A sermon preached by Graham Low at St Mary’s, Iffley on 15th March 2023
At a first hearing we might think that these are the most extraordinary words Jesus speaks in the whole of the Sermon on the Mount. He says he is speaking about the eternal character of law. By contrast Paul says that Christ is the end of the Law (Romans 10.4). Again and again we see Jesus breaking what Jews called the law: he does not observe ritual hand washings, he heals the sick on the sabbath, in spite of the law forbidding such healings. He is condemned and killed because of breaking the law. And yet here he seems to speak with a veneration for the law which no rabbi could exceed. Not even one tiny stroke of a letter of the law will ever pass away, so permanent is the law.
As we reflect on today’s gospel, we need to remember that the Jews used the expression the law in four ways. Firstly it meant the Ten Commandments, secondly it meant the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, literally five rolls, the most important part of the Bible for them, thirdly the Law and the Prophets meant the whole of the Old Testament as we know it, and fourthly it referred to oral or scribal law. In Jesus’ time it was this oral or scribal law which was most often referred to, and which Jesus utterly condemned.
In the Old Testament there were relatively few rules and regulations but many broad principles, which people interpreted and applied under God’s guidance. If something was not explicitly in the law then it was considered to be there implicitly. Thus out of the law it was possible to deduce rules for every life situation. The task of scribes was to reduce the great principles down to thousands of individual rules and regulations, based on often complex definitions. As an example, healing was understood to be work, and so not allowed on the sabbath, except when there was a danger to life, and even then it could only happen to stop things getting worse. Thus a wound could be bandaged but no ointment applied.
The scribes were those who worked out the rules and regulations. The Pharisees, whose name means separated ones, kept themselves apart from ordinary life in order to keep these regulations. For many centuries the scribal law was not written down, but a summary called the Mishnah was eventually written down, with later huge commentaries on the rules, called Talmuds. Strict orthodox Jews saw keeping these regulations as a matter of life and death and eternal destiny. Very clearly keeping rules and regulations formulated by the scribes and Pharisees was not Jesus’ understanding of the Law.
The Ten Commandments, which remain foundational, may be summed up as an expression of reverence for God and of profound care for all that God has created. Jesus said that the emphasis was on mercy rather than on sacrifice. It was a way of love rather than of legalism: a way not of prohibitions and control, but a way of moulding our lives on the positive commandment to love. This is what he sought to fulfil.
It could have been said in Jesus’ time, as today, that it was theoretically possible for a person to fulfil the demands of the law. But it is clearly not even theoretically possible to satisfy the unlimited claims that love has upon each one of us. The unlimited love that is offered to us in this eucharist is beyond our imagination. In spite of all our shortcomings, let us now accept God’s welcome to this gift of unbounded love. And, sustained in faith, and stimulated by hope, may we pour out this gift of unbounded love upon our world. Amen.