Scripture: Matthew 5: 17-48
Especially coming out of the recent General Conference choice of the Traditional Plan, this chapter seems especially powerful. Jesus mapped a way that was not like the rebel, throwing off all constraints, nor like the traditionalist, simply holding to the law, the line in the sand. In his view, the traditionalist while holding to the letter of the law missed the real point - Him! He was coming to fulfill all the law and the prophets.
In this chapter McLaren illustrates how Jesus wants us to fulfill the law, by what McLaren says is to extend tradition to its full potential. Then Jesus illustrates what he means, which he does with a series of statements: “You have heard it said...but I say to you.” And therein begins to construct a new “way” for the people -- a way that was to take them far beneath the well-known command to the deep, heart-level desire of God for the people to begin to change the world. “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees,” he tells his listeners, “you will not enter the Kingdom of God.” Jesus would be shocking his hearers with this statement, for in their minds, no one could ever “adhere to the law” like those groups!
As the listeners heard his contrasts of “you have heard, but I say,” what might have been going through their heads as Jesus unpacked violence, sexuality, marriage, oaths, revenge and finally love that is not just for those in our sphere of affection but for those hated outsiders? McLaren unpacks a degree of this and asks how this might impact how we live with others around us.
For those in Jesus’ audience, they would have known that Jesus was encouraging them to break the law, to challenge the oppressors in their midst (the Romans) by doing good, by going the second mile. The Roman soldier had strict oversight. The backhanded slap was allowed, but the fronthanded was not allowed. To “turn the other cheek” the offended would be inviting the soldier to break the law. The soldiers were allowed to force someone that first mile, but the second mile was not allowed, it was against the law, and might have the soldier begging the one who had carried the gear one mile to stop before he got in trouble. Jesus is challenging people to live in such a way that upturns wrong authority not by evil but by going good.
Go to the heart. Change from the inside. And all that Jesus is writing falls back under the category also of his first sermon: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Here it is a turn away from simply obeying the letter of the law to obeying the deep, underlying intentions. It was taking the law from drawing a “line in the sand” I’ll go this far and no further, to not drawing a line at all for anything would fall short of the intention of the kind of care for another demanded by loving your enemies, by turning from anger, by turning the other cheek.
As McLaren wrote: “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 -- … to fulfill the highest and best intent of tradition, to make the road by walking forward together” (p. 134-135).
McLaren invites us this week to “share a story of a time when someone knew you had done wrong but loved you anyway.”
Immediately the small ball from Sprouse Ritz came to mind. There I am standing by my dresser in my room and my mom is standing next to me and asking me the toughest question ever: “Where did you get this ball? I was putting away your socks today, and discovered it.” She knew all the toys I had. She knew the limits on my spending money. She knew where I went. She knew it all. I didn't have a way to weasel out. There was no creating some story. I knew my only option was the truth. The bare, honest, “oh no, I’ve been caught,” truth. I began to cry, for I was overwhelmed with the reality of what might follow, and said:
“When I was walking with Caroline (an older girl from church) in Sprouse Ritz, she dared me to take something from the store. She took something and I took the ball. Then we snuck out. But then when I got it home I didn’t know what to do with it. You’d know that I didn’t own a ball like it, so couldn’t play with it, so I hid it in my drawer.”
She loved me for the truth.
And said the worst possible punishment I could ever have imagined. “Bring the ball, Brian, for you and I are going for a little drive down to Sprouse Ritz and you are going to talk to Mr. Richland and tell him what you did and we will see what he would like to do as a consequence. He may want to call the police to report you.” As she said this fear cascaded over me, I froze, sobbed more, begged for alternatives to this action, but was marched to the car and driven to the store and was walked in with her beside me. Through my tears I handed the ball to Mr Richland and told him I was so sorry I had taken it without paying, and I would like to return it.
Mr Richland, who was this big, round, usually jolly man, looked gravely and seriously at me and said, “Brian, shoplifting is a crime, you know. I could call the police and report you.” He paused. I died a 1000 deaths inside. “But since you have seen fit to be honest, to return the ball I am going to ask you to make me a promise that you will never steal anything from a store ever again. Not just this store, but any store in the future.”
I nodded and said, “I promise.” I imagine that he and my mom probably had communicated volumes over my head while I was dying from fear. But through that experience of boundaries and love, I’ve never even desired to steal anything, no matter what the “Carolines” of the world have said.
What about you? Do you have a story of love shown to you when you had done wrong? Send in your story to firstname.lastname@example.org or write it in a comment on our Facebook page, Westside UMC.