The Final Achievement of The Law: Transformative Life-Giving Grace
Sermon given by Dr Christopher Seitz at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Dallas from the Sermon on the Mount
Matthew 5:17-37 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20
You may know the joke about God giving the commandments from Mt. Sinai. First he offers them to the Canaanites. They look them over and say, “actually, adultery is one of our favorite activities, no thanks.” So he goes next to the Hittites, and they say, “no thanks, you know stealing is one of our main occupations.” At last he comes to the children of Israel and says “I’ve got some commandments.” “Are they free?” they ask. “Yes,” God says. “Great, we’ll take ten.”
It’s a good joke but it also has some deeper truth inside it. God gave Israel the commandments freely and out of love. Israel received them as a gift, like a ring on a solemn wedding day. Binding Israel and God together. Indicating love and limit, compassion and constraint, both.
The ”˜until death do us part’ character of the law Jesus underscores today. Michael thought we ought to hear it twice, this Sunday and last, and I agree. Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, not one comma or dot over the ”˜I’, will pass away. God gave the law. Jesus is its embodied guarantor, its best man, now standing before you and me who were not Israel but were always where God was headed through them, to us here this Sunday, February 16, at Good Shepherd, Dallas. Straight into that place inside of us where we decide, and choose, where we love and hate, where we envy and brood and plan and worry and hope.
God did not give Israel ten laws only but in fact more than 600. 613 to be specific. Jesus picks out 6 of them to make a point in the Sermon on the Mount, and four of the six he refers to today. Two are familiar from the top ten list Israel freely received. Thou shalt do no murder. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Two others are less so. A certificate of divorce you shall write (from Deuteronomy 24). And this is how vows are made (from Leviticus and Numbers).
Why does Jesus revisit these laws and insist our righteousness must exceed that of the legal experts of the day?….
Michael has reminded us of the context. Jesus is setting apart a people for himself just as God did secretly through him at Mt. Sinai in days of old. He has us climb a mountain and listen to him as did Israel with Moses of old. He begins this solemn discourse””covering 3 chapters of Matthew’s Gospel””with the beatitudes. God’s kingdom is for those who mourn, who long, who hurt, who suffer indignity. In other words, those of us who come in need. Not legal experts who know a lot but don’t know what it means to come to the end of themselves.
A church father once said, “I have listened to all the wise philosophers and poets and from them I learned much. But not one of them ever said, come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” This is the new law-giver offering us new life, a start-over, new kind of life.
A quest for higher righteousness, you might well think, does not seem restful, but sounds like hard work. So here the question properly arises, what is hard about it? What makes it hard?
The answer is found in the contrasts Jesus makes. The old law regulated murder. That lets most of us here off the hook, and thank God for that. But God sees into the deeper places, the hateful triggers that fester and if unchecked could go, and do go for some, all the way to taking life. Murder is the final place where hate and ”˜you fool’ started. Adultery is the final step for a heart that lusts and prefers the other woman over the one solemnly chosen. The law was given so that we might be exposed before God and a new life in him given, as was Israel of old released from bondage in Egypt and given a fresh start. That reality, that law of new life, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will ever pass away. It belongs to God’s deepest purpose for us.
Divorce and vow-making are realities that already assume something is broken or threatens to be. But God never so intended it. Our Yes should be our Yes, and our No our No. So what is it that has gone wrong in us that it is not simply so? How can we find the higher righteousness that Jesus insists is to be ours in him? He is raising the stakes by turning on a searchlight that shows us all in need of some higher remedy and saying that is what God was doing at Mt Sinai and today, this morning, here and now.
The Law is not a set of 613 rules to obey, for which we get a grade depending on how many we get right, but a searching out of us at our deepest parts where we live and wrestle to follow God and find life in him.
The story is told about the man driving through rural West Virginia. Every barn he sees has a shooting target on its side; the dead middle, the bull’s eye, has been hit solidly and the rest untouched. He saw a farmer, stopped, and remarked at what good marksmen the men of the area must be. He said, “that’s easy, we shoot first and draw the target afterwards.”
The lower righteousness, the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is something like this. It consists of congratulating ourselves that we have hit the target because a lot of God’s laws we know we faithfully follow and so take our reassurance that we are getting a good deal right in the end. On balance, we are trying hard or intend to shortly. But the not one letter, not one stroke of a letter that will not pass away is the law’s intention to give us life, not give us a way to justify ourselves. That is not the life Christ died to give us with God.
In the portion of scripture from Deuteronomy chosen for today, Israel is called to choose life. Yet if we read on, into the chapters that follow, we learn that the law of God asks us to choose life but also foresees that we will fail at that.
The thing that is hard about the higher righteousness is that we cannot actually choose it or will it. It must be given to us by the law-giver himself. And that path of that gift runs straight to the cross of Christ and another mountain called Calvary. In the Sermon on the Mount Christ takes his Cross inside the deepest places of our individual lives before him. We do in fact hate, and speak improperly, and judge, and lust in our heart, and make complex plans and vows when a simple Yes or No ought to do. This is who we are. This is what the scribe and Pharisee believe we can target and through hard work succeed at eliminating. But that is what makes their righteousness incomplete. It is shooting first and drawing the target after.
The righteousness that is higher is in fact too high for us in our flesh. Jesus will have to carve it out for us, and give it to us. And so he does. He will choose the hard and higher righteousness. He takes upon himself all that the law requires, and that we have failed at and will fail at. Nothing will be lessened or lowered. All that the law saw in us, he sees in us, and takes upon himself for us. And in turn he clothes us in his righteousness and makes us right in him. He hits the target at the dead middle, and gives us access to a life where we might follow in his victory.
It is here that the words of our collect for today strike home.
Mercifully accept our prayers, and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, clothe us in your higher righteousness, so that walking in your way we might keep your commandments and please you in will and in deed. And when we fail, teach us to return to you alone, the giver of all life that never fades away. Let us find in you a fresh start and a fresh hope and the life of your higher righteousness.
This isn’t just a nice piety we use to paper over our shortcomings, but one that takes seriously how deep the problem is that Christ has come to address in us, and how successfully and permanently he has done just that. We have the law’s obedient keeper as our Lord and giver of life. In him we are exposed and loved and set on a new path as new born children all at the same time. We are given the new clothes of his righteousness to put on. The old ones of the old Adam are to be put away, set on the curb. As we in turn receive his transforming, higher-righteousness, life-giving grace. That is the final accomplishment Jesus speaks of today as the law’s abiding purpose. For you and for me.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Christopher Seitz serves as Canon Theologian in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas and is senior research professor of biblical interpretation at Toronto School of Theology, Wycliffe College