Jesus was not one to mince his words in order to protect would be disciples from the cost of following him. He made sure that they knew what being a disciple would mean to them. He exhorted his disciples to uphold every detail of the law and to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees. Following that command could so easily degenerate into adhering to lots of rules and regulations, tick lists of do’s and don’ts, but that is surely not what Jesus meant.
The sermon I preached on this topic follows. The readings were Psalm 78:1-8, 2 Corinthians 3:4-11, Matthew 5:17-19. Many thanks to ZoeRose who read for us at this service.
I’m not sure how many of you have been following the sad saga of expenses claimed by British Members of Parliament. MPs may have a second home if their own home in their constituency is far from London. It appears that all sorts of claims have been made for these homes, including clearing a moat and buying a wide screen tv. I think we all understand that if you do a job and you incur costs because of it, a system of expenses allows you to claim so that you are not worse off as a result of doing your job. The uproar over MP’s expenses has been due to their seemingly actually making money out of the expenses system. Perhaps even worse was that, when they were challenged about this, nearly every one said, ‘It was within the rules.’ I have no doubt that most of the claims were within the rules, though possibly some strayed beyond them. The difficulty is that the population can see that hiding behind the rules just won’t do. It may be strictly allowed to claim something, but is it morally right? I think for many people, hearing what their MP has done, the answer to that is a resounding ‘No’.
The sad thing about all this is that there are MPs who have not broken the rules at all, whether the letter of them or the intent. I heard an interview with one such. He is due to retire at the next election. He was nearly in tears as he told of how he felt. His upright behaviour has been called into question as a result of the wrong behaviour of some of his fellow MPs. I’m pretty sure also that some MPs set off with the intention of serving their countrymen well and have somehow found themselves sucked into the culture that prevails at Westminster. They lose sight of the intent of the expenses system and find themselves copying others. We are urged to pray for those in authority and it’s certainly needed now by all involved in this mess.
In Jesus’ time the Pharisees were the authority on the law and followed 613 laws which they had found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Living in the right way was very important to them. Jesus tells people that their righteousness must be greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees if they are to enter the kingdom of heaven. That sounds like a pretty tall order but I don’t think he was meaning that we must follow 614 laws to be sure of exceeding their righteousness!
Jesus had a lot to say to the Pharisees about their way of life. They had a rule that allowed them to set aside their commitment to their parents by allocating all their money to God, thus breaking the commandment to honour father and mother. They were assiduous in following the laws of cleanliness, washing cups and washing their hands, making sure they ate only the right foods. But Jesus said that they were not looking at the inward part of their life, only the externals. He accused them of being like whitewashed tombs, brilliant on the outside but stinking and rotten within. They condemned Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath even though they would rescue a stricken animal on the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath holy was a good thing but it became a burden. Once again it was outward observance, not inner attitude that ruled. They practised their righteousness so that they could be seen by other people, instead of doing it to serve God. They made sure that everyone knew that they were fasting, by looking miserable. They displayed their righteousness in their clothing so all would notice them.
I suppose, like our MPs, they could say that they were living within the rules. The difficulty was that they had lost the big picture of the principles behind the rules. Jesus picked this up with the rich young ruler who came to him asking how to inherit eternal life. Here was a man that we are told Jesus looked on with love. He saw his earnestness and he saw what he needed to do. The young man was able to say that he had kept all the laws since he was a child. I can’t imagine this was idle boasting because if he lied to Jesus he would have been breaking one of the commandments straight away! Imagine keeping every rule, all 613, since his youth. That’s pretty good going. However, Jesus pointed him to something that the rules didn’t help him with. It was the underlying principle, that of giving practical help to the poor, that Jesus challenged him to follow, and as we know that seems to have been too much for the young man to take on board.
When I was learning maths at school, my teachers insisted that we didn’t learn all the rules and formulae. Instead they taught us how to create the formulae we needed. We learnt the minimum of rules and the rest was supplied by understanding how the maths worked so that we could derive what we needed. It was not easy, but it meant we really got to grips with the maths.
Jesus makes it plain that he is not in the business of getting rid of the laws but fulfilling them. The way he does it is not to add more laws to supplement those already there, but to teach the underlying principles. The rules he gave were to love God and love your neighbour as yourself, and to do to others as you would like them to do to you. The idea of watching myself carefully in order to fulfil all the little rules that the Pharisees followed fills me with horror. I’m sure I would never manage it. However, following the principles which Jesus gave us is not an easy alternative. It means that every action we take has to be held up and examined in the light of these overarching principles. It’s not simply possible to use a tick list and adhere to the letter of the law. We have to look at the spirit of the law and follow that.
Jesus unpacked some of this in his teaching. For example, it’s not enough to avoid murdering someone – we must not get angry with them. It’s inadequate to avoid committing adultery – if we look at someone with lust it is just as bad. We can think of those times when we stick strictly to the truth but maybe we are economical with it, or we phrase ourselves in order to mislead. Some MPs will no doubt be able to think of times when they put in expenses claims within the rules, but in so doing made a profit rather than breaking even. Every day we have the opportunity to hide behind rules and regulations or to follow the spirit of the law.
Paul tells us that he is a minister of a new covenant, one that is not governed by words, lists of do’s and don’t, but one that is overseen by the Spirit. It’s the law of love which holds sway now. The old law killed but the new law brings life through the Spirit. The principles of the new covenant have been there in the Hebrew Scriptures for anyone to find if they looked carefully. Jesus was in fact quoting them when he said to love God and love our neighbour.
In the last Saturday discussion we were looking at what God calls good in terms of behaviour. We found it in Micah, there in the Old Testament for all to read who would: He has told you, O man, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
If we follow the principles and forget the lists of rules, our righteousness will exceed that of the Pharisees. We can’t do it alone, but the Spirit lives in us to help us every day. We only have to ask.