We are surrounded by rules. The Ten Commandments are painted on the wall. We obey traffic laws on the way to church. We accepted terms of service to use the apps on our cell phones. We are guided and our lives are bounded by rules. We often only think about them when we break them. Was I driving too fast when I passed that police car? Should I have that second brownie? In working out our spiritual lives, we are often worried about the rules we have broken, and perhaps less concerned about rules we have neglected.
Jesus teases out the meaning of the rules. He extends beyond “You have heard it said…” He tells what seems to be an even stricter interpretation. We have to remember what the rules are for. Moses gives the law to show the people how to live. God’s law is not merely a set of peculiar practices – it is a way of life. The motivation to obey is not fear (of punishment) but love. We obey because we love God. We obey because we love our neighbor.
As Jesus unpacks the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, we are drawn to the sexual sins for which we are ashamed, and somehow we neglect the other sins that seem to be more common. People fret about divorce. Why do we not worry over anger, or telling lies? When Jesus tells us not to look with lust, and not to divorce for trivial matters, he is reminding us to respect each other. He is not instituting yet another barrier to separate people with shame.
Jesus uses many more words to talk about anger. Even an off-hand comment of disrespect imperils our soul. It is so important to cease from anger that we should leave everything else – including worship – to rush to seek reconciliation with our sister or our brother. Wouldn’t things be better if we spent more energy seeking reconciliation in our time, rather than seeking new ways to shame each other? We are surrounded by anger and fear. Jesus would have us work for something better. We need to be troubled about our lack of respect for each other more than our worry about keeping the letter of the law.
All of ways that Jesus reframes of the rules are about moving beyond the trivial to the profound. It’s not enough to give up murder. You have to give up hate. It’s not enough to refrain from adultery. You have to give up lust. It’s not enough to fill out proper paperwork for divorce. You have to respect marriage. It’s not enough to swear an oath. You have to always speak the truth. When we only obey the law in a technical way, we miss the purpose behind it.
If we hold onto anger, we will have broken relationships with our neighbors. We can still hold onto our principles. We do not have to agree. We are forbidden to hate. We are forbidden to treat another person as merely something to gratify our desire, because people are worth infinitely more than that. Divorce is forbidden because marriage was not the equal partnership we know. Women had few rights. They could not obtain a divorce. If women were released from marriage by their husbands, they had no status or income, and it was disastrous for them. God did not give permission so that it could be abused. The rules are given so that we treat one another with dignity and respect.
And when we fail or fall, we are reminded that our relationship with God and with each other is not meant to be broken forever. How odd that divorce keeps people out of community? Why should that failure be uncorrectable? We sin and God forgives. We begin again and God helps us live into new life. The rules are not a barrier. They are a path towards life. The goal is to live lives of love and integrity where our words match our actions and we rejoice in loving relationships. Our yes is yes and our no is no because that’s how people talk when they love and respect each other.
Jesus doesn’t demand our obedience. He demands love. We might be fooled into thinking that God’s love is contingent on our obedience. We have it in the wrong order. The grace of God is never contingent. It is always true. It is where we always begin. Moses doesn’t say that God will love them only when they obey the commandments. The offer is a way of life or a way of death. God always offers love and life. We only die when we refuse to accept it.
As Jesus re-tells the rules of life, it can sound even more difficult. In a sense it is. We have to seek the meaning in all that we do. We have to seek the best way to love in every circumstance. If we succeed or fail, God loves us anyway. Jesus is calling us to persist in the better way. Jesus is not setting up an impossible standard so that we can retreat into misery and dependence. Jesus is offering a path where we have to keep seeking the best outcome. We have to seek the way that recognizes the dignity of every person we encounter. We are given eyes to see as God sees, and hearts to love as God loves. As we come to every inevitable impasse, it is not enough to judge who is right or wrong. Jesus calls us to seek the way of life. That is what saves us.