Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Bad News and A Good News in Matthew 5

Source: Jesus Facepalm
In Ezekiel 36:26 God speaks to his people through the prophet, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (NIV). Through this prophecy, God proclaims the future renewal of the heart and spirit of his people – a new heart that will beat in harmony with God’s own heart, and a new spirit that will be in sync with God’s own Spirit. Sure enough, in Jesus’ most central and foundational teaching – the Sermon on the Mount, he challenges us of our calloused heart and our dull spirit.

Now this is the BAD news to both the Jews in the New Testament’s time and the Christians of this day – If you do and not do things just because the Law or the rules of the Bible tell you so, you are NOT doing very well. It doesn’t make you “a man after God’s own heart,” and it doesn’t make you better than the Pharisees. In Matthew 5 Jesus made it clear that the Law is merely the minimum requirement for God’s people, and now the Law is fulfilled by Jesus, we are expected to do better than the requirement of the Law!

Starting from the Beatitudes, people’s perception of the divine reward system was shaken up by Jesus. Now it’s not the prestigious Pharisees, who observe the Law perfectly, that will be blessed, but those who are poor in spirit and mourn. Now it’s not the Sadducees, who hold the honorable seat of judgment, that will be blessed, but those who are merciful and pure in heart. As the crowd was listening to Jesus, I imagine some of them must be thinking, “Man, what’s this guy doing? He’s turning everything upside down!”

Sensing this, and to prepare people for the even more radical teachings, in Matthew 5:17 Jesus says, “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.” No, though the Law is fulfilled by Jesus, it is not abolished; and in verse 19, Jesus encourages people to practice and teach the Law. But the problem is – many among the crowd listening to Jesus may not even know the Law. And just as if to practice and teach the Law isn’t hard enough, now in verse 20, Jesus even commands us to be more righteousness than the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law! How are we to surpass the righteousness of the teachers of the Law? And what does that even mean?

Just as Deuteronomy (“second law”) is Moses’ sermon for people to understand the spirit of the Law, the Sermon on the Mount could be rightly called the “Tritosnomy!” (“third law;” this is original, you need to cite me on that!) According to Jesus’ Tritosnomy, cursing someone is just as guilty as murder, and looking at a woman lustfully is just as disgraceful as adultery! When you are making a promise, let your words reflect what’s on your heart! As it becomes more and more evident as Jesus goes, what used to be on the behavioral level, now Jesus is bringing them to the heart and spirit level – not as something extra, but as something should have been.

The Law, which governed the behavior, was only meant to be the tutor to bring us to Jesus. God’s original intent for the election of his people was never merely about what we do or not do, but about the transformation of our heart and spirit, so that we may reflect him completely! However, just as everything seems to be starting to make sense, we are hit with the real challenge – in Matthew 5:48, Jesus is telling us to be “perfect” – just as God is perfect. Could anyone imagine themselves to be perfect like God? Isn’t it a profanity to even think that we could be perfect like God? What does Jesus even mean by “perfect?” While it may seem like a mission impossible to reach such perfection, it’s really the GOOD news!

What leads to Jesus’ acclamation of God’s perfection is from the verses preceding it, where Jesus comments, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (ESV). Similarly, in Matthew 9:13, when the Pharisees saw that Jesus was hanging out with the tax collectors and sinners, they weren’t too happy about it. To their dismay, Jesus responds, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” “Go and learn what it means” – what these words imply is the Pharisees’ lack of understanding. The same goes to Mark 2:27, where Jesus says to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” As well as in Luke 6:9, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” Again and again, it’s as if Jesus is saying to them, “Can’t you see? Can’t you see the heart of the Father? Don’t you get it?”

The Pharisees followed the Law to the letter, but they do not understand the heart of God. The heart of God, as Jesus has made it clear for us, is merciful and gracious. He is compassionate, slow to anger and abound in love. He loves us more than a father loves his son! He pardons us more than seventy-seven times! It’s the understanding of God’s heart and his goodness that will liberate us FROM the pursuit of ideology out of fear, and so we will be freed TO pursue perfection out of love - just as our Father in heaven is perfect. Therefore, Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:48 aren’t intended as a command to bind us to even more burdensome works, but rather a declaration of our freedom from the Law, for the Law only leads to fear, judgment and defensiveness. After all, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).

It’s only when we are freed from the Law that our heart and spirit may be renewed – a new heart that is tuned to God’s heartbeat, a new spirit that is aligned with God’s Spirit, and so that we may become perfect like our Father. And it’s only then we’ll be able to love like our Father loves, and so that we may rise above the Law, and become more righteous than the Pharisees. For “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10); and it’s only then the Kingdom may come through us, and God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.

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