Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday February 13, 2011 Epiphany 6
Text: Matthew 5: (17-20) 21- 37
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Theme: Living Torah
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
Matthew’s gospel places these powerful words in the mouth of Jesus. They remind us that Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi. He was a teacher of his time and spoke to spiritual issues important to his people.
Jesus taught with a peculiar kind of authority, which not only gained him notoriety but also fueled belief in his divine nature. When Jesus taught on Torah, Jewish scripture, he taught as one who sounded more like God to his listeners than the kind of teaching they were used to hearing from God’s authorized sources like the scribes and the Pharisees and rascally preachers like myself. The truth is that Jesus’ approach to the Torah was fresh in ways that made people take notice. It was at times strong and traditional “not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law” and often innovative and surprising, “you have heard it said, but I say to you.” Jesus rarely let people off the hook from the demands of the law. It was no message of Free Love, Hooka bars and Galileean Hip Hop. Rather at times Jesus surprised people by intensifying the law, deepening the prohibition against murder to include anger and the one against adultery to include lust. Jesus thrived on raising the bar of what it meant to be righteous. His teaching served to deepen the relational field in which all of the law or Torah was to be understood.
In debating Torah, Rabbi’s rarely used the phrase, “but I say to you.” They were more likely to quote one of their favorite Rabbi’s in building an argument. But Jesus had a deep confidence in his ability to interpret Torah. He spoke from his heart, and often, it seemed like the heart of God. It made some stir with loyalty and decide to follow him, it left others in disbelief and puzzlement, and to be frank it infuriated the religious elites of the day who ultimately excluded him from the synagogue and colluded in his arrest and execution.
Jesus was a Jew and he loved the Torah. For Jews then and now, the Torah is the way of life, granted by God within a covenant of pure grace. Torah for the Jews is the incarnation of God’s love for human kind. And it is, for those who have experienced it at a depth, a beautiful and profound invitation to become holy as God is holy. The way of Torah is understood as a gift that leads to life, the paradigm for all of life. Torah was the center of identity and practice for all of Jewish life and therefore led to lively discussion. The Sadduces, The Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots and other Jewish sects including the Jesus movement, disagreed profoundly and loudly at times about how various passages should be interpreted and applied but all agreed on thing, the importance and centrality of Torah, a living word through which God still spoke to his people.
Truth be told, what Jesus had to say about the Torah was innovative and edgy going beyond and around the established Torah of God at times. Jesus said disturbingly new things about enemies, the importance of families, Sabbath observance, wealth, judgment, and radical inclusion that quite frankly set his interpretation of Torah apart. In the end the Jewish synagogues were faced with a difficult choice: stay with the Torah, the word of God given through Moses or trust that God was indeed speaking a new word through Jesus. We know how this difficult choice was made and the two sister faiths of Judaism and Christianity that were created. The majority of Jews stayed with the Torah of Moses while the followers of Jesus went on to bring the good news of God to the Gentiles in messianic form.
Now both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians had to understand what was required of them to be faithful to God in a changed context. Did Jews need to be baptized? Did Gentiles need to observe Torah? What were the minimum requirements and how did this Jewish Christianity work for the thousands of Gentiles entering the faith?
In an interesting way the New Testament writings are all attempting to answer these questions. How does this new way work? In Matthew’s answer to that question, he emphasizes a peculiarly Jewish aspect by having Jesus say that he has come not to abolish Torah but to fulfill it. Matthew strengthens his argument by pointing to Jesus’ insistence upon the practice of righteousness. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew’s gospel has a strongly Jewish tone. For one thing, the gospel writer believed that Jesus never really intended to break with Judaism. Matthew saw Jesus’ life and ministry as consistent with the way of Torah, and as a renewal of it. Far from abandoning the Torah, Jesus was encouraging his followers to become the most righteous Jews the world had ever seen.
I realize that righteousness is a real churchy word. Many of us may not be sure of what it means. Basically righteousness means goodness. It is good conduct, but also compassion, generosity, and justice. In short, righteousness is being right with God, as the psalmist says walking in God’s ways.
I love how Frederick Buechner’s definition of righteousness gets at the concept:
You haven’t got it right!” says the exasperated piano teacher. Junior is holding his hands the way he’s been told. His fingering is unexceptionable. He has memorized the piece perfectly. He has hit all the proper notes with deadly accuracy. But his heart’s not in it, only his fingers. What he’s playing is a sort of music but nothing that will start voices singing or feet tapping. He has succeeded in boring everybody to death, including himself.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) The scribes and Pharisees were playing it by the book. They didn’t slip up on a single do or don’t. But they were getting it all wrong. Righteousness is getting it all right. If you play it the way it’s supposed to be played, there shouldn’t be a still foot in the house. (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC)
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus invites his followers into the toe-tapping music of righteousness. It is not that Jesus’ followers must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees quantitatively. The difference really is meant to be qualitatively. Our obedience is to be in the Spirit of Torah as revealed in the person of Jesus. No amount of scrupulosity in following of rules will get it, you must have your heart and soul in it to get it right. To make beautiful music with God and to get the toes of people around you interested and tapping, must have your heart and soul in it. Soulless technique no matter how perfect will never do.
Like other Jewish teachers of his time, Jesus applied the interpretive principle of “light and heavy” to the biblical commands. For Jesus the weightier matters of the law were justice, mercy and faith. When obeying a light law got in the way of obeying a heavy law, then the light law needed to yield to the heavy so that God’ will might be fulfilled. For example which was heavier, ritual cleanliness or open table fellowship? For Jesus it was, open table fellowship hands down. Which was heavier, Sabbath observance or healing? Healing of course. Which was heavier avoiding the unclean or welcoming the strange? Welcoming the stranger.
And of course this is what Matthew meant by writing that Jesus did not come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill them. Jesus fulfilled the law and prophets not by slavishly doing everything written on the page or trying to follow every little rule just right. Jesus brought Torah to life. The way he lived pointed to God and his living made people realize that he was God’s beloved. Jesus did not just recite Torah or interpret Torah. He was Torah. He fulfilled Torah in his personhood before God. In his words and deeds he was the incarnation of Torah, the living justice and mercy and love of God in the flesh. And what is more he promised those who followed him that they too could and would fulfill Torah. (Taylor, Seeds of Heaven)
Perhaps you are sitting in this Christian church thinking “Is this priest crazy?Are you are really challenging us to be living Torah just as Jesus was.” Well, yes! There is a crazy lie in our bulletin each and every week. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it. We list our readings separately as Old Testament and New Testament. For nearly 2,000 years we’ve separated out our scriptures Old and New as if one had really replaced the other or one is obsolete and the other new and improved. I once had a seminary professor who insisted in class, and this was quite difficult, that we refer to these parts of the sacred scriptures as the Older and the Newer Testaments to help us see that they are in fact of a piece, they are intimately connected. The newer testament is rooted in the gracious gift of the Torah, or older testament. We would never have the newer testament without the older testament. For Jesus our teacher and savior this was simply the truth. His life was a living out of the only scripture he had available and that was the Torah, which many came to understand as pointing to him as the living example of Torah itself.
Jesus by his life and example taught his followers that there would be time when fulfillment of Torah would move people dangerously beyond the Torah on the page. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “There would be times when the deepest possible obedience to God would look like disobedience to the keepers of the traditions of the elders, and that no amount of arguing would settle the dispute about which commands were weighty and which were light.” We in the Episcopal Church can certainly understand this idea as we struggle for the full inclusion of women and our GLBT brothers and sisters in the church and in our society over the past decades. We have been arguing over which is heavy and which is light for years.
When we live Torah off-the-page, the Torah revealed by the Spirit of Christ speaking within us, it is often the source of our deepest conflicts in the church. Jesus’ way of looking deep within Torah for its life-giving source has at times been the fuel for conflict as Christians continue to try to live faithfully in a world that is so changed and changing. It is never easy or comfortable to challenge the traditions of the elders, to questions the established institution, or to insist that there is a more excellent way if only we could see the numinous depth of Torah. However, that is what we are sometimes called to do. We are not to abolish the way but to deepen the way, to fulfill it by living Torah, by living compassion, living justice, and living love in the midst of a culture that has lost its sense of values, lost its moral strength. It is the living Torah of Jesus that continues to animate each of us who call ourselves Christians because we have decided to follow the dangerous and life-giving way of living Torah ourselves.
When I think of the many difficult decisions going on in our country and state legislatures across the country, I am reminded of our need for living Torah. The biblical prophets, the Torah prophets make clear that a nation’s righteousness is ultimately determined not by its GNP or military might, or our military budgets, -- but by how it treats its most vulnerable people. Jesus says our love for him will be demonstrated by how we treat the “least of these.” There is a deep need for the living Torah of Jesus today.
Despite our separation from our Jewish brothers and sisters long ago in the faith, we do share something very powerful in common, our call to deep righteousness. In the best of both of our traditions righteousness has never been a matter of slavishly following the rules, but rather of honoring relationships with family as well as immigrants or strangers, enemies as well as allies, insiders as well as outsiders. The Torah of Moses and the torah of Jesus both agree on these key things. When we serve our neighbors – gay, straight, documented, undocumented, educated, or everyday, hearing or deaf, rich or poor, when we love them as ourselves we are fulfilling the law and the prophets, we are living the gospel of Christ, and we like Jesus are living Torah. Amen
I wish to acknowledge my deep debt to the writing of Barabar Brown Taylor on the subject of the torah of Jesus in her sermon “Exceeding Righteousness” in her book The Seeds of Heaven which I have quoted from and been inspired by. I am also grateful for Frederick Beuchner’s help in understanding the concept of righteousness in his book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. The concept of quantitative vs qualitative righteousness is from the commentary writing of Douglas R.A. Hare. in the Interpretations series commentary by Westminster/ John Knox Richard B. Hays.