... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Epiphany 6 Year A
Message February 16, 2014

Righteousness – Beyond the Bounds of the Law

Text: Matthew 5:21-37

When I was a young boy my grandmother would often comment, “There are a lot of laws but very few justices”. As I grew older her words stuck with me, especially whenever situations of injustice seemed to be compounded by legalisms and “laws”. We have all experienced such situations and I’m sure each and every one of us at some point have felt angered by the “law”. In fact some of the situations can seem so outrageous that they become “causes celebre” in various media. And one of the most celebrated of these injustices is highlighted in the book and play, “Les Miserables”. The hero of the story, Jean Valjean, had been imprisoned 19 years for “stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children”. The law prohibits stealing and sets penalties for doing it. Javert the law officer is adamant – the law is the law and any breach thereof must be punished to the full extent stipulated. There is no room for mercy, no allowance for extenuating circumstances, no place for discernment as to what constitutes justice, or a means of distinguishing right from wrong. The law is the law and as we witness in “Les Mis” Javert is unable to go beyond.

The readings for today are both complex and difficult – choices are required in “life and prosperity, death and adversity”. Those choices while draped around the laws and commandments of God are in reality based on a deeper concept of love and relationship. To stick to the laws without hearing them or glimpsing the fundamental concept of relating to God and one another is just as disastrous as turning away and bowing down to idols. As the concepts of love and relationship are difficult to grasp and even more difficult to incorporate into our everyday lives, God had given a set of Ten Commandments as both guide and example. Paul, in his letters would be foremost in showing that the Law was given to open our eyes to see the sin we do and at the same time guide us until a greater understanding would allow us to do the law, not because of the Law but because we had obtained a spiritual maturity which stemmed for our relationship to God in and through Christ Jesus.

The psalmist praises the law of the Lord and exults in the righteousness of them. This righteousness is not borne out by legalisms and codes of governing codices but from an understanding and incorporation that there lies behind the laws, a love and intimacy that promotes growth, compassion mercy and welfare for others. Verse 4 states, “You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently”. Note that precepts refers to much more than the letter of the law – it highlights what principles underlie the regulations.

Having set the stage we now look at the gospel and Jesus’ statements concerning the issues of anger adultery divorce and the swearing of oaths all of which still bear contentions in our 21st century. There are several ways we could consider Jesus’ teachings in light of the Old Testament laws and society in general. One such level would be to see Jesus as not only upholding the Torah but setting ethereal standards inherent in the laws but going beyond the civil requirements. That hyperbole can be easily seen in the law, “You shall not murder”. By extrapolation Jesus extends the judgement even to anger and insult. On the issue of divorce Jesus’ words could and in fact are, taken literally by several religious groups – promoting untenable demands and even murder in some cases. Even his stance on sin and the cutting out of an eye can and has been used by certain groups. Yet all miss the purpose and lesson portrayed in this section of the Sermon on the Mount.

A better interpretation of his words would come from the context of this section – a start of which is at verse 13, and part of what Margaret based her sermon on last week. Speculating on what it is to be “the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” What does it mean to be more righteous than the Pharisees and scribes who keep the laws, and in reality were what we would call anally retentive about them? We need to look beyond the keeping of the law to see and understand the intent of them. And thus seeing to use that understanding as the basis for keeping them. Thus law gets tempered with mercy, extenuating circumstances lead to justice and everyday interpersonal encounters brings forth righteousness.

In “Les Mis” the turning point of the law and justice comes when Jean Valjean is invited to stay the night and share a meal with the parish priest. In the middle of the night Jean Valjean steals some silverware – it will allow him to get by as he had not been able to get work. The priest, seeing in him something more noble more courageous or more speculative, tells the police that he had given the silver to Jean Valjean and that he had in fact forgotten a couple of candle sticks. Giving those to Jean Valjean he tells him to use the gain wisely and for higher cause. This cuts to the heart of our hero and he lives up to expectation. Javert on the other hand is incapable of going beyond the law. Like the Pharisee, Javert is stuck in a superficial interpretation and that leads to his demise.

Jesus in the context of instructing what it is to be righteous uses the social issues of our reading to go beyond: not to produce a sense a guilt which traditional and fundamental interpretations promote but rather to encourage an understanding of God’s intentions concerning all relationships. Thus murder becomes the starting point for seeing what leads up to such a deed. Anger insult conflict between people and among family members easily escalates. By cutting to the cause quickly and with mercy and reconciliation what might have been a schism or worse becomes a time of mending healing and joyous reunion. And every Eucharist service has the opportunity to witness and practice this at the time of the peace. When we pass the peace one to another we are practicing that behaviour which can lead to keeping the law not out of guilt but out of a profound sense of family connection.

On the issue of adultery (an issue which the past 50 years has seen much and many heated arguments) Jesus pushes his listeners to see past the law and past the treatment of women as property and sexual objects to behold women as persons and individuals with equality and that relationship need to be based on an equality of appreciation and respect. This of course leads into the Mosaic Law concerning divorce. If the aforementioned equality holds true then all those things concerning divorce need to be re-examined re-evaluated and re-defined in light of God’s will for humans: period.

Jesus’ injunction against swearing of oaths – an injunction used by many Christian sects to avoid courts, military and so on pushes the limits of human self-preservation. It was and is not about the taking of any specific oath. Rather it is about the honesty and integrity of what a person says and does. Perhaps the best example of this is what used to be called “a gentleman’s agreement”. What a person said was that person’s bond. It was a matter of truth trust integrity honour and righteousness. The legalisms and the misdirection which led to the need for oaths and sworn affidavits continues to pervade human relationship not just in society in general but even among Christians and within congregations. We hide our intentions behind flowery words of praise, we skirt issues with vague platitudes and we agree to things with hidden fingers crossed. Then we go out and do the contrary. Thus are the behaviours which lead us from righteousness, cause us to lose our saltiness and bring us to barely visible greying embers of light.

May we be ever empowered by God’s intentions to be righteous to be the salt which seasons, and to become the beacon of light to all.