Jesus said: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
John 13:34, 35
Oh to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee;
prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it,
Seal it for the courts above.
-Hymn 686, Stanza 3
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.
-Hymn 469 Stanza 3
Jesus and the law
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.-Matthew 5:17-18
In discussions in church, I often run across the opinion that the God of the Old Testament underwent some kind of personality change in the New Testament. That’s based on associations people have with some stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, where God seems to resemble Zeus throwing lightning bolts down on unsuspecting earthlings, or perhaps a more recent image, a Gary Larson cartoon where God is depicted sitting at his computer. On the screen, we see that a street scene. A rope lifting a grand piano has snapped. The Steinway, plummeting earthward, is about to smash a pedestrian. God is pressing the smite button on his keyboard. Does that ever fit your image of God?
No doubt about it, there is judgment in the earliest books of the Bible. But there is also judgment in the New Testament (Have you read some of Jesus’ parables of judgment, or the Book of Revelation recently?) And while the God of the New Testament is associated with grace and mercy, there is plenty of grace and mercy to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, surfacing in the oft-repeated word hesed which means lovingkindness.
All of which is to say that we often pit grace and law, mercy and judgment against each other. Our faith seems to be either about rules or relationship, about laws or love. You can have one or the other. Our proclivity for dualistic thinking tells us you can’t have it both ways. But Jesus shows us another way.
As we continue reflection on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we can imagine listeners, including critics, imagining that he was trying to scrap tradition. In today’s verses, he makes the point that he comes to fulfill the tradition, not abolish it. Fulfillment is the keyword.
We get a glimpse of what he meant by it when he was asked about the most important commandment. Jesus didn’t come up with some new-fangled vision. He returned to the first pages of the Bible to find that all the law and prophets is summed up in grace, in love of God and neighbor.
It is apparently easy for religious folks to turn the law into a matter of rules, and thus a source of division, using the law as a bludgeon. Jesus chooses another way, as he speaks about embracing the law given by Moses. He says that those laws are key to the healing of our souls, and the healing of the world. Those laws (the word teaching may be a helpful synonym for law) given by God, we’re all about helping people, coaching people, leading people in the way of love. And when those laws seemed to butt up against each other (e.g., when Jesus is led to heal long-term illnesses on the Sabbath), the law of love and compassion takes precedence. Lord knows we could use that kind of guidance in the wilderness of our broken world.
So what’s the so-what factor in all of this? Religious rules are ultimately about relationship. When they divide us, or damage relationship, the law is not fulfilled. But even the nit-pickiest, most persnickety religious rule can be seen as an expression of love of God and neighbor and self. When that happens, we see the law fulfilled.
Sure, we can turn our faith, our religious practice, the scripture, even a theology of grace, into something that divides people, into a source of pride. But Jesus calls us to see everything we do through the lens of love of God and neighbor, a fairly rigorous standard (perhaps even a law) which turns out to be a pretty good way to look at the world. It’s a good lens to regard our religious practice, whatever that may be, to think about how we put faith to work in the world, as a response to God’s call to the way of love. It’s a good lens to bring into this week when we’re asked to think about thanksgivings. How will you be a follower of Jesus, fulfilling the law?
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