One of the things we tend to appreciate most about Jesus... is his seemingly innate ability to make complicated things simple. Jesus had a way of simplifying the teachings of faith, cutting through the forest to find the single tree. He managed to summarize thousands of years worth of teachings, and hundreds of laws, into “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” We can understand that, right?
But in John’s gospel, he simplified it even further... at the Last Supper... when he said to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment – love one another as I have loved you.”
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
A perfect summary of the law of the kingdom of God. Eight simple words that says it all.
Of course, having said that: Jesus also had a way of kicking things up a notch! Last week, Jesus said he had not come to abolish a single law and that our righteousness (the righteousness of Christ’s disciples) must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees - else we certainly will not enter the kingdom of heaven!
Today he tells us:
~ “ you’ve heard it said thou shalt not murder – I tell you do not hurl insults.”
~ “You have heard it said do not commit adultery – I tell you do not lust.”
~ “You have heard that you should not swear an oath in God’s name; I tell you swear no oaths at all – tell the truth always.”
~ And finally, “if your eye causes you to sin, pull it out and throw it away.”
What happened to the simplified Jesus? The one who called-out the Pharisees and the scribes for their misuse of the law?
Sometimes Jesus’ words are difficult. They’re difficult to read, and difficult to hear - and yes - difficult to preach, because we can easily see ourselves in the disciples’ place. Or maybe we can even see ourselves in the place of the Scribes and Pharisees.
It’s a difficult gospel. But a needed gospel.
Jesus is still trying to help us understand what God’s law means – not by making it more complicated, but by moving it - from something that’s removed - exterior - for “them” - to something personal, something intimate... something inside us.
It isn’t about murder – it’s about the anger and hate that build inside us.
It isn’t about adultery – it’s about the lust that disrespects people and turns them into objects.
It’s not about divorce - it’s about the effects of mishandling our relationships.
It’s not what other people can see. It’s not what can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to a jury of our peers. It’s what God can see inside our hearts.
So while this is still Jesus making the law more understandable, he’s not lowering the bar - or “dumb-ing down” of the call to righteousness. Since God can look inside our hearts all the time, he knows our intent... he knows our thoughts... will he be happy with everything that he sees?
Which means: Loving one another as Jesus has loved us... sets a pretty high bar.
How do we get there? It seems impossible. And to be truthful, on our own, it is! But the good news, the great news, is that with God’s grace and mercy, we can. When we’re in Christ, and his Spirit is at work with us, our righteousness will exceed that of the Pharisees - because we’re covered - literally covered - by the righteousness of Christ himself.
And fortunately for us, God gives us exactly what we need... freely and in abundance. All we have to do is ask.
Where do we start? We can start by asking ourselves which laws do we hold inside our hearts? Which commandments do we naturally obey? What are the laws that we follow instinctively, without thinking whether they’re right or wrong; whether someone is watching or not. Things we do because we know it’s the right thing to do.
And what laws do we hold outside us – the ones we see as fences or mazes we need to navigate around, especially if someone is watching?
Can we find more opportunities to forgive, knowing that God forgives us?
Can we recognize anger, resentment, hate in our hearts before they turn into words or actions, or even worse?
Of course, one word of advice that’s been around a very long time, is to ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” And that’s never a bad thing. To reflect in the moment on how Christ himself would respond in any given situation is a good thing. A healthy and productive exercise.
But here’s a trick that’s similar, but a little more impactful (at least for me). The next time you find your anger building at someone, picture Jesus – standing right behind them. It sounds silly but you’d be surprised how well it works.
– in line at the DMV to get your license renewed - and don't have the right paperwork - and have to start over;
– or when the lovely lady cuts you off in the self-checkout at Wal*Mart;
– or when you’re just trying to mind your own business, and someone takes advantage of our kindness... and maybe insults you... or demands of you more than you have the strength to give.
Try it the next time you find your anger rising at someone in your family or your office. Before your blood starts to boil, picture Jesus, standing right beside that person with his hand on their shoulder. Trust me, it is like pouring a bucket of water on a flame.
What Jesus is teaching us... what he desperately wants us to learn... is that the Law of God starts in our hearts - it should be an obvious reflection of who and Whose we are... and it’s always tempered by Christ’s mercy and love.
So, yes indeed, there is a place in our lives for laws and commandments.
But the greatest commandment doesn’t begin with “thou shalt not”
It begins with “Love.”