Some years ago, a young man came to my pastor’s office looking for a new church. We talked for a while and I learned the story of his struggle with alcohol addiction. He was already active in an AA group but he believed a church community might also help turn his life around. I called the pastor at a nearby community church to find out more about their recovery program and it sounded like a good fit for this man who was living life on survival mode. We stayed in touch for several months; I often wonder how he is doing now.
Sometimes some people need rules, structure, clear definitions. This makes sense to us when we are raising our children; independence and healthy self-sufficiency can only come through a process of growing through stages and practicing living within some kind of protective environment. This makes sense to us when we remember our own journey toward maturity.
You may occasionally hear the people of Moses referred to as “the children of Israel.” The term “children” isn’t meant to be used as a contrast to the concept of “adult;” it’s mostly the King James Version’s way to describe this people’s family tree and to identify them as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But maybe – in another way – “children” can also serve as a kind of archetypal description of humanity’s development that can be seen in all of our various cultures and societies throughout the ages.
Without thinking of Israel as any more “childish” than any of the rest of us, consider how their story as chronicled in the Hebrew Scriptures might give insight to how all of us – individuals as well as societies – grow through stages toward healthy maturity.
In the remarkable story of exodus and deliverance in the second book of the Hebrew Scriptures, the people emerge from the confining womb of slavery, through the birth waters of the Red Sea and then into the wilderness. There is manna here, and clean water, and even fresh meat. But again and again, like all of us self-centered humans, they test the patience of Moses; they also test the faithfulness of the God who Calls, Saves, and Provides.
As the story unfolds, God calls Moses up to the mountaintop where he is immersed in fire and cloud and sapphired glory for forty days and forty nights. And when he returns to the camp in the valley, Moses comes with the Ten Commandments which summarize for the people all the Law that teaches how to live in relationship with God and with one another.
The two tablets represent the two aspects of this living in relationship. The first four commandments (traditionally pictured on the first tablet) address Israel’s proper worshipful attention to the One who rescued them from Egypt. The last six of the Ten Words summarize what it looks like to live together in honorable community.
Then the giving of the Law continues in great detail about oxen and slaves and annual festivals. There also is very clear warning about the treatment of foreigners:
You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.Exodus 23:9
Then there is this strange promise:
You shall worship the Lord your God, and I will bless your bread and your water; and I will take sickness away from among you. No one shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days.Exodus 23:25
Within the Hebrew Scriptures, we see this understanding repeated again and again: “IF you worship and obey God, THEN I will bless you…” Scholars refer to this as the Deuteronomistic tradition and its influence can be clearly seen in many of the Old Testament writings. Next week, when we look at Covenant, we will think about some exceptions to this popular karmic way of understanding God.
When Matthew wrote his gospel, he shaped the story of the Christ Event within the paradigm of the Moses story. Moses was the first Law Giver; Jesus the second. Matthew does not claim that Jesus abolished the Law but rather fulfilled it. (see Charlotte’s Musing: Matthew’s Jesus.)
And then Matthew offers an especially fascinating comparison between the Law of Moses delivered from Mount Sinai and the Sermon on the Mount delivered by Jesus.
Matthew is bold to re-read the ancient Law and re-interpret its meaning and significance for the people of Israel in a new day. Matthew’s Jesus does not contradict or critique the Law; rather he goes deeper, he goes to the root – the radix. Radix is the word from which we get the word “radical” and in these six antitheses (or better “hyper-theses”), Jesus radicalizes the Law.
Besides radicalizing the Law, Matthew’s Jesus does something else, something key to Matthew’s own Christology: Jesus speaks for God.
In Matthew’s understanding, the Law is foundational but it is not ultimate. For Matthew, it is the one to whom the law and the prophets point – the Messiah, the Christ – who amplifies and completes the Law.
- It is in Jesus Christ that the Law is both affirmed and fulfilled.
- It is in Jesus Christ that the Law is both validated and transcended.
- It is Jesus Christ (Matthew says) who is God with us; the onewho embodies the ultimate, definitive will of God.
- It is Jesus Christ who is the final authority.
The radical law is the justice of God lived out in the lives of God’s people.
Rules done Right.
Rules done right point beyond superficial behavior to attitude, perspective, mindset. Rules done right remind what is core and fundamental. It’s not just about adultery or murder or divorce, Jesus says; it’s about respecting relationship and honoring commitments. It’s not just about how you treat your friends, Jesus says; it’s about living together in humility and integrity (even with your enemies!) in this upside down right side up inside out kingdom of heaven.
Of course faithful, pious Jews already knew this.
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.
The decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple …
The psalmist honors the Law of Moses in these beautiful words. But there is more. Before there was the Torah, there was the cosmos.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…
And God said, “It is good…”
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork…
The psalmists chronicled the deep wisdom of God’s way present from the beginning of creation. Here is scriptural acknowledgment and celebration of God’s law of the universe, God’s way in the cosmos, God’s will for all creation. Creator’s law, decrees, commandments, ordinances give structure to the universe and are knitted into the very fabric of the world. Creator’s will and way give order and meaning to everything that exists and are part of nature’s DNA.
The Mosaic Law flowed from that cosmic law and articulated justice and equity that was probably unusual for its time, but it was always law contingent upon its time and place and people.
The newly formed people of Israel who received the Law at Mount Sinai continued to grow in their understandings. Just as Matthew’s church continued to grow and to go deeper. Just as all of us continue to grow and go deeper as well.
Much as my AA friend needed structure and clear definitions for a time, much as our children need rules and limits while they are learning how to live, so all of us have periodically benefited from the protective environment of law as we have grown through stages into greater maturity. As we continue to grow in our relationship with God and with one another, we grow into the greater freedom of grace.
Matthew teaches us that the life and work of Christ has fulfilled the Law of Moses and now brought all humanity within the cosmic law-way-will of God that is right for all people in all times and places: the way of Shalom. When this law is lived out in the lives of God’s people, there is peace with God and shalom with one another.
Living in The Story readings for Week 9: The Law
My thanks to my teacher and friend, Dr. M. Eugene Boring. His commentary on Matthew in The New Interpreters’ Bible (volume 8) has been very helpful. (Abingdon Press, 1995).
The image from the cosmos brought to us by the Hubble telescope. I’m sorry I don’t know the originator of the other images.