Exodus 20:1-17, Matthew 5:17-26
October 14, 2012
So, let me ask you. When you were kids, did you ever get in trouble with your mother, not just for something you did, but for what you were thinking? I know I did!
Do you know what I mean? Maybe you were standing in front of her, and you were in trouble for something already, and she told you about it! And then she said, And I know what you’re thinking, too! So you’d better stop it! And she was right! Mothers know! Don’t they? They know what’s going on in your mind. And you’d better watch it!
That’s kind of what’s going on here in our scripture, isn’t it? In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was talking about the difference between the letter of the Law and the spirit of the Law. It wasn’t just about what you did (or didn’t do), but why you did it! It wasn’t just about the law, it was the reason behind the law. That was more important to Jesus.
Well, I wonder how these statements sounded to some of the people who were listening to him that day. Because, almost certainly, some of the people who were listening to him that day were Pharisees. They were always around. They were “keeping an eye” on this new rabbi. They weren’t sure what to make of him, and he made them nervous! Not only that, but some of the things he was starting to say seemed to be directed at them. Here in this part of the Sermon on the Mount, he was focusing in on some of the things that were important to them. And I believe there would have been no mistaking that!
That’s because Jesus was talking about the Law. And if you remember, the Law, and keeping the Law, was very important to the Pharisees. The Law, the Torah, was the Ten Commandments, and the Pharisees were committed to keeping that Law to the letter. But! They were always trying to qualify the Law. In their teaching, they said, “Yes, ‘Thou shalt not…’ But, if you do this or you do that, then you’re not actually violating the ‘shalt not.'”
For example, the commandment said “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Sp, you weren’t supposed to do any work on the Sabbath. Well, they had a “qualification” of that Law that said that you could only take a certain number of steps away from home on the Sabbath Day. After that, you were working. and you were in violation. But, if you put a rope across the end of your street, then the entire street became your home, so now you could take that number of steps past there. And if you left a store of food somewhere in that range of steps, then that qualified as your home, too. So now you could go the allowable number of steps beyond that, and still not violate the Law. Well, the Pharisees developed an enormous number of those qualifications.
At the same time, the Pharisees had come to see themselves as “keepers of the Law.” It was their job to make sure the people obeyed the Commandments. And they were watching this Jesus closely! If you remember, there were several times in the Gospels where we find them watching to see if he would perform a healing on the Sabbath. To them, he would then be in violation. Do you remember when he healed the blind man? He spit on the ground, made mud and put it on the mans eyes, and gave him his sight. It was an amazing miracle! And yet how did the Pharisees react? They said, “You made mud!” That’s a violation of the Sabbath! That’s unbelievable to us, but that’s they way they thought.
At one point, Jesus challenged them on it. They were watching to see if he would heal a man on the Sabbath, and he asked them, “Which of you, if your son or your ox has fallen in a well on the Sabbath day, would not immediately pull him out?” (Luke 14:5) And they had no answer.
Well, this eventually got to the point where Jesus challenged them directly. He spent what is now the 23rd chapter of Matthew warning people directly about the teaching of the Pharisees. That entire chapter is a series of woes to them about how they were keeping “the letter of the Law” and ignoring “the spirit of the Law.” And at one point he accused them of “straining a gnat and swallowing a camel.” (Matthew 23:24) (Isn’t that great imagery!
Jesus wanted the people to be concerned with the spirit of the Law. And that’s what he was trying to tell them that in our passage. But notice how he sets this up by telling them about importance of the law. “Think not,” he said, (in anything I’m about to say,) “that I have come to abolish the law. Not a jot or a tittle of the Law will pass away.” A “jot” was the stroke that formed the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. And a “tittle” was the little embellishment that made the letter look fancy. (We still have them today.) So Jesus said, that “not one tiniest bit of the Law will go away.” “I have not come to abolish the law,” he said, “I have come to fulfill the Law.” “And here’s how.” And then he taught them that it was not just about what they did, or did not. It was about what they were thinking!
By the way, there’s a little dig here. He says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom.” And he wasn’t talking about the outward righteousness, or the false righteousness of which he often accused them. He was talking about exceeding that with the righteousness that comes from living the spirit and the intent of the law.
So, he gives them a series of statements about that. And they take the form of him saying, “You have heard it was said… but I say to you.” We only read a couple of them this morning, but I’d like you to take some time later and read all of them. It’s just this one chapter. And as you read it, you’ll find that these statements are all about the spirit, the intent, the reason behind the Law.
For now, I’d just like to look at one of them. Jesus said, “You have heard it said of to the men of old, Thou shalt not kill.” (Yeah! I’m sure they’d heard that.) “But,” he said, “I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother is liable to judgment. And whoever calls his brother a fool is liable to the hell of fire!”
Anybody convicted by those words? Those are strong words! And what those words do is they zero in on intentions and thoughts, not just actions! Like your mother, God says, “I know what you’re thinking!” Then he gives this great example of making amends with your brother even before giving your gift at the altar! And remember that the gift at the altar was about making amends with God! Jesus said “Wait! Make amends with others first!” “It’s that important!” “Straighten out what’s in your heart!” “Watch what you’re thinking about each other!”
To Jesus, the important thing was not about “Thou shalt not.” It was about “Thou shalt not have the thought to.” That’s different, isn’t it? And doesn’t that take us back to the place in the Beatitudes where he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart?” And what did he say they would do? “For they shall (?) see God.”
God knows your heart! God knows what you’re thinking. He’s not just watching what you do. So do take some time to read the rest of these today while you’re still thinking about them. And choose to be concerned with your inner thoughts, with your heart. And know for sure, that is what matters to God
Lord, may your peace, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. For this we pray in his name, Amen.