Matthew 5:17-20 – The Fulfillment of the Law

Our inner hearts are more important than the external law.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Oh, what a tricky little bit of scripture.  Should we still be following Levitical law? Eschewing meat cooked with milk (bye-bye, cheeseburgers!) and not wearing cloth woven of two threads?  According to some, yes, and a surface reading of this passage would imply so.  But there are two important things to remember: One, Jesus tended to use hyperbole.  Two, in the same breath Jesus uses to reinforce the primacy of Old Testament law, he jabs at the Pharisees and their externalist approach to said law.

Is this an example of Jesus’ using hyperbole?  There’s no way to know for sure, but the use of absolutes hints at it.  A relatable example I found was when a teenager tells his parents that “everyone” is going to be at the party.  Is that true? Is the whole world going to be at that party? Of course not, but we understand that figure of speech.  So when Jesus speaks of the littlest letter and the least stroke of the pen, it’s a good hint that perhaps this is an example of hyperbole.

I love the tongue-in-cheek comment about the Pharisees.  The sarcasm is just dripping off that last verse.  Time and again Jesus comes after the Pharisees and their false piety – one that has them following the letter of the law (see what I did there???) but not the spirit of it.  The righteousness of the Pharisees was only for show.  Jesus knocks them again in a few verses for being overly dramatic with their fasting, walking through the streets purposely disheveled with ashes on their head, and urges his followers to instead “oil their beards” so that only God would know they are fasting, and thus reward their secret hearts.

I do believe that much of the Old Testament still holds true, but it’s application may change over time.  My favorite illustration of this is the cleansing of mold from houses.  This is a twenty verse discourse in Leviticus.  Mold was (and still is) a real problem in buildings, and can cause serious health problems.  People in the time of Moses, when this law was written, did not have access to modern-day chemicals and the mold-killing household cleaners that we do.  Hence intricate steps needed to be taken to isolate the mold, determine if it was dangerous or spreading, and then deal with it by literally removing parts of the house if necessary.  Then there was a cleansing ceremony involving a dead and live bird, some scarlet string, hyssop, and cedar.  Dealing with pervasive mold in houses can still be an ordeal today, but not many people would say it requires the use of a priest, a religious ceremony, and animal sacrifice.  Especially if the mold is on the outside, a good power-washing will usually do the trick.

Are we in violation of the law Jesus talks about because we power-washed the house instead of getting the local pastor to swing by and take a look?  I seriously doubt it.  God is most concerned with our inner hearts, and how the law informs our spirit.  Sitting in the same seat on the subway where a menstruating woman just sat won’t jeopardize your salvation. (Check out Leviticus 15:19-21) Also, we don’t need to cut off a woman’s hand to save her soul if she grabs an assailant’s genitals while defending herself or her family (Deuteronomy 25:11-12) What really matters is if we are kind to our neighbors, giving to the needy, and prayerful in our decisions.  The law, both that which Jesus gave us and the law of the Old Testament, when read with a discerning eye, can inform us in that.

Matthew 5:13-16 – Salt and Light

A call to help others fully realize their own best selves.

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

In other words, we are to bring flavor and brightness to the world.  It’s not exactly “let your freak flag fly,” but I do think Jesus would appreciate the diversity of people in the world fully expressing themselves.  Can’t you just imagine Jesus hanging out at the local library for Drag Queen Story Hour, blessing all the children and those spreading love and acceptance?

But life isn’t one big Mardi Gras parade.  While I truly believe this passage is saying to not hide your light but to let it shine; to bring your own unique flavor to the world – this passage calls us to go far beyond just personal self expression.  It calls us to help others to fully realize their own best selves, too.  This can mean lots of things, but most of all it means activism.  It means supporting girls’ and womens’ education in places where they are not currently given those opportunities.  It means allowing refugees easier access to our country, so they can escape oppression and make safer and better lives for themselves.  It means Autism Acceptance, an Autistic-led movement to counter basic awareness, that allows for full expression of Autistic behavior (in a safe way) and participation in society.  Maybe it even means Universal Basic Income – a concept I’ll admit I have not researched much but one that does hold immediate appeal.

Yes, go be that City on the Hill.  Stand up for what you believe in, especially if you are in a place of privilege – because for many, it is too dangerous for them to go to school, express their love, or even just walk down the street.  We all need to work together to make this world as bright and flavorful as it can be.

Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes

“Presenting a new set of ideals that focus on love and humility rather than force and exaction.”

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad,because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The Sermon on the Mount runs Matthew 5:1-7:29 and is loaded with teachings and subcontexts.  I am going to be breaking it down a little further than my normal chapter-by-chapter discussion, because I don’t want to gloss over anything. As Wikipedia says, “The Sermon is the longest continuous discourse of Jesus found in the New Testament, and has been one of the most widely quoted elements of the Canonical Gospels. It includes some of the best known teachings of Jesus, such as the Beatitudes, and the widely recited Lord’s Prayer. The Sermon on the Mount is generally considered to contain the central tenets of Christian discipleship.”  In other words, The Sermon on the Mount is a BFD.

The Sermon on the Mount opens with the Beatitudes, or “blessings.”  There’s some varying schools of thought as to whom these Beatitudes address (especially the rather vague “poor in spirit”) and what they mean.  Most hold that these mostly undesirable positions (mourning, meek, etc) are rendered desirable because that very condition described allows us access to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Others hold that Jesus was indicating that the Kingdom of Heaven is accessible to everyone regardless of their station in life or what they had or had not suffered.

As I mentioned a few posts back, I think the Beatitudes offer dual blessings on those who suffer and those who help the suffering, as they have close parallels.  There are eight total blessings, and the first four can be paired with the last four: “poor in spirit” with “those who are merciful;” “those who mourn” with “the pure of heart;” “the meek” with “the peacemakers,” and “those that hunger and thirst for righteousness” with “those who are persecuted because of righteousness.”  Again, I have no theological training so this is just personal opinion, but let’s start with that “poor in spirit” phrase.

I take “poor in spirit” to mean anyone struggling with any sort of mental or emotional duress, whether that be PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or even temporary, sub-diagnosable anxiety and stress just brought on by difficult times in life.  This would make sense as a group recognized in Jesus’ blessings:  with today’s understanding of mental health, many of Jesus’ healings and casting of out demons is actually thought to be for people with clinical psychiatric disorders.  They weren’t “crazy” or “demonic,” but sick.  Jesus recognized that at a time when many did not.

The parallel blessing to “the poor in spirit” is “those who are merciful.”  Remember, during Jesus’ time there was a huge stigma against those suffering many illnesses, whether physical or mental.  So, to be merciful to the sick or “demon-possessed” really took some courage.  We’ve come a long way, but the stigma around “invisible illnesses” still exists. Invisible illnesses include mental disorders, such as anxiety or depression, but also things like food allergies and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  The “but you don’t look sick” mentality is actively hurting people in today’s society – not to mention our crap health care system in general – so we still have a way to go as a society to being worthy of the merciful blessing.

Going back to the blessings of those who suffer is “those who mourn.”  I think readers throughout history have agreed this is the most straightforward blessing.  It is easy to identify those who mourn, and it certainly doesn’t feel “blessed” to be the one mourning, but through the Beatitudes, Jesus reminds those who are mourning that God sees them, and cares for them, and that in the Kingdom of Heaven there will be no more tears.

Following our pairing structure, “those who mourn” is coupled to “the pure of heart,” and I’ll admit it’s probably the most clunky pairing.  But taken in the context of mourning, I think it can be seen as a blessing for those whose faith is strong enough to see themselves (and maybe even others) through times of mourning.  Many people lose faith after the death of a child, or during war-time, or from suffering abuse.  And God doesn’t love those people any less, but perhaps Jesus just wanted to acknowledge the special faith of those who mourn and don’t lose faith.  They may suffer sorrow just as everyone does, but their hearts are pure enough (i.e., faithful enough) to not let it dissuade their following God.

Next up: the meek.  This one has been contentious throughout history, some claiming it promotes a slave morality.  Certainly it has been used to promote that: a good slave submits to his master, a good wife submits to her husband, etc, etc.  But I think anyone wielding this verse in that way is working off a misinformed reading.  I think Jesus is recognizing those without agency in society.  The shut-ins, the forgottens, the cast-offs.  Jesus sees the slave, the abused wife, the ones who have no voice, and says as much with this line.

Just a few verses later, Jesus blessed those that speak out for the meek: the peacemakers.  True peace cannot be achieved through the oppression of others, so the peacemakers may not always be the pacifists one might immediately picture.  In fact, some peacemakers are downright strident.  Jesus himself has some stern rebukes for those who may harm the weak.  Telling off the crowd about to stone a prostitute to death is one example that comes to mind.

Last of the “suffering” blessed: those that hunger and thirst for righteousness.  This group could be lumped in with the meek, but I think it implies more of a pervasive societal context.  For example, a victim of elder abuse might be one of the meek, but a black man wrongfully imprisoned would be one of those that hunger and thirst for righteousness.  “The system,” if you will, isn’t prejudiced against the victim of elder abuse – perhaps they are in late stages of dementia and truly unable to make decisions for themselves.  Their family put them in a home without knowing what was going to happen to their loved one, and that, while a very sad story, is not one of systemic injustice.  A black man wrongfully imprisoned, however, is.  This country’s judicial system is set up in a way that ensures higher and longer incarceration rates for black men than their white counterparts.  Righteousness is nowhere to be found, and those that fall victim to the biases of the system do, indeed, hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Finally, blessed are those that are persecuted because of righteousness.  Anyone who has ever been arrested for participating in a civil rights march, for defending sacred grounds against pipelines, or for standing up for the rights of others has received Jesus’ blessing, regardless of their own religion.

I really liked the Wikipedia article on the Beatitudes.  It summed them up nicely saying “Together, the Beatitudes present a new set of ideals that focus on love and humility rather than force and exaction.”  Just as Jesus time in the desert shows us what kind of Messiah he will be (a relatable one with a humanity just like ours), the very first message of his first big discourse shows us what he (and God) values: love above all else.  Jesus sees the unseen, as made clear by the first four blessings.  He also sees those of us that act out of love, as made clear by the second four blessings.  I pray that you do not have to suffer the misfortunes of the first four blessings, but rather that you can be an agent of the last four.  But know this: no matter what side of the coin you fall upon, Jesus sees you, and Jesus loves you.  The Beatitudes give us the proof.