But I Say

February 12th, 2023 homily on Matthew 5:20-24 by Pastor Galen Zook

Bigger and Better

When I was in high school, my teacher told our class about a game that he and his friends used to plan when he was in high school. (For the young people here, this was a really long time ago!)

Anyway, the game was called “Bigger and Better.” What they would do is they would start out with a small, inexpensive item, like a penny or a paperclip. Then they would go and knock on a random person’s door (I wouldn’t advise this today!) and ask them if they would be willing to trade for something bigger and better. For example: perhaps in exchange for the paper clip, the person would be willing to give them a pen. Then the kids would take whatever that person gave them and go next door and ask the next neighbor if they’d be willing to give them something bigger and better in exchange for the pen.

Our teacher told us that often by the end of the night they would often drive back with a large object strapped to the top of their car. One time they came back with a picnic table! And it all started with a paperclip.

More and more Righteous

The Pharisees of Jesus’s day were a religious group who constantly seemed to be playing the game Bigger and Better. They were always studying the rules that God had given them (particularly in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus), and adding more and more rules on top of God’s rules in order to try to become more and more righteous. For example, God had commanded the people of Israel not to work on the Sabbath day  – that they should take one day a week, and spend it resting and worshiping God. For farmers, they took that to mean that they shouldn’t plow their fields on the Sabbath day. But the Pharisees took it much further, saying that you shouldn’t even spit on the ground, since that would create a divot in the earth, which could be considered plowing! And they kept adding more and more rules like this, until there was absolutely no way that the average person could ever remember them all. 

This made the Pharisees appear super righteous. Since they had come up with the rules, it was easier for them to remember them and keep them. (It was like they were driving around with a picnic table on their car, saying “look how righteous we are – our righteousness is bigger and better than yours!”)

But I Say…

At first glance, Jesus seems to be playing his own version of Bigger and Better here in Matthew 5, in what is usually referred to as the “Sermon on the Mount.” In verses 21 and following, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of 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” (Matthew 5:21-22). Jesus goes on to discuss adultery, and lust, and divorce, and swearing of oaths, each time following this same pattern of “You have heard that it was said…But I say…”

And remember, this section starts off with Jesus saying, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

And so when we first look at this, it can seem like Jesus is simply following in the tradition of the Pharisees – adding his own list of rules and restrictions on top of the ever-expanding list of rules and regulations they already had. 

The Righteousness of God in Christ Jesus

But if we look a little closer here, I think we’ll see that Jesus is doing something quite radical here. Because, in one fell swoop, Jesus is both raising the bar – and in so doing, showing us that no matter how hard we might try, we could never keep the law in our own strength and we need to rely upon the grace and mercy of God – and he is reminding us of the whole point of the law in the first place – and that was to lead us in the way of life, and of love. 

You see, anyone who has ever tried to be perfect knows that it is impossible. As much as we might want to do what’s right, we consistently do the wrong thing. Or, we fail to do the right thing. We try to remain patient, but anger wells up inside of us and we lash out.

We’re scared, or we don’t know what to say, and so we fail to speak up about injustice. We’re worried about our own future or finances, and so we cling to what we have. 

We might say, “But at least I’ve kept the Ten Commandments! Or at least most of them most of the time. I mean, it’s not like I’ve ever murdered someone!” But Jesus says here, if you’ve even been angry with someone, you’ve broken the law. Or in later verses, even if you’ve ever lusted after someone who is not your spouse, that’s as bad as committing adultery. 

And so there is no way we could ever be righteous on our own, or in our own strength. And this should lead us to throw ourselves at the mercy of God, and say, “God help me! God forgive me! I can’t do it on my own!” Fortunately, this is where God’s love and grace and mercy come into play. Because God saw that we could not do it on our own. That we could not be righteous in our own strength. And that’s why God sent a Savior – Jesus Christ – to save us from our sins – to save us from ourselves. To put us back into right relationship with God and with one another. Through the cross of Christ, God makes us righteous – in right relationship with God. And in this way the righteousness that God gives us is far bigger and better and far exceeds any form of righteousness that we could achieve on our own. 

The Heart of the Law

And the other thing that Jesus was doing here was taking us back to the heart of the law – the whole purpose of the law – and that is to teach us to love God and others. 

You see, in Deuteronomy 30, after reiterating the law that God had given them, Moses proclaimed:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances…” (Deuteronomy 30:15-16).

And so the law was all supposed to be about love! 

Now, we don’t often talk about laws and love in the same sentence. But let us think for a moment about the relationship between a parent and a child. Imagine a small child whose parents tell her not to touch a hot stove. As the child grows older and learns to obey, obeying her parents becomes a way for her to show her love for her parents. She demonstrates her love and trust for her parents by doing what her parents tell her to do, and by not doing what they tell her not to do – in this case, not touching the hot stove. But eventually as she grows older, she grows in her knowledge and understanding that the rule her parents gave her about not touching the hot stove was for her own good – for her own health and safety and protection. In other words, this rule that her parents gave her was based out of their love for her. And that had been true all along, she just didn’t know it.

So too, keeping the laws that God gave to the people of Israel were a way for them to demonstrate their love for God and for one another – and they were a way that God was demonstrating God’s love for them. In the same way, the Ten Commandments, and the commandments that Jesus has given to us, are a way that we can demonstrate our love for God, and they are for our own good, to lead us in the path of life, because of God’s love for us.

And so, what Jesus was doing here was reminding the people of the original intention of the law. To learn to love God and others, and to grow in our knowledge and understanding of God’s love for us. For it’s only when we begin to understand and comprehend God’s love for us, that we can truly love God and others.

An Experience of God’s Love

I close with an illustration from the life of John Welsey, founder of Methodism. Some of you may wonder where the Methodist Church got its name. John Wesley was a priest in the Church of England in the 1700’s. While a fellow at Oxford University in 1729, he and his brother Charles and several students began meeting regularly for Bible study and prayer. At first, he and his friends were derisively called “Methodists” because of their methodical approach to living out their faith – such as fasting 2 days a week, and practicing communion frequently – but eventually they adopted the name for themselves, wearing it with a sense of pride. Some also referred to their group as the Holy Club, which they also came to embrace. The group eventually added social services to their activities, caring for the poor and providing them with food and clothes and medicine, visiting prisoners, and even collecting money to pay for the release of those who were in debtor’s prison. 

After leaving Oxford, Welsey briefly traveled to America, serving as a priest at a parish in Georgia. Two significant things happened on this trip. One was that, due to a failure that he experienced in ministry, he came to grips with his own imperfection and need for grace. Secondly, on the ship on the way to and from Georgia, he encountered a group of German missionaries (called Moroavians) who seemed to have a peace and joy that he felt was missing in his own spiritual walk with God. Upon returning to England, On May 24th, 1738, Wesley had a transformational experience while attending a meeting of the Moravians on Aldersgate Street in London where he finally came to experience and embrace God’s love and grace. 

Going forward, John didn’t stop caring for the poor, or praying and reading his Bible regularly. In fact, he engaged in those activities with a renewed fervor and vigor – not to earn or gain God’s favor, but out of an overflowing sense of God’s love for him, and of God’s grace and mercy for all people. Wesley continued striving after holiness and perfection and encouraged others to do the same – but he wrote, “By ‘perfection’ I mean ‘perfect love,’ or the loving of God with all our heart.”

More Perfect in Love

This is what Jesus is saying when he said, “You have heard it said…but I say…” This is the righteousness that Jesus said was better than that of the Pharisees. Not a striving to be better and more righteous in our own strength, but rather acknowledging how far we fall short. Throwing ourselves upon the mercy of Christ, and opening ourselves up to allow God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness and love to saturate every fiber of our being, transforming us, and flowing out of us to each and every person we encounter. This sort of righteousness is indeed bigger and better than anything we could ever achieve on our own. 

So may we grow into a bigger and better understanding of God’s love for us, and may God make us perfect in love. Amen.

Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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