How to Break the Law
I have spent the bulk of my life studying the Bible:
from Sunday School before I could even read,
to weekly small groups,
to college courses,
to Masters and Ph.D. level courses in languages and history—
I have had the opportunity to sit at the feet of some genuine sages in churches and in classrooms in order to absorb some of their lifelong learning.
I don’t say all this to claim myself an expert—most of the time I feel I have barely made a beginning. But I believe I have committed considerable time and resources, and that God has opened doors of learning and experience that simply are not available to the average person.
Whenever I have had the opportunity, I have tailored this study to answering the fundamental question of how we came to have the Bible we have. You see, I have come to believe that virtually every conflict among Christians throughout history comes down to the questions of what we mean by biblical authority and biblical inspiration. How we answer those questions affects how we read the Bible, what we get out of it, how we understand God and salvation, and how we engage each other and the world. In other words, what we understand about the Bible affects every single dimension of life and faith.
Jesus (I find) poses a particular problem for us, most acutely for those of us who strive to be honest readers. I stress honesty here because our inclination as human beings is to hold to easy answers, even if they are not true.
This morning, however, I do not want to spend our time trying to refute these “easy answers.” Instead, let me show you why Jesus poses a problem for us.
Our scripture lesson comes from Matthew 5, from the beginning of the longest single section of Jesus’ teachings anywhere in the Bible. We call it the Sermon on the Mount, because (predictably) it’s a long section of teaching delivered on (you guessed it) a mountainside. This three-chapter-long sermon provides some of the most basic, easy-to-understand instruction on how to live as a follower of Jesus Christ. It should be regularly read by all of us.
Here, near the very beginning, Jesus (I believe) understands the reality that I described a moment ago—that without being on the same page about what the Bible is and how to read it, his disciples will become divided and that will undermine the Gospel—the good news of God’s love. And so Jesus works to address all this by showing us once and for all how Jesus reads the Bible, teaching us to read it in the same way.
By providing some “case studies,” Jesus shows us that his way of reading and interpreting the Bible is to focus not on its words or its literal meaning but on its heart. Instead of the slavery of legalism that comes from literalism, Jesus frees us to consider and know God’s heart.
Here’s some examples from just beyond our reading in Matthew 5:
Verses 21 and following reflect on the instructions in Exodus and Deuteronomy to not commit murder. A good rule, right? Any murderers here today?—(no one ever puts their hand up for that one)—But Jesus says that we are all murderers—any of us who have ever called someone a name or otherwise used our words to wound. How we speak of one another and to one another can do as much harm to them as if we physically killed them—and Jesus reminds us that there are terrible consequences for us as well. When God issued the command “You will not murder,” God’s intent was that we see each other as valuable and worth protecting—that we would value the life and person of the other. The heart of this law is that we refrain from acting or speaking in a way that brings harm to others.
As another case study, Jesus again quotes Bible verses from Exodus and Deuteronomy, this time the instruction not to commit adultery (this starts in verse 27 if you’re following along). But once again, Jesus is far from a literalist. He thinks there are many more adulterers than there are people who have had relations outside marriage. The reason? If we lust after another person—if we mentally transform them from a person who is loved by God to an object to be obtained/possessed/conquered/or whatever (even if we never act on it)—we are just as guilty. Once again, we have objectified and dehumanized people created in God’s own image, and, for the harm we do to them and to us, it would be better for our eyes to be plucked out or our hands to be cut off. Jesus invites us to see the heart—the intention—behind the words on the page……words which (in this case) again urge us to value other human beings as much as we value our own life.
Jesus gives a few more examples for us to explore, but I think you get the point. On account of these passages alone, you cannot claim that Jesus was a biblical literalist. In fact, it’s clear from his conflicts with the Pharisees (who were literalists) that Jesus believes the literalists have missed the boat entirely.
Abolish vs. Fulfill
But here’s where some of us still miss the boat: Jesus’ radical reinterpretation of the Law leads us to believe that the Old Testament is no longer relevant or applicable to the Christian life. But this too is misguided and not consistent with Jesus’ own words.
Here in our scripture lesson, Jesus insists that he has “not come to abolish [scripture] but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). He continues:
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:18)
You see, Jesus does not give us permission to throw two-thirds of our Bible away because it’s hard or ancient or complicated. Instead, he gives us the keys to discover its power. He tells us to read each verse and look for God’s heart—a heart that is most fully revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ himself. As Christians, we read all of scripture through the lens of Jesus: if it doesn’t measure up, we don’t recognize it as authoritative.
But we also don’t throw it away. We don’t stop asking questions. We don’t stop wrestling with it. We don’t stop trying to find God’s heart in it through prayerful study and discipline.
Alongside that search for answers to difficult questions, we do rely more heavily on those texts and teachings and stories that align most closely with God’s heart incarnate, revealed, and exposed in the person of Jesus. In all texts and stories, we look for how God’s heart is revealed instead of what letters or words are used. As one theologian “famously” proclaimed: “I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally” (attributed to Karl Barth, but verifiably Madeleine L’Engle in “A Stone for a Pillar”).
To this we might add: “I try to follow Jesus too closely to take the Bible literally.
All this is how and why Jesus and the Pharisees keep crossing swords, so to speak. They are both reading and valuing the same scriptures, but they are reading them and understanding them in vastly different ways.
The Pharisees are literalists—every rule must be kept to the letter of the law: murder means murder, adultery means adultery, not working on the Sabbath means not working on the Sabbath.
But Jesus is what we might call a humanist—not in the philosophical way, of course. But in that Jesus recognizes how every instruction issued, every story told—every piece of instruction guides us to recognize and value God’s image revealed in one another and the world. All were written to reveal God’s heart to a world in need of redemption.
Thus, breaking the Sabbath for Jesus has nothing to do with a day of the week or hour of the day—it’s about our human need for rest and to unplug from things, as well as to remember all that God has done for us.
Murder has to do with killing for sure—but Jesus reminds us that there are ways of murdering people with our speech or other ways of denying God’s image in them.
Adultery for Jesus is less about the physical interaction between two people and more a matter of allowing our lustful passions to demean others, turning a human Jesus loves enough to die for into an object or a trophy to possess or win.
Breaking the Law?
Looking at it all through the lens of literalism like a Pharisee would, it seems Jesus is advocating breaking the law—even teaching his followers to do it. But God has frequently pointed out in the Bible that those who work the keep the law literally can completely miss its point—in their literal interpretation and application, they can end up breaking the law they think they are keeping.
One of the most vivid reminders of this comes in Isaiah’s oracle. In Isaiah 58, God offers some harsh reminders to faithful, religious people who have traded the intent the Bible for a literal interpretation of the law. The Israelites are faithfully following the instructed religious practices to the letter: the prescribed sacrifices, fasting, and other rituals as described in the Bible.
But in keeping the Law, they have sinned—at least, that’s what God calls it in Isaiah 58:1. Opposite their empty literalism, God instructs Isaiah to proclaim to them the intent of biblical instruction—God instructs Isaiah to proclaim to them God’s own heart. And here’s what he says: The kind of religion I want is for you
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
(Isaiah 58:6–7 ESV)
To be open to God requires an openness to our fellow human beings, who bear God’s image and through whom we can experience God. That’s why God through Isaiah insists that when we do these things, then when we call to God, God will answer (Isaiah 58:9). That’s why God says that when we care for each other we will experience God’s care for us. He continues:
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the LORD will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.” (Isaiah 58:9–12 ESV)
If we can move beyond the slavery of biblical literalism into the freedom of following Jesus’ example to discover God’s heart, then great things await.
God’s kingdom, fulfilled on earth.
Bone weary people rested
Burned up people restored
Dried up people renewed
Broken down people rebuilt
Devastated people made whole again.
It’s not the easy path. But elsewhere in scripture—later on in the Sermon on the Mount, actually—we are reminded that “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13–14 ESV).
Cultivate in us a dissatisfaction with easy answers,
Make us skeptical when loose ends are tied up too neatly.
Guide us to search for truth,
No matter how hard,
No matter its contradictions or confrontations,
No matter how difficult its journey.
Help us to weigh
Everything we read
Everything we think
Everything we believe
And everything we experience
Against your heart,
Fully revealed in our Savior, Jesus Christ, God incarnate,
Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and forever.