Saturday, October 23, 2010


Lecture 3: Jesus and the Law

Jesus in the Beatitudes has painted a portrait of a new kind of citizen of the Kingdom of God, indeed a new kind of citizenship.

Now, as he continues to teach in the Sermon on the Mount, he turns to compare this new citizen and citizenship with the old model. That is the model of the law-abiding citizen and the rule of law. The radical nature of Jesus’ political teaching emerges when we consider that He dares to challenge what most people in most ages consider to be the undisputed model of justice: obedience to the laws. Of course, there is the Nazi problem: what if someone obeys bad laws. Jesus does not take the easy way out by saying He is bringing a better law. Indeed He takes on the Law of Moses itself, a law which comes direct from the mouth of God and which is therefore indisputably just and worthy of obedience.

Jesus begins his teaching in chapter 5 by acknowledging the dignity of the Law of Sinai.

"Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. (verses 17-18)

By adding the phrase and the prophets, Jesus makes clear that His teaching is not only to be compared with the letter of the Law, which could perhaps be twisted into a cramped legalism. No, He has come to fulfill the prophets’ negative judgements of the Law against the kingdoms of ancient Israel and their positive visions of a restored Israel. Even these visions, to the extent they are based on law-keeping, Jesus says, will be imperfect.

Is Jesus dreaming of a kind of Marxist utopia, where the laws and the state have withered away? No, at least not immediately. Jesus notes that the Law will not pass away until all is accomplished. What does this phrase mean? Jesus does not explain it here, but we can gain insight from His great interpreter, St. Paul.

For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified. (Romans 10:4)

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet," and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

For St. Paul, Christ Himself is the end of the Law and His love is its fulfillment. But let us remember that Paul is writing from the far side of the Cross and Resurrection and coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is preparing the people for the Kingdom, but He is a realist in thinking that it can only come in after a fulfilling Act by the King Himself. Having admitted as much, He is preparing them for a kind of obedience which the world has never seen:

Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall 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. (verses 19-20)

I take the reference to these commandments to be ambiguous. Does it point backward to the Law of Moses, or forward to Jesus’ new teachings? The answer is, in a sense, both, because Jesus claims that His teaching fulfills the Law in a way which exceeds the best Judaism could offer – the careful law-keeping of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus does not consider them hypocrites because they do not try to keep the Law. He rejects them because they are sinners, and no sinner will be righteous before God.

Once again Jesus’ teaching leads us to St. Paul, who said:

So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. (Romans 7:12-14)

We shall only be able to understand Jesus’ seemingly impossible demands for perfection when we also see that he shares Paul’s premise that man is bound by sin. Jesus says later in passing, “If you being evil….” (Matthew 7:11). In other words, our problem with the law has to do with the problem of our evil heart, an area which the law can barely touch and sometimes even makes us worse, “sinful beyond all measure.”

Case Studies in the Law of Love

So Jesus is a realist in judging that the failure to obey the Law is a failure of the heart. However, He is not finished – God is not finished – with the heart. In the Beatitudes, He paints a portrait of the virtuous citizen of the coming Kingdom. In the next section (verses 21-48), he gives us five case studies comparing the functioning of the Law of Moses and the law of Love. Let us look briefly at these, beginning with murder.

"You have heard that it was said to the men of old, `You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, `You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny. (verses 21-26)

Jesus recognizes that sinful men will continually resent and hate their rivals and that this hatred will lead to murder. This chain of violence applies not only to individuals but to clans and nations, who will take up arms at some perceived offence. Jesus proposes that such angry, self-righteous people look into their own hearts and see that there is seldom a clear matter of right and wrong. If both sides begin to look at things Jesus’ way, they can find a mediated settlement that will avoid hatred and killing and lay a foundation for lasting peace.

Next he turns to sexual immorality.

"You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. "It was also said, `Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (verses 27-32)

Once again, Jesus calls those who would solve matters of sexual infidelity by resort to legal means to look within their own heart. The problem of adultery is the problem of lust. Every man (and here I mean especially males) knows this problem: looking on a woman other than one’s wife with an evil eye. Elsewhere Jesus said to a group of men: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus does not deny the reality of temptation, but He teaches that by taking up radical action against one’s own inclination – plucking out one’s eye or cutting off one’s hand – the disciple can resist the lust that leads to adultery. And in a society of citizens where marital fidelity is honoured, the need for legal divorce will be minimal.

Next He turns to oaths.

"Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, `You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply `Yes' or `No'; anything more than this comes from evil. (verses 33-37)

Today people are less likely to utter oaths, but we still resort to various means of claiming that we speak the truth. Jesus suggests that the person who needs an oath will at other times be a liar, or at least a semi-liar. Don’t you know people who would not perhaps “tell a whopper of a lie” but who regularly shade the truth? Jesus wants the Christian to be single-minded in truth-telling so that “your whole body will be full of light” (6:22).

Now we turn to what must be the most striking and difficult of Jesus’ commandments, revenge and hatred.

"You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. (verses 38-42)

"You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (verses 43-47)

The underpinning of the Law is the principle of retribution, called lex talionis: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.” The principle of retribution has two elements held in tension. The first element involves payback. If someone hurts you, the law hurts them back. Note here a civilizing element. It is the law, not you, that pays back the enemy. The second element involves proportionality: the law pays back the opponent in proportion to the offence: “Let the punishment fit the crime.” Properly framed law is just in demanding proportional payback. Indeed, it is far superior to individual vengeance, or vigilante justice, which is the alternative in primitive societies or in times of chaos.

Jesus, however, sees in this law a vicious circle, maybe not of physical violence, but of legal contentiousness. You strike me, I strike you back. You sue me, I sue you back. In the West today, we speak of the “litigious society,” where one person will take a neighbour to court at the drop of a hat. When they are not defending their clients at the bar, lawyers are drafting liability clauses to preclude such suits. A litigious society is one where people are not inclined to work out their differences amicably but rather to exact the “exact pound of flesh,” like Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

Over against this way of the Law, Jesus’ way teaches us to “turn the other cheek,” not as a gesture of submission to a wrongdoer, but as a claim to stand above him. Shame cultures depend on external marks of honour; Jesus proposes that citizens have their honour, their righteousness in the heart, where no evildoer can enter. This can apply in “criminal case” – turning the other cheek to violence or “civil cases” – giving up a coat to a false claimant.

Now let me return briefly to the communal, i.e., the political, side of Jesus’ teaching. He foresees a society of individuals who will “fulfill the Law” by internalizing its demands and by forgoing its retributions. By doing this, the new citizens show forth a higher righteousness – Jesus calls it perfection. In so doing, they also open a door to others, both righteous and unrighteous who are snared in back-and-forth ways of sin and death.

I wish I had time to apply this teaching more exactly to the problem of tribal rivalries, as they are appearing in Kenya. Let me just say that the Church must show a better way, a way that breaks the iron law of “you hurt my relatives” and “you took my land.” This will not be easy to do, especially if the Church does not have its own house in order. For us here in Uganda, the troubles in Kenya should come as a warning to commit ourselves to Jesus’ way, personally, in our families, and in our University. The season of Lent is a good time to make a new beginning.

20 February 2008

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