Monday, February 6, 2017

Law and Righteousness!




OUR BIBLE lesson for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany is read from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Following the theme established by Jesus in last week’s study, we find our Lord here explains how we are called to go farther than unbelievers in our attempts to adhere to the Law. This is to occur because we are founded in sure acceptance by the Gospel message.

"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. 
 "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. 
 "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.
                                                                                            (Matthew 5:21-37)

Radicalizing Law
With the present debate over granting immigration to persons foreign to the United States, and the tension between the security of our neighbors as weighed against right welcome for the stranger, we need to ask where the Christian church should stand? Jesus told his disciples, as recalled by Matthew, how we are to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
 As we know historically, Jesus had a running debate with participants from the religious powers of his day. During those confrontations, as Matthew related, Jesus took the interpretation of the Mosaic Law to a farther realm… into the soulful convictions that drive a person. In our reading, therefore, we have comparisons made between outward demonstrations of righteousness and our inward motivations.
 According to Matthew’s telling, Jesus indicated in the Sermon on the Mount that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was thought of as strictly outward. He accused that they made shallow ceremonial gestures for show. He followed that true Righteousness in the kingdom of God goes far deeper. His followers are thus called to strive to accomplish such.
 For example, we first note that our Lord took the mandate against murder found in Exodus 20:13, and radicalized this Law for his followers. He taught that the spirit behind the act of murder is based in selfishness and anger… and not love. Therefore, "raca" (shame) on us, is spoken as a word of contempt… fittingly used against a brother suffering condemnation.
 Also, Jesus taught that shouting "thou fool" to another person would subject the guilty one voicing the epithet to "hell fire". It was considered better to be blind, than to be guilty of this type of contempt. When guilty of such, a person was consigned to walk in Sheol or Gehena (hell), and hell was the place best described by the physical valley of Hinnom, wherein human sacrifices were formerly offered. That place was considered to be identical with the hellish “the lake of fire.” These radical references therefore show us God's expression of punishment for our sin, and are presented for us so that we may intensify our thanksgiving for the salvation we now have in Christ.
 Selfishness and anger are thus found as the unjust motivations behind murderous killing, so our Lord admonished his community to move beyond condemnation of the act itself to the very thought and emotion that spurs the deed. As God’s people, we are called toward our internal releasing of whatever murderous cause…. i.e. “Let it go!” This soulful release enables life and love to be freely given both to us and from us.
 As we read in the letters of John.…

“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Any one who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
 By this we know love, in that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”  (1 John 3:14-16)

 Subsequently, the reading in Matthew moved his community along in their hearing about the radicalization of the Law. Jesus had taken his followers beyond highlighting the outward killing, to our noting of the inward wanting ill upon another… even if just in the spirit. Jesus expressed that Christians are to let go of this motivation. We are to stand against murder in both behavior and attitude for all stages of human life… from its embryonic beginning… and onward until the natural end of our lives. We are to “love our neighbor as ourselves” and we are to warily consider this mandate whenever we choose to end the life of an unborn child, a military opponent, or enable death to overtake a terminally ill patient or person of advanced age.
 However, we note with certainty that these radicalizations are only possible whenever sinful persons are forgiven and enabled by the Spirit of Christ. Only when we are in this Holy Spirit can we let go of that which is keeping the anger or fear in place without the growth of bitterness. Thus we as Christians were called by Matthew to be anchored only in Christ Jesus, and subsequently empowered by that stability. This is to be so in our lives whether the stumbling block is deemed as powerful as a false earthly king... or as lowly as an unwanted pregnancy.
 Today we can ask why this dialog was so highly developed for Matthew’s community, yet omitted for the churches of Mark or Luke? Were the meanings of scribal and Pharisaic legalisms much more highly pursued in Antioch… so that they became a pronounced issue for the early church? As well, we ask whether the traditions stemming from the Law blocked the path of Righteousness more so in that devout community? We can see where righteousness (“sedekah” in Hebrew) was shown in the Law and the prophetical writings, but it was a quality that was not naturally attainable by sinful humanity. This perfection could only be acquired through the gift from the “Righteous One”. Continued reading in Matthew would reveal the historic identity of that singular person.
 Certainly, we might wonder whether the synagogue community, as long-lived historically... was pressured greatly by their pride, so to adhere tightly to historical legal traditions and arguments. We then also ask why blessed Matthew included not only those things which were earlier written in Mark, but also supplied the tenets from the “Q” (quelle’) document. Surely this was not just filler articles which were written in the gospel about the life of our Lord. My thought is that this section was indeed paramount for Matthew’s church.
 The issue was important not only for the faithful keepers of the Law, but also for those who would too easily toss it aside. We may rightly wonder whether there were persons in the break-away Christian community who were not upset over tossing the Law aside. We may further ask whether these may have possessed a mindset that would too easily declare that they were “free” in Christ from the Law. If so, they may have claimed that Christian salvation permitted them to continue all sorts of debauchery and offense. Looking at our modern church and society and their relaxation of moral requirements for clergy and laity alike… and our persisting controversy over Christian “freedom” or “bondage” that  has persisted since the Reformation era… it seems likely that this is true. The dichotomy persists for the church to this very day.
 With a radical voice, Jesus addressed the issue of adultery as found in the Law (Exodus 20:14). Our Lord voiced condemnation for Christians so that even a lustful look was considered as adultery “in the heart”. What followed is thus considered as a “hard” saying. Jesus so radicalized the Law and its inescapable condemnation of sin, that he stated just how far it was considered necessary to go… for prevention of marital betrayal. He stressed the point… so that even the gouging of eyes and severing of limbs were preferable alternatives considered.
 Was our Lord serious here with that drastic statement? While many scholars believe that this is a figure of speech and is not to be taken literally, I see the saying as the expressed seriousness that Jesus placed on marital infidelity…. for both men and women! He provided that the sole ground acceptable for divorce as that of “unchastity.” In this he echoed the accepted legal opinion of such as his contemporary rabbinic lawyer, Shammai. However, the emphasis that Jesus placed on this issue for Christians… is that we are to live beyond mere legalisms, let alone the condemnations laid upon a society which largely ignored women’s rights... even while the contemporary male counterpart was rampantly unchaste.
 This radical teaching revealed that our Lord taught us that Christians are to recover the loving intent of marriage. According to Jesus, marriage is to be an enduring human relationship established by God as a permanent foundation for family security (see Matthew 19:3-8). Our Lord firmly condemned divorce… whether initiated for reasons of incompatibility, inconvenience, or abuse… as proof of “hardness of heart”. In today’s frivolous culture where divorce statistics soar, we need to clearly hear this Word of God. We need to recover the permanent, loving intent of our Creator by begging forgiveness and asking for spiritual empowerment in marriages.
 Jesus’ discourse then continues in Matthew with his command against swearing. First, let me clarify that there is no reason for us to consider that a solemn oath made in a court of justice, or on other proper occasions, are forbidden to us. This is provided they are taken with due reverence. I offer that the comments Jesus made do not forbid this legal use, but rather raise issues against profanity…, including expletives found common in our everyday speech. Jesus spoke more to a person’s character, in that our word as Christians should always be beyond even a hint of reproach. The words that we speak beyond “yes” or “no” are to be strictly put forth in the Truth… and Christ Jesus is Truth personified. All profanity and falsehoods are to be far from our lips.

Go the Distance!
 In all of this, we see that waging war with sinful desires of the heart need be attended to... with even pain-filled and constant exertions. This effort should be done by us in loving Christian witness. This is true in all matters. We are called to give until it hurts and then give some more! Jesus taught and endured great pain to save us from our sins, not anchor us in them.
 Indeed, all of our senses, powers and prayers must be heightened in order to keep us from those things which lead to our alienation from God. Those who commit transgressions and lead others into temptation to sin in any sense… and then attempting to justify themselves saying that they are free in the gospel… only make themselves guilty of greater offense. They will be held accountable!
 If painful separation occurs from our leaving behind sinful activities, so that our lives are improved… should not that pain be measured as miniscule when the free salvation of our souls has already been greatly awarded? We must conclude that Jesus did not toss aside the Law; he intensified it! Though innocent of wrongdoing, he took our excruciatingly punishment on the cross and delivered us from eternal captivity.
 Today we still individually and collectively fall short of keeping the commandments, let alone the radicalizations of them. No Pharisaic wrangling known will usher us beyond that condemnation. Yet, thanks be to God working through his Spirit, that there is mercy within the radical requirements of the Law. Only through Christ crucified and the Spirit given, can we achieve these as the right loving of God and one another.
  This needs to be stated repeatedly to those with legal mind. The knowledge of grace was and is still needful… and is provided through faith given to us by the Holy Spirit; for we are saved by the grace of God through faith and not by our keeping of the Law. According to scripture, instead of eternal death under the Law, we are saved by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Jesus paid the penalty for sinful legal squabble, sidestepping and ignoring of these commandments. He gave up his life, completing his work, and after three days was lovingly raised from the dead by the Father.
 Believing this in faith through the power of the Holy Spirit and working through scripture, we join with the early Christians of Matthew’s churches. We too are called then to declare redemption in spoken or written form. This message is made possible for the scattered peoples cowering before eternal judgment. Let us take a knee, receive these teachings and consolations that enable us to go forward proclaiming the kingdom of God.
 Know this! The kept and radicalized Law exists to convict us and drive us to seek salvation in Christ Jesus. and is useful for the guidance of civilizations around us. Take heed that even while we live in a world where murder and abortions occur, divorces are granted... and Christian persecutions occur in this and other lands around the globe... we are still called to try and possibly fail. If so, in Christ we are free to try again.  We, who are the condemned driven by the Law, and chosen as saved by grace through faith in Christ, need to give ourselves unto the clear declaration of the Word of salvation. Thanks be to God.

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May the Peace of God that surpasses all human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen



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