Epiphany 6A: On Love and the Law

Matthew 5:21-37

Dear Partner,

What do you think of when you think of God? What picture comes to mind when you imagine what God is like?

It’s a tricky question, I realize, as Scripture regularly describes the impossibility of seeing, let alone fully understanding, God. When Moses wants to see God, for instance, the most God offers is facing Moses toward the cleft of a rock so he can see the “trail of God’s glory” as God passes by for, as God says, “no one can see me and live” (Ex. 33:20-23). Similarly, St. John, in the prologue to his Gospel, says that “no one has seen God” (Jn. 1:18a).

Despite these biblical affirmations, however, I suspect that most of us carry around a picture of God, some sense of what God is like that profoundly shapes what we expect from God, how we think about our faith, and perhaps even how we think about each other. To go further, I would guess that if you engage the typical person on the street – or, for that matter, the typical member of our congregations – a part, maybe even the major part, of that picture would be that God makes and enforces rules. God as law-giver. God as one sitting in heaven with a perpetual finger upraised in warning and perhaps accusation. It’s a picture of God captured by a familiar line of that great American folk hymn: “He knows when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been good or bad, so be good for goodness sake!” And while I’m being somewhat tongue-in cheek with that last line, I do think that for many, many folks in our communities God is something like a stern Santa Claus, always ready to judge us for breaking God’s laws.

At first glance, this week’s readings from Deuteronomy and Matthew may seem to reinforce this picture, as they each offer a heavy dose of the law and, indeed, name some of the penalties for disobeying the law. By looking at these readings more closely, though, I think we may offer our folks a more salutary sense of God’s law and, indeed, a clearer picture of the God we worship. Three related elements of the law stand out as deserving attention.

First, the law is given always as a gift. The law, particularly as captured in the Ten Commandents that Jesus’ references, are life’s little instruction book, God’s gift to help us get more from this life. Speaking of the Commandments, notice that they are given after God has already declared that Israel is God’s people. This means the law is not the means by which to become God’s people or to earn God’s love, but rather a gift given to God’s people because God loves them. From this point of view, the injunction to “Choose life!” is less a stern command than it is a heart-felt invitation or even earnest plea.

Second, the law is given to strengthen community. The “you” in both Deuteronomy and Matthew is always plural. The law isn’t about meeting our individual needs but about creating and sustaining a community in which all of God’s children can find nurture, health, safety, and blessing. The logic behind the biblical focus on community is simple. When you’re looking out for yourself, it’s you against the world. When you look out for the others in your community, and they in turn look out for you, it’s the community together that faces the challenges, setbacks, and opportunities the world offers.

Third, the law comes as a gift to strengthen community by orienting us to the needs of our neighbor. The law, let’s be very clear, isn’t meant to remove the neighbor and his or her needs from our view or concern but rather draws us to our neighbor more closely. As my friend Rolf Jacobson has said, the best-selling Your Best Life Now would be a lot closer to the biblical vision of life if it had been titled instead, Your Neighbor’s Best Life Now. That’s why, I think, Jesus intensifies the law in today’s reading – to help us avoid seeing the law as merely drawing moral boundaries and instead alert us to our responsibility to care for those around us. One can too easily discriminate, injure, neglect, or speak poorly of a neighbor all the while saying, “I have kept the commandment because I have not murdered.” And so Jesus intensifies the law to make us more responsible for our neighbor’s well-being. For by caring for our neighbor we strengthen a community that can best serve as a blessing to the world, God’s constant command and expectation of God’s people.

Some years ago, a colleague shared with me a story that captures for me how the law – including the laws contained in today’s readings – reveal the parental heart of a God who wants nothing more than the health and happiness of God’s children. My friend, Frank, was about eight years old at the time, when he started arguing with his sister. Before long, arguing turned to pushing and shoving, and, soon enough, Frank had his younger sister pinned to the ground with his fist raised in the air. At that moment, his mother came into the room and told him to stop it. In response, Frank – as he described – reared up as only an eight-year-old can and declared, fist still raised in the air, “She’s my sister. I can do anything I want to her.” At this point, Frank’s mom swooped across the room, towered over him, and said, “She’s my daughter – no you can’t!

That’s the law: God’s gift to protect and care for God’s children. I know we at times feel the negative impact or threat of the law, but it is because God cares so deeply about God’s children…all of God’s children. “No you can’t hoard everything. No you can’t discriminate and exclude. No you can’t violate and exploit. Because she is my daughter, and he is my son.”

So what is your picture of God? Students lodging with Martin Luther once asked him that very question, and he responded, “When I think of God, I think of a man hanging on a tree.” Because in the cross of Christ we see God’s loved poured out for the whole world and are reminded that God will go to any and all lengths to communicate just how much God loves us so that we, in turn, may better love one another.

Thank you for sharing the love of God, Dear Partner, through word and deed, including helping us understand the right and God-pleasing use of the gift of the law to help us strengthen our communities by tending the needs of our neighbors wherever they may be.

Yours in Christ,