Last week it was easy. It was about Jesus telling us that we are the salt of the earth and that we are the light of the world. Last week the message that came from Jesus hinted at bringing flavor to the world; as creatures of light we Illuminate the darkness with the radiance of glory and love of God.
But today we are confronted with the moral life. With the commandments. There are the commandments of old given by Moses, who in the Book of Deuteronomy stands at the gateway to the Promised Land and gives the people: If you obey the commandments of God by loving the Lord your God and walking in his ways and observing his commandments, God will bless you. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear and are led astray to bow down to other gods, you shall perish. “Choose life, so that your descendants may live” he says, “loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding on to his teachings. The book of wisdom called Sirach which is in the apocrypha also says if you choose, you can keep the commandments; before each person is life and death.
And that would be enough for us to go on about our business to think that commandments are simply rules we have to follow and we can evaluate our righness or wrongness of a choice or action. The Big Ten is a good example- Thou shall not bear false witness is a general rule against telling deliberate untruths.
But another way of looking at commandments is to see it as a guide to the formation of our moral character. In otherwords its not just about following a rule for the sake of following it, but rather, through repeated attempts to follow the rule in the face of changing circumstances, we become people who are disposed to do the right thing.
Our gospel lesson for today comes from a section of the Sermon on that Mount that traditionally has been called “Anti-theses,” because Jesus’ teaching is presented in the following pattern: First, Jesus says, “you have heard that it was said ”; then Jesus follows with his own magisterial statement, “but I say to you”. The problem with calling these teachings “Antitheses” is that it suggests that Jesus is contradicting the earlier statement. But this is not so. Rather, what Jesus does with each one of these is take it to the next level. What he says goes beyond commandment itself and the typical understanding of it. When Jesus offers us these commandments, they are not just rules to be followed but that in following them, we are formed and shaped as disciples fit for the Kingdom.
“You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”
Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against murder, he is intensifying it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to kill, we can still hate and despise others. We can still kill relationships, still treat people as if they were dead to us. To fulfill this commandment is to form our hearts and minds so that we look at others not with anger, but rather with love. The greater gift is to love others as we would have them love us, even when they are our enemies. The commandment is given not just so that we won’t kill each other, but so that we will be the type of people who will seek out someone who has wronged us and work to be reconciled with them.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Again, Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against committing adultery, he is intensifying it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to commit adultery, we can still demean and belittle others. Treating others as objects takes what doesn’t belong to us, even if it keeps its distance. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to commit adultery is a faithful heart that cherishes our spouses and respects our neighbors.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 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 your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’”
Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against swearing falsely, he is intensifying it. Jesus knows that even if we can keep from swearing falsely, we can still manipulate others with our words and lead them astray with our tongues. We can make frivolous oaths in the name of heaven and belittle God’s holy name. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the law is not just to refrain from swearing falsely, but that our words ought to be so reliable and honest that no oaths need to be taken. The greater righteousness is to let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” The commandment is given so that we can be people of integrity.
Becoming grace filled people does not happen in a moment. When we are baptized, it doesn’t mean that at the moment the water hits our head we are “zapped” and all is well with us on our walk with Christ. We hear the words of Jesus who said, “Come follow me and I will make you fish for people…” that was the invitation. These commandments from Jesus is him teaching us how we ought to go about fishing. Jesus came not to abolish he law but to fulfill it. Jesus came to call and form disciples in a community that is devoted to a higher purpose.
We follow the commandments not simply because they are rules; we follow the commandments so that we might become the type of people Christ wants us to be, people formed and fashioned for life in the kingdom of God.
God gave the commandments not so that we would become moral rule keepers; rather, God gave us the commandments as guides and exhortations for the formation of our character so that we might become people who are pure in heart, so that we might love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, and that we might love our neighbor as ourselves.
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.