There is a common belief among some Christians that the biggest difference between the Old Testament and the New, between the Law and Prophets and Jesus, is that Jesus throws out all the old, legalistic Law, and brings in love. I often hear people talk about “the God of the Old Testament,” as a vindictive, angry deity, and that Jesus represents the “God of Love.” Let me say this as clearly as I can. NOT TRUE!
The readings for the last two weeks certainly make that clear. The reading from Deuteronomy that we read this morning is a clear demonstration of that. In this passage, Moses is giving his “farewell address.” He has seen the Promised Land, but he will not live to go into it with his people. He has given them the Law, but what he says now sounds very different. He talks about what life for the people of Israel can be, and his dream for his people – a dream of blessing and happiness and prosperity. And what he tells them is that the whole point of keeping the law is not so that they can tick items off a checklist, but so that they can have the fullness of life that God promises for them. The Law is not an end in itself, but a way of life that will bring them closer to God.
And it would be really hard to read the Gospel readings from Matthew that we have read the last two weeks and then say that Jesus was about getting rid of the Law. Last week, we heard him say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And this week, he doubles down on that by taking what people normally interpret as the Law and telling them that they aren’t taking it seriously enough. Just the first of these sayings is enough to bring us up short. “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; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. “ That sure doesn’t sound like the sweet, easy-going Jesus we would like. We want Jesus to say something like, “Well, of course you were angry. Don’t worry about it, we all have these feelings. Just go get a massage or take a run. You’ll feel better.”
So it sounds as though Jesus is being more legalistic than the worst legalist. In fact, in last week’s reading, he said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Remember, the scribes and the Pharisees were the masters of righteousness. They knew every law and were experts on how they were to be kept. And Jesus wants his followers to be even more righteous? That seems very strange.
Well, let me suggest that in fact, Moses and Jesus are talking about exactly the same thing. Let’s look at what Jesus says about anger. Anger is about much more than murdering people. The judgments we make about other people, the grudges we carry, the easy dismissal of others – all those things poison us, poison our relationships and, ultimately, poison the society in which we live. We end up with a world in which people are treated as less than human, where there is economic injustice, racial hatred and war, all stemming from our willingness to nurture anger in our own hearts. So Moses is telling the people of Israel that keeping the Law will bring about a world of blessing and life, a world where those terrible things do not happen. And Jesus is telling us that the heart of the Law is in our own hearts.
It isn’t enough to follow the rules. Rules can change, depending on the time in history and the culture. What both Moses and Jesus are calling us to is the law of love. Love isn’t some sentimental emotion, but a law that governs our thoughts and actions. And love isn’t easy. It means looking at our own hearts and telling the truth about what we find there. It means making choices that we don’t necessarily want to make, but that we make for the good of others and for the good of the world. It can be hard work. But it is also the hope for the survival of the world.
The temptation is always to substitute the rules for the Law. We substitute looking good for being good. We substitute conventional goodness for self-giving love. And often, we can get away with that. But what Jesus is calling us to is to make the deeper choice, to hear the heart of the Law and to let that Law transform us from the inside out. And as each of us is transformed, so is the world.
We make a false division if we hold Law and Grace in opposition to one another. Grace is the gift of courage and insight that helps us go deeper than the rules into the heart of the Law which never changes. Last week’s reading from Matthew started with Jesus telling us that we are salt and light for the world. Learning to live the law of Love helps us be that salt and light.
Hear the word of God to us this morning:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days…”