Dear Working Preacher,
It may sound trite to say that I think Jesus is being radical in this week’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount — after all, isn’t Jesus always kind of radical? — but I’m going to say it anyway. Trouble is, we often miss just how radical or, maybe more, in what way he’s being radical.
Maybe I should explain. You see, I’ve most often heard two nearly opposite interpretations of this passage, each claiming that Jesus is being radical in his approach to the law. In the first reading, Jesus is being radical by urging us to take the law far more seriously than we’d ever imagined. He is, in fact, initiating a new law that both exceeds and supersedes the law of his forebears. Interpreters in this school point to the regular “You’ve heard it said…, but I say…” contrasts to make their point. While this reading takes the ethical demands of the faith seriously, however, it disastrously renders the Christian life almost entirely a matter of morality. I mean, did Jesus really have to die so that we could have the Ten Commandments on steroids?
The second line of attack goes in the opposite direction: Jesus is radically taking the law to extremes precisely to show us that we are utterly helpless to follow the law. This reading puts a decidedly theological twist not just on this passage, but indeed on the whole of the law, as suddenly the law’s chief value is not to guide the Christian life but instead to drive us to Christ for mercy. While this version underscores our dependence on God for forgiveness, it nevertheless empties the law of any significant moral content. Worse, it makes it sound like Jesus didn’t really mean what he says. I mean, do we really think Jesus — especially the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel — couldn’t give a rip about our observance of law?
Okay, so if I don’t care for either of these two readings, in what way do I think Jesus is being radical? Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t think Jesus’ main concern is with the law at all. Seriously. I think Jesus is talking about God, specifically, the kingdom of God, the kingdom that is coming and, indeed, is made manifest in his life, death, and resurrection. And whenever you’re talking about God you’re also talking about relationships. Which, of course, names the problem with the law, or at least our response to it, in the first place. You see, we think the law is about, well, being legal — you know, it’s about doing the right thing, staying in the lines, keeping your nose clean. But the law is actually concerned with relationships.
Take the Ten Commandments, for instance: the first table is about our relationship with God and the second with our relationships with each other. Understood this way, the whole law is actually a way of pointing us toward ways to honor those with whom we are in relationship. But somehow we forget that, and so get caught up in keeping the law for the law’s sake. Which is why Jesus intensifies the law — not to force us to take it more seriously or less seriously, but instead to push us to imagine what it would actually be like to live in a world where we honor each other as persons who are truly blessed and beloved of God. It’s not enough, Jesus says, to avoid murder; you also have to treat each other with respect, not letting yourself fly off the handle in anger because that, too, demeans and diminishes God’s children. (Martin Luther, by the way, does much the same thing in his explanation of the Ten Commandments. Not bearing false witness, for Luther, isn’t simply about avoiding lying, it’s also about putting the best construction on what a neighbor says and in this way tending the communal relationships that simultaneously constitute and bound our Christian life.)
There is, of course, a legal dimension to the law — it is what holds us accountable for our actions toward each other. But that is a by-product of the law, not its essential character. Law is given to guide us in the way God would have us honor, respect, and care for each other. If we want to play the legal angle of the law, we can and all-too-often do. We do so, however, at our own peril, as before long our only resort is to count, and accuse, and litigate, and punish, and before you know it we are all cutting off our hands and plucking out our eyes to avoid the weight and fate of the law. In the world of “an eye for an eye,” as Ghandi said, “all become blind.”
Law understood primarily in legal terms, you see, ends up being a moral and all-too-often self-justifying check list: No murder today; check! No adultery; check! Jesus wants more from us. Actually, Jesus wants more for us. He wants us to regard each other as God regards us and thereby to treat each other accordingly. Jesus is getting radical about the law precisely by calling us to look beyond the law it see its goal and end: the life and health of our neighbor! In this way Jesus calls us to envision life in God’s kingdom as constituted not by obeying laws but rather by holding the welfare of our neighbors close to our hearts while trusting that they are doing the same for us.
So I wonder what would it be like, Working Preacher, if we took a leaf from Jesus’ notebook and asked our members to think with us this week about what kind of community we want to inhabit. In what ways do the laws we know and observe help us not just stay out of trouble but actually care for one another? And in what ways are we tempted to honor the law — satisfying it legally — rather than honoring our neighbor? What are the laws today that we need to intensify to do justice to the kind of relationships that God calls us to as children of the kingdom? By asking and discussing these questions, we might just we spark a conversation about how the kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated might be more fully embodied in our homes, communities, and the world. Pretty radical!
Look, I know this isn’t easy. We live in a highly litigious and insecure world, where it is so much easier to accuse and blame than to dialogue, love, and support. But if it’s hard work we’ve been given, it’s also good work, kingdom work, and I thank God for your part in it.
Yours in Christ,
PS: I was simply overwhelmed by the number of comments and emails this past week testifying to what happened when you asked your people where they had been salt and light. Enough of you said something like “I don’t usually do something like this…” or “I wasn’t sure this would go over…” that I knew you were taking a risk. I wanted you to know that I admire the courage it took to try something different and that I am grateful for your ministry.