We are always looking for the limit of our responsibility, the point beyond which we are no longer required to respond, the point at which we can rest easy acquitted from further claims being made on us. I remember as a first-year law student, my Legal Systems tutor telling us that the key quality of a well-drafted law lies not in the responsibilities it lays upon us but in the protection, it affords by delineating clearly the limits of its application. This makes the rule of law clear and predictable. But when applied to our spiritual life this approach encourages something called legalism. Legalism, sticking to the letter of the law impoverishes us in the spiritual life.
This goes to the heart of what Jesus is saying in the Gospel for this Sunday in Matthew 5:21-37 I hope you might follow this link to refresh your reading of this passage before going further. This passage is from Jesus’ teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount. Here he appears to extend the application of the commandments of old relating to murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing oaths. Extending the application of the commandments to judge not only our actions but our secret intentions as well, how will any of us reach the bar he appears to set?
Jesus confronts the legalistic approach to the commandments of old, which many in his time had confined to the strict letter interpretation according to which virtuous action was simply refraining from: killing, committing adultery, treating one’s wife as a chattel to dispose of at will, and appealing to an idol instead of to one’s personal honesty and integrity as the guarantor of one’s trustworthiness.
Jesus’ uses hyperbole –obvious intentional exaggeration, not to raise the bar to an unreachable level but to show us what living law looks like when compared with a legalistic approach. Legalism, i.e. dead letter interpretation turns the commandments into relational barriers, i.e. I am obligated to do only this much, or go this far in my dealings with others. Instead, Jesus is concerned with spiritual law as an agent for transformation and expands the notion of virtuous action to include our intentions. We are not transformed simply by refraining from doing harm. We are transformed only when we struggle with our rage, desire, greed, and our tendency to treat others as mere objects to be manipulated to fulfill our own needs.
It’s not whether we achieve the goal that matters. It’s whether we struggle with the baseline intentions that impoverish our relationships. Through the grace-filled transformation of our base intentions, we collaborate in God’s vision of what it means to live relationally and thus to experience life in all its fullness. Jesus’ approach to Scripture is to transform it from a noun to a verb. Scripture, something static becomes scripturing – something alive and dynamic and ever changing; capable of guiding us in the present context of the lives we live. Only in this way can the commandments of old continue to guide understanding and action in each new generation.