There will be a couple of extra chapters slotted in throughout Lent to match the timing of Easter this year. They will be released mid-week. Enjoy.
A New Path to Aliveness
(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Anyone present that day would have felt some tension in the air. Many in the crowd stuck to the familiar road of tradition, playing by the rules, leading conservative, conventional and respectable lives. They were worried that Jesus was too . . . different, too non-compliant. Others ran on a very different road. Unfettered by tradition, they gladly bent any rule that got in their way. They were worried that Jesus wasn’t different and defiant enough.
According to Jesus, neither group was on the road to true aliveness.
When Jesus said, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,’ you can imagine the traditionalists in the crowd felt relieved, because that was just what they feared he was about to do. When he added, ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfil,’ they must have tensed up again, wondering what he could possibly mean by ‘fulfil’. Then, when he said, ‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,’ the non-traditionalists would have looked dismayed. How could anyone be more righteous than that fastidious crowd?
As Jesus continued, it became clear he was proposing a third way that neither the compliant nor the non-compliant had ever considered before. Aliveness won’t come through unthinking conformity to tradition, he tells them. And it won’t come from defying tradition either. It will come only if we discern and fulfil the highest intent of tradition – even if doing so means breaking with the details of tradition in the process.
If tradition could be compared to a road that began in the distant past and continues to the present, Jesus dares to propose that the road isn’t finished yet. To extend the road of tradition into the future – to fulfil its potential – we must first look back to discern its general direction. Then, informed by the past, we must look forward and dare to step beyond where the road currently ends, venturing off the map, so to speak, into new territory. To stop where the road of tradition currently ends, Jesus realises, would actually end the adventure and bring the tradition to a standstill. So faithfulness doesn’t simply allow us to extend the tradition and seek to fulfil its unexplored potential; it requires us to do so.
But what does it mean to fulfil the tradition? Jesus answers that question with a series of examples. Each example begins, ‘You have heard that it was said . . .’ which introduces what the tradition has taught. Then Jesus dares to say, ‘But I say . . .’ This is not, as his critics will claim, an act of abolishment or destruction. His ‘but I say’ will creatively fulfil the intent of the tradition.
The tradition said, ‘Don’t murder.’ That was a good start. However, the tradition didn’t want us to stop merely at the point of avoiding murder. So as a first step beyond what the tradition required, Jesus calls us to root out the anger that precedes the physical violence that leads to murder. As a second step, he calls us to deal with the verbal violence of name-calling that precedes the physical violence that leads to murder. As a third step, he urges us to engage in pre-emptive reconciliation. In other words, whenever we detect a breach in a relationship, we don’t need to determine who is at fault. The intent of tradition isn’t merely to be ‘in the right’; the goal is to be in a right relationship. So we are to deal with the breach quickly and proactively, seeking true reconciliation. Being in a right relationship – not merely avoiding murder – was the intent of the tradition all along.
That kind of pre-emptive reconciliation, Jesus teaches, will help us avoid the chain reactions of offence, revenge and counter-offence that lead to murder, and that keep our court systems busy and our prison systems full.
After extending the road in the area of violence, Jesus moves to four more issues, each deeply important both to individuals and societies – sexuality, marriage, oaths and revenge. In each case, conventional religious morality – which Jesus calls the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees – focuses on not doing external wrong: not murdering, not committing adultery, not committing illegal divorce, not breaking sacred oaths, not getting revenge. For Jesus, true aliveness focuses on transforming our deeper desires.
So, regarding sexuality, the tradition requires you to avoid adultery. But Jesus says to extend the road, to go further and deeper by learning to manage your internal lustful desires. Regarding divorce, you can try to ‘make it legal’ in the eyes of society as the tradition requires. But Jesus challenges you to go further and deeper by desiring true fidelity in your heart. Regarding oaths, you can play a lot of silly verbal games to shade the truth. Or you can go further and deeper, desiring simple, true speech, saying what you mean and meaning what you say. And regarding retaliation against injustice, you can react in ways that play right into unjust systems. Or you can go further and deeper, transcending those systems entirely.
Here Jesus gets very practical. As people living under Roman occupation, his hearers were used to getting shoved around. It was not uncommon for a Roman soldier to give one of them a backhand slap – the insulting whack of a superior to an inferior. When this happened, some would skulk away in humiliation or beg the bully not to hit them again. But that rewarded the oppressor’s violence, and it made them complicit in their own diminishment.
That was why others dreamed of retaliation, of pulling out a dagger and slitting the throat of the oppressor. But that would reduce them to the same violent level as their oppressors. So Jesus offered them a creative alternative: stand tall and courageously turn the other cheek, he said. In so doing, they would choose non-violence, strength, courage and dignity . . . and they would model a better way of life for their oppressors, rather than mirroring the violent example they were setting.
Another problem they frequently faced was that rich landowners would often take tenant farmers to court. If they hadn’t paid their rent or tribute, the landowners would start suing them for their personal belongings. So, Jesus said, if someone takes you to court and they sue for your outer garment, go ahead and strip down naked and give them your underwear as well. Yes, your ‘generosity’ leaves you exposed – but your nakedness also exposes the naked greed of your oppressor.
Often, a Roman soldier would order a civilian of an occupied nation to carry his pack for a mile. If the civilian refused to do so, he would show courage and self-respect, but he would probably end up dead or in jail. Most would comply, but once again, doing so would reinforce the oppressor’s sense of superiority and their own sense of humiliation. Jesus tells his disciples to surprise their oppressors by volunteering to take the pack a second mile. The first mile may be forced upon them, but the second mile they’ll walk free. The first mile they are oppressed, but the second mile they transcend their oppression and treat their oppressor as a human being, demonstrating the very human kindness that he fails to practise.
Neither the compliant nor the defiant typically imagine such creative responses. Jesus is helping their moral and social imagination come alive.
Jesus employs his ‘you have heard it said . . . but I say . . .’ pattern once more, perhaps the most radical example of all. Tradition always requires love and responsibility towards friends and neighbours, people we like, people like us, people ‘of our kind’. That is a big step beyond utter selfishness and narcissism. But Jesus says that the road of tradition was never meant to end there. Love should now be extended further than before, to outsiders as well as insiders, to them as well as us, even to our enemies. We may not have walked the road that far yet, but that is God’s intent for us.
Again, using example after example, Jesus directs his disciples beyond what the tradition requires to what the Creator desires. ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,’ he says. Some people might assume that by ‘be perfect’ he means ‘achieve external technical perfection’, which is what the scribes and Pharisees aim for. But Jesus means something far deeper and wiser. He tells them that God doesn’t let rain and sunshine fall only on good people’s lands, leaving bad people to starve. No, God is good to all, no exceptions. God’s perfection is a compassionate and gracious perfection. It goes far beyond the traditional requirements of the scribes and Pharisees.
For us today, as for the disciples on that Galilean hillside, this is our better option – better than mere technical compliance to tradition, better than defiance of tradition.
This is our third way.
God is out ahead of us, calling us forward – not to stay where tradition has brought us so far, and not to defy tradition reactively, but to fulfil the highest and best intent of tradition, to make the road by walking forward together.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time when someone knew you had done wrong but loved you anyway.
3. How do you respond to the comparison between a tradition and a road? Where do you think you are being called to move beyond where you are right now?
4. For children: Are there times when you want to do better than ‘good enough’? What makes you want to do your very best?
5. Activate: This week, look for opportunities to practise Jesus’ teaching in regard to violence, lust, marriage, oaths and revenge.
6. Meditate: In silence, ponder God’s perfection as a compassionate perfection. Let a prayer of praise arise from your heart to break the silence.