Fulfilling the Law

Week of Sunday February 6
Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Isaiah 58, the Old Testament lectionary for this week,  shines a light on this week’s Gospel from Matthew.

Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.

9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

In the drama of this chapeter, God scorns those who complain their piety is ignored:

‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’

ask the people.  And God says,

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.

For we Christians, who have just read the beginnings of the “giving of the law” by Matthew’s new Moses, something is being made clear:  Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. (5:18) However it is that we read Matthew, (and indeed, however it is we read Paul on Grace,) he is not abandoning the Law. Jesus has come to fulfil the law.

Our being right with God, our piety, our relationship with God, must “exceed” that of the scribes and the Pharisees. (5:20) In Matthew’s mind, the Pharisees are those who kept the rules thoroughly, tithing even dill and cumin, but

neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others.” (23:23)

In many respects Matthew is very unfair on the Pharisees, whose commitment to their faith often puts us to shame. In some cases they were deeply spiritual people simply “on the wrong side” of the argument between Christians and Jews. But in Matthew’s view of the world, the spiritless piety of some other Pharisees exemplified what can go wrong with religion.  There is no right relationship with God without “justice and mercy and faith.”

In the same way, Matthew is biased, in the extreme, against the scribes. They too were enemies of the new Christians. Scribes sometimes “scribed”; that is they copied manuscripts, and with a quality control that probably exceeded much cut’n’paste of modern times. However, scribes were primarily lawyers. They were the ones who studied the minutiae of the law, and interpreted it, and made it accessible to the community at large. Despite Matthew’s criticism, they were vital to the survival of Israel. Without the scribes there would have been no Jesus.

Lohse tells the story Rabbi Me’ir who visited a Jewish community. He found they had no copy of the scroll of Esther, so he wrote them a copy from memory. It is this sort of commitment which preserves our tradition. (Eduard Lohse The New Testament Environment SCM 1976, pp118)

Jesus was called Rabbi, the way you addressed a scribe, by his peers.  But there is something more than knowledge of the law.  The teaching of the Law “with authority” (7:28) so characteristic of Jesus, came from something exceeding mere knowledge or cultic piety. It came from “justice and mercy and faith.” Jesus fulfilled what a Rabbi should be.

It is obvious (we see it happening, and we do it ourselves) that Christians are just as capable of being Scribes and Pharisees, in the Matthean sense, as any of those against whom Jesus preached.  Matthew is not merely attacking the opposition; he is making  the same observation about his own community.

Last week we read about the person who is a follower of Jesus, and who will enter the kingdom of heaven. They are not a keeper of rules, but a particular kind of person.  This makes them “salt.” It makes them a light on a hill, and light to the world. In our urban society, cocooned in heated cars, we rarely experience being on foot out in darkness in a life threatening storm, and discovering the blessing of the lights of a city on a hill. This is the blessing we are meant to be.

But Matthew is too aware that although a city on a hill cannot be hid, we do put a bushel basket over the truth we have been given. We do not live righteously.

So this week, he uses the image of our light to the world, our signal being, as a literary link to the sad example of light which has gone out, or at best been hidden. He contrasts righteous light with a spirit buried under words of law, and bound up in argument and hair splitting. Let us read “scribes and Pharisees” not as people, but as a way of life where the light really has been hidden under a basket.   Paul understood this as he began to teach grace.  Peter understood this as he began to eat with Cornelius’ family (Acts 10 et al) The Law, as Matthew and Jesus write it here, is not the lists of rules and commandments, or the developed tradition of tithes and washings.  The Law is lived law as in Isaiah 58: sharing our bread with the hungry,  and bringing the homeless poor into our house.

Law is the discovery of a new spirit, and then living it.

I finish with a confession which, perhaps, will illustrate what I am trying to say.

An organisation has hired a couple of rooms in the warren at the back of our church. A few Mondays ago, I arrived well before business hours, to find the front door of the church office complex propped open to the city street, and not a soul in sight. This  is not a smart thing to do.

The hall was full of homeless people having breakfast. It smelled "interesting." For some reason, my office also was unlocked and open, with thousands of dollars worth of computer gear, and private parish information on the desk for the world to peruse, or steal. It was suddenly being used to store some of their gear! I was pissed off. There is no other way to describe it.

In the freshly cleaned toilets someone had left two neat boot prints on the toilet seat, facing the wall.

I could not see how you could stand on the seat in the way these boot prints indicated someone had been standing and, shall we say, do anything useful. The little puzzle went round in my head. The potential for scatological humour and a good story helped me, a little, to dampen my annoyance and what I knew to be my lack of charity.

Later, the penny dropped.  There is an air-conditioning duct that runs across the toilet ceiling, and if you stand on the seat, you can just reach the a grate in the duct. What a delight for a homeless person; a place, safe as a church,  to store your cash stash!  And how very sad. What an indictment on our society, that our toilet can be good news.

Something in me relaxed with that discovery.  I had all the law and the knowledge. I knew what the young people were providing these odd street people in breakfast and compassion was absolutely admirable. I knew it was being provided with a fellowship and friendship that I could not match. And yet I was angry, intruded upon, inconvenienced, and had lost all compassion, despite my knowledge and learning.

Until I let a little humour and compassion unlock my heart, my righteousness is less than that of the Scribes and the Pharisees.

Andrew Prior Feb 2011

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



This functionality requires the FormBuilder module