Toorak Uniting Church

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From the Mountainside: Living Above the Law

Matthew 5: 16 – 26
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
16 February 2014

Jesus was referring to the 'letter of the Mosaic law' of the Old Testament then went on to illustrate that He embodied the fulfilment of that 'law' and that now we may walk in the 'Law of the Spirit' thereby realizing liberty ~ R. Alan Woods

This is an ancient story from either a Chinese or Zen tradition that attempts to illustrate the human need to often focus on the delivery of something, rather that the object itself. It goes something like this:

All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the finger will never see beyond it. But let him catch sight of the moon, and then he will see its beauty.

In our exploration of this Sermon on the Mount we have come to the "instructions" that point to the true object of our desire. We started with the Blessings – the Beatitudes - drawing us into an alternative world view where there is a reversal of common perceptions. Then there are the symbols of a pinch of salt that flavours the meal and a lighthouse shedding a single beam of light. Each applied to the life of the follower of Jesus. Now the tone changes, giving us a clearer sense that this is not a continuous sermon, but a collection of sayings of Jesus.

Here Comes the Law
The reader in the 21st Century would be as confused as the 1st Century listener when the words of Jesus are used as a justification of the return to religious law:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. 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.

Really? One might ask, I thought that Jesus was on about the abolition of the law. Isn’t this the same man who flouted ceremonial law and taught his disciples to do likewise?

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!" Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?" ~Matthew 15:1-3

This is where we need to understand the image of the finger pointing to the moon. The law or laws, regardless of whether they are civil or religious, are always pointing toward something greater than themselves.

To use a modern example, is the purpose of the road laws to get people to follow the road laws (I know some will say no, it’s way of collecting State revenue) or is it because above everything else, we value life and the purpose of the road rules at their best is to prevent injury and death?

I think Jesus is saying, you are above the law. That is, you don’t need to focus on the finger that points to the moon because you have caught a glimpse of the moon itself and that is what motivates you. Does that mean that the law – the finger – is no longer necessary? I don’t think so. For many it is the only experience they have and one day they may find the capacity to transcend the law and live above the law.

Some have called these the hard sayings of Jesus. First, because they seem very hard to put into practice. But secondly, because they are hard to understand. They just don’t fit "intellectually" with the rest of Jesus’ teachings. But I think there is an inkling of the answer to that quandary in the sense that these words must always remain a paradox.

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 practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

This is in part why we as the followers of Jesus have kept the Hebrew Scriptures significant in our Holy Writ. Does the Old Testament view of life fully agree with the new way of Jesus? No! But does it provide a foundation and an inspiration to what comes after? The answer is yes!

I think of the analogy of human growth or even evolutionary growth. The Christian faith may have some new and even different insights into the human condition, but they are grounded in what has given them birth. But also there is the need to return to the source of our wisdom and often to gain new insights.

If we remove and do not teach the wisdom of the prophets of the past, then we will lose these words:

The Lord has shown you, humanity, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? [Nothing less than] to act justly; to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

That is living above the law.

Living above the Law

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who is contemptuous to a brother or sister is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Have you ever been angry, really angry? Maybe you haven’t. I certainly have. I have felt real anger toward two groups of people. First, toward those who have hurt the innocent and secondly, toward those who have hurt me. I am not so proud of the second because in many cases what I have experienced is a sense of righteous indignation, "How dare they do that to me!"

Nevertheless, I think we all have the right to experience anger when we have been harmed or hurt. In fact, it is a healthy and God-given emotion. I mentioned last week that Anne and I had seen the film Philomena and again without giving away the story, there is a scene with an old and embittered nun in a wheelchair, who has just shown a callous lack of compassion to the suffering woman; and one of the main characters in the film says to her, "If Jesus was here today he would tip you out of that wheelchair." There was almost a cheer in the audience. But I think these words call for the moderating words of St Paul in the letter to the Church at Ephesus, "Be angry and don’t alienate people; do not let the sun go down on your anger,"

I have to say that the call of this sermon is to live above the minimal requirements of the law. It really is the new "Law of the Spirit" or the "Law of Love," as if love could ever be legalized. It is about seeing the moon and not focusing on the finger pointing to it.

It’s all about Relationships
And if you don’t think it is all about love then this next passage should convince you.

…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you; leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

Just as I am not willing to literalize the passages that have gone before - each injunction and exhortation requires a considered approach - I am not willing to say that all relationships can be reconciled. It would be wonderful if they could be, but life has shown me that that just isn’t possible. However, I wonder if the problem is that we adopt the minimal standards; or the mere requirements of the law. If we live above the law, then there are resources available to us that can bring healing where we thought it was not possible.

The Story of Mrs Johnson and Israel
I am careful to share this true story this morning because it is exceptional and is not everyone’s experience. But it does illustrate what I have been saying this morning:

In February 1993, Mrs Mary Johnson's son, Laramiun Byrd, 20, was shot in the head by 16-year-old Oshea Israel after an argument at a party in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Mary Johnson, whose son was shot dead by Israel, now lives next door to him in Minneapolis. Mary Johnson is now close friends with her son's killer after visiting him in prison and helping him reintegrate into society.

Israel, who was involved with drugs and gangs, was tried as an adult and sentenced to 25 and a half years in jail . He served 17 before being released. He now lives back in the neighbourhood where he grew up - next door to the mother of the young man he murdered.

Mrs Johnson said she originally wanted justice and to see Israel locked up for what he had done. She said: 'My son was gone. I was angry and hated this boy, I hated his mother. 'The murder was like a tsunami - shock, disbelief, hatred, anger, blame. I wanted him to be caged up like the animal he was.

She decided to found a support group and counselled mothers whose children had been killed and encouraged them to reach out to the families of their murderers, who were victims of another kind. 'Hurt is hurt, it doesn't matter what side you are on,' she said.

Mary Johnson, 59, said forgiving Oshea Israel doesn't diminish what he did. Just a few years ago, the 59-year-old teacher and devout Christian asked if she could meet Israel at Minnesota's Stillwater State Prison. She said she felt compelled to see if there was a way in which she could forgive her son's killer. At first he refused, but then nine months later, he changed his mind. Israel said he was shocked by the fact she wanted to meet him. He said: "I believe the first thing she said to me was, ‘Look, you don't know me. I don't know you. Let's just start with right now.’ And I was befuddled myself."

The pair met regularly after that. When Israel was released from prison around 18 months ago, Mrs Johnson introduced him to her landlord - who with her blessing invited Israel to move into the building.

Mrs Johnson and Israel are now close friends, a situation that she puts down to her strong religious beliefs but says she also has a selfish motive. She said: 'Un-forgiveness is like cancer. It will eat you from the inside out. It's not about that other person, me forgiving him does not diminish what he's done. Yes, he murdered my son - but the forgiveness is for me.' Mary Johnson even wears a necklace with a two-sided locket - on one side are photos of herself and her son; the other has a picture of Israel.

Israel admits he still struggles with the extraordinary situation he finds himself in. He said: 'I haven't totally forgiven myself yet, I'm learning to forgive myself. And I'm still growing toward trying to forgive myself.'

Israel now hopes to prove himself to the mother of the man he killed. He works at a recycling plant during the day and goes to college at night. He says he's determined to pay back Mrs Johnson's clemency by contributing to society. He visits prisons and churches to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation. Mrs Johnson often joins him and they tell their story together. He added: 'A conversation can take you a long way.’

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2014

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