Don't break the Law

Ecclesiasticus 15:16-21; 1 Corinthians 2.6-10; Matthew 5:17-37

There are, I believe, people who have taken literally the command of Jesus to cut off a part of their body that leads them to sin. There are people who hope to enter the kingdom of heaven, but with a little bit missing. I won’t ask what part of your body leads you most into sin, what bit you might need to lose to ensure a better chance of getting into heaven:  a hand or an eye? Or might it perhaps be the tongue, ‘a world of evil among the parts of the body’ says St James, ‘that corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of life on fire.’  

Those who interpret the Bible literally, who say all words of Jesus are to be obeyed, must shudder at the thought of keeping this commandment. But this is hyperbole, an extreme example to get across a point. I can imagine Jesus laughing as he said this and watched his hearers recoil in horror.Jesus is telling them to do whatever it takes to resist temptation and prevent sin.  Though the remedy is absurdly extreme, Jesus’ point is deadly serious, do whatever it takes to avoid sin.

If you are tempted to gamble excessively, stay away from betting shops and racecourses. If you have problems with alcohol, keep out of the off-licence. And as the doctor said to the man who told him he had broken his arm in two places, ‘stay out of those places’.  

The sermon on the mount is  practical advice. Jesus is not just telling us what to do but showing us how to do it. The Law was there to be kept, but the observant Jew needed help to make sure he was not breaking it. The pharisees and the scribes were supposed to make life easier, but in fact made the Law more onerous and harder to keep, by piling on further regulations. Their virtue was shallow because they only kept the law superficially, there was no love behind what they were doing.  Love is at the heart of it: the Law should be kept out of love for God and love for your fellow people.

In contrast Jesus purifies the Law, he simplifies it, by getting back to the spirit of it he shows how it may be kept. Thus he says he has come to fulfil the Law, he is the living embodiment of the Law, if we want to know how to keep it, we look to Jesus, the hidden wisdom of God revealed, as St Paul says

The writer Ben Sirach, the author of Ecclesiasticus, wrote to school young men in keeping the Law, and he reminds them that a choice is repeatedly put before them, to keep the law or to break it. It is within our power to keep God’s Law but we have to want to do so.

The Law is dead if it is only kept out of fear of punishment. The Law is alive when we understand the reason behind the injunction. The Jewish Law was given to correct real problems. The food laws, for example were given to prevent the risk of food poisoning through eating unsafe foods in a hot climate. Much of the Law is intended to preserve community and to protect the weak.

This was the motive behind the law on divorce. Jewish people can get divorced.  there is no vow to keep together ‘til death us do part’. The most important purpose of marriage was the procreation of children, the carrying on of the Jewish line. Moses had obliged the Jewish husband to give his wife a certificate showing she was free to marry again, to offer her some protection. This had been abused by the Pharisees who issued these certificates liberally, allowing women to be cast off summarily. Why does Jesus appear to come down so hard on divorce, when it was permitted in the law of Moses? Can it be that Jesus again comes down with hyperbole to shock the hearer into thinking that casting off a wife so easily, lays another man open to the charge of adultery? Rather than contradict Moses, Jesus surely looks to the spirit of the Law: it is the abuse of divorce that constitutes the sin.

The gospel is there to be read and pondered with an intelligent mind and a desire to understand ourselves better through Jesus’ teaching.  What are my sins and how can I avoid them?  Jesus tells us that if we approach the altar and remember that someone has something against us we must get that sorted. If this matter is not sorted the other may be led into sin, through anger. Making up the quarrel is an act of generosity, given to prevent the other falling into sin. How quickly can a volatile situation be diffused by asking if you have caused offence and apologizing, regardless of whether you are to blame.  

Better to enter heaven with a little dent to our pride than to go to the other place with our pride intact.