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 5:1-12 – 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.

Matthew 27 – Jesus Died for ALL of Us

Not just the stable, middle class Christian Americans paying their taxes and mowing their lawns.

Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people made their plans how to have Jesus executed. So they bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, 10 and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

11 Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

12 When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. 13 Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” 14 But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.

15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.

19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”

20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.

21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.

“Barabbas,” they answered.

22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.

They all answered, “Crucify him!”

23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”

26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

27 Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. 30 They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

32 As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. 33 They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 34 There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. 35 When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. 36 And sitting down, they kept watch over him there.37 Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, KING OF THE JEWS.

38 Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue himnow if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”

50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and[e] went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

62 The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

65 “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

Have you seen the John Fugelsang quote from a few years back (or ones like it) about Jesus?  It says “Jesus was a radical, nonviolent revolutionary who hung around with lepers, hookers, and crooks, wasn’t American and never spoke English; was anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, and anti-public prayer (M 6:5); but was never anti-gay, never mentioned abortion or birth control, never called the poor lazy, never justified torture, never fought for tax cuts for the wealthiest Nazarenes, never asked a leper for a copay, and was a long-haired brown-skinned homeless community organizing anti-slut-shaming Middle Eastern Jew.”

I wanted to point out Jesus’ radical social ideas in contrast to Matthew’s cautious writing style, particularly in this chapter.  I’m not knocking Matthew, he is one savvy dude.  In writing his testimony about Jesus Christ he had to tread extremely carefully:  There was a burgeoning Christian movement that included both Jews and Gentiles.  So, on the one hand, he head to appeal to the Jewish tradition that some of these new Christians came from, hence the lawyer-like reference to the prophets of the Old Testament, using scripture to back up Jesus’ status.  But Matthew also had to appeal to non-Jewish Christians, and be careful not to paint Gentiles, such as the Roman Pontius Pilate, and the society from which they came, in too harsh a light. Remember, Jesus wasn’t just advocating for change within the Jewish community but in the entire world.  So how do you write about a guy who basically wants to overhaul all establishments in a way that appeals to people in those establishments?  Like I said, Matthew had a tough job!  In this chapter, we see Matthew treat Pontius Pilate very carefully, being sure to make it clear Pilate knew Jesus was innocent, recording him literally washing his hands of any responsibility in Jesus’ death.  In fact, many early (and some modern-day) churches held a favorable view of Pontius Pilate, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church even gives them a feast day.  Long story short, I think Matthew was very, very careful when writing his testimony to make sure to appeal to a broad group of readers.

I don’t think Matthew watered down Jesus’ message of radical social justice and love, but I do think it’s easy to sugar-coat Jesus into a “prize” we get to claim if we’re “good,” and sometimes Matthew’s writing can lend itself to that mindset. But Jesus is so much more than that, and wants so much more from us.  Let’s just skim over the Beatitudes from chapter 5 really quickly (which we’ll get to in more detail soon) and see all the people Jesus’ blesses.  First, it’s the people in distress: the poor in spirit – which I take to mean those struggling with any sort of mental or emotional stress, such as depression or anxiety; those who mourn; the meek – those who don’t have agency of their own and are often forgotten by society; those who hunger and thirst.  Second, it’s the people who help them: the merciful; the pure in heart – who can be anyone who loves unconditionally and provides caring service; the peacemakers; the persecuted – not just Christians but anyone bringing attention to the meek, to those who don’t have agency.  To condense, Jesus sees those at the margins of society and is actively calling us to see them too.  There were no conditions to us helping them.  They didn’t have to be Christian, or straight, or white, or sober.

Basically, everyone, and I do mean everyone, deserves their basic human rights.  If you Google “basic human rights” you’ll see lots of lists with five, seven, ten, however many items, and they’re all good lists and may have some things slightly different than this, but just a reminder, here’s a good starting point for basic human rights:

  • Right to equality
  • Freedom from discrimination
  • Right to life, liberty, and personal security (aka freedom from slavery, for a start)
  • Freedom from torture and degrading treatment
  • Right to recognition as a person before the law, and equality before the law
  • Legal rights including fair public hearing, innocent until proven guilty, no arbitrary arrest, etc
  • Right to a Nationality and the freedom to change it
  • Rights of Asylum
  • Freedom of belief and religion
  • Freedom of opinion and information
  • Right to marriage and family
  • Right to own property
  • Right to participate in government
  • Right to social security
  • Right to desirable work
  • Right to rest and leisure
  • Right to education
  • Right to adequate living standards

This doesn’t even include basic rights of life like clean water and clean air, which is a problem not just for third world countries, but in our own “land of the free and home of the brave” (everyone wave to Flint, Michigan).

Today is Good Friday, the day we remember that Jesus died for us.  Let us also remember who “us” is: not just the stable, middle class Christian Americans paying their taxes and mowing their lawns.  “Us” is the homeless, the addicts, the estimated 40 million people who are still in slavery today, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst. In two days, we celebrate Jesus resurrection, and through that, our own possibility for resurrection.  In these last two days of Lent, perhaps we could all recommit ourselves to taking care of each other.  It can be small.  Zen Habits has a lovely list of small ways to help out, which can really be as small as consciously being more patient or calling up a loved one with whom you haven’t spoken in a while.  Compassion breeds compassion.  Through this compassion, through recognizing the basic rights of all our brothers and sisters, we will act as Christ’s agents on Earth, and make it a world to which we would want to return, a world worthy of his return as well.