father, often getting away for periods of solitude for prayer and meditation. We know he had also drunk deeply of Israel’s scripture, both the Torah and the Prophets, as well as the Psalms.
What we come to see is that Jesus was able to look past the overgrown bushes and the leaky faucets, and see a vision of the core, the “bones” of the house. He had a vision of the way this home, in its current condition, was not helping the family who was trying to live in it. It was as if the roof leaked onto the dinner table, the rooms were too drafty to sleep in, and the stove was not working.
So, for example, he looked at the Sabbath law which prohibited work on that day, and understood that to heal was to fulfill the very purpose of Sabbath as a time of restoration for humans who are not robots working 24/7. So he healed on the Sabbath.
He looked at purity laws about touching blood or the dead, and concluded that to touch with healing was to redeem. And so he touched lepers, people who were bleeding, and even the dead.
So, naturally, seeing Jesus do these things, some people believed he was trying to abolish the authority of the law of Moses. Jesus flatly rejects that notion.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
Jesus came to take the bones and put the house into the condition that the original architect designed it for. Jesus came to bring the law to its intended meaning. The kingdom of God had arrived, Jesus was preaching, the end of the current age has come, the new age has dawned, and now things have to change.
Is the Law, the Torah, the guidance Moses gave going to be abolished? No, but the essence of the law is now going to take priority over some of the details. Some interior walls will have to come down to open up some new space, and windows have to be installed to let more light in. This home is going to be a life-giving place in which the new family is going to flourish.
What were the bones of the Law of Moses?
First, that there is such a thing as right and wrong, that is, morality, and that it matters. This is a morally real world. God cares. So if we act immorally, if we harm each other, if we are unfair to each other, if we neglect each other, or use or abuse each other, it matters to God. Justice matters. Righteousness matters.
The bones of the law of Moses teach us that there is such a thing as goodness and badness that we humans all know what goodness means, and that God is good. God is not evil, or whimsical or arbitrary, like Marduk or Zeus, but essentially and completely good.
In spite of some of the ways God has been conceived of in past times, the bedrock foundation of Jesus’ understanding of God is that the best way to think of God is as a loving, caring Father. God is good and wants the good for his children. Any depiction of God that is to the contrary has simply gone wrong somewhere.
Because God is good, as a Father, God cares deeply when his children suffer. And he is very clear that his children are all obligated to care for each other, as God does.
This family has a “no hitting” rule. In fact, a “no harming” rule that includes even the potential harm caused by the words that we say to each other. This family has a lot of “help out around the house” rules also, to make sure that supper is on the table, and that everyone is at the table, and that each and every one is getting enough to eat.
So this has practical consequences. For Jesus, all of the old laws have to be reexamined in a new light. The religious authorities of the day had become experts on interpreting the Law of Moses down to the dots above the Hebrew i’s and the crosses on the Hebrew t’s. But in all their lazar-looking at the letters they neglected to read the words.
So, they might, for example, see a victim of robbery lying bloody beside the road and think of all the purity laws that were involved in the situation. Best, in their minds, to walk by on the other side.
For Jesus, that kind of school-boy, law-focused perspective produced a false righteousness. So, he warned:
“unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
How do you exceed that kind of righteousness? You go over and help the poor man. You let the light of your good works shine before others – the world is desperate for people who are willing to be the light in this way.
According to Jesus, “Blessed are those who morn” for the victims of evil in all its destructive forms, and whose mourning motivates mercy.
Blessed are those who so hunger and thirst for a goodness-based righteousness that they go the extra mile in the name of compassion, even if the one needing it cannot repay.
We are not in need of a new set of stone tablets to know all this. Moses came down the mountain with 613 laws: we now need only one. As Jesus will soon say, in this same context:
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 7:12)
In other words, this is the bones of the law as intended. This is what fulfillment looks like.
This is the “law written on the heart” that Jeremiah the prophet spoke of as part of the new covenant. The law, as he said, is “within” us. We understand what goodness means. We simply have to stop making up sophisticated reasons for avoiding it.
And yet, part of the human condition is that we do make up excuses for ourselves all the time. We fear risk, we fear change, we fear loss, we fear criticism, and we can always find a reason to start the diet from our indulgences tomorrow.
Action and Contemplation
That is why, we, like Jesus, must nurture our spiritual lives as he did, in times of silence and meditation. We, just like Jesus, need to be open to the Spirit who is still speaking, guiding, and helping us get through this complicated world.
And, as he taught us, we need to regularly gather around the family table and remember that we see him there with us as bread is broken, and as wine is poured, remembering that those who are willing to be persecuted for doing the right thing are also blessed.
And then we need to get up from the table where we have been fed, and look around and ask: who was missing from the table? Who has not been fed? Who needs to be invited into the house which is our home, where we are loved, and also know the love of our Father?
We must go one step further and ask: why would anyone not feel welcome at the table? What do we need to do to make sure that never happens again?