Sermon Archives

'But I Say to You': Scriptural Law and Living the Ethics of Jesus

Denson Staples
Sun, Feb 12

Texts: Psalm 119, Matthew 5:21-26

As it turns out, Psalm 119 is not only the longest Psalm in the Book of Psalms, but also the longest chapter of all the chapters of all the books in the Bible. Fortunately for all of us, I talked myself out of thinking this gave me free license to deliver the longest sermon of all the sermons given at First Church. That said, let me share with you some brief-ish reflections on this text and the passage from The Gospel According to Matthew.

The psalms are sometimes seen as instructive: they seem to model the proper human response to the circumstances of this earthly life. They focus on how to live through great triumphs and tribulations in light of the possibility and, for some of us, the reality of God. Psalm 119 is specifically concerned with the law: “law,” “decrees,” “precepts,” “statutes,” “commandments,” “ordinances” and other legal terms are used regularly throughout this, the longest chapter of the Bible. Now, laws of all kinds are shaping lives in this country even more visibly than usual as of late, so if Psalm 119 showcases the ideal human response to laws, then this seems like the right time to pay attention to what it has to say.

I admit, First Church, that I am skeptical when it comes to the law. I’m sure that has everything to do with our own legal system here in the united states: it has a tendency to yield results that depart from anything that looks like justice, to me. I find especially disturbing its failings with regard to bodies that live outside the protective auspices of whiteness, maleness, typical mental and physical ability status, and heteronormativity. So I read Psalm 119 and wonder what all this talk of the law is doing amid scripture—especially such wholesale praise of the law.

But I find solace in knowing that the community or communities that composed this psalm are concerned not with the laws of these united states, but rather the laws of God. We find that walking in those laws of God grants happiness or, according to some translations, “blessedness.” We find that keeping our eyes on God’s commandments prevents shame. We find that if we can observe the divine statutes, then we have the hope of abiding in the divine presence; with expectant and hopeful hearts, we, like the psalmists, can implore God to “not utterly forsake” us. So there is a purpose for keeping and even basking in the divine law: observing these laws keeps us in relationship with God—walking in these laws means a “closer walk with Thee.” Dwelling in the law becomes a path to dwelling with God. Honoring God’s precepts yields proximity to the divine. For the author or authors of this verse, these laws are far from arbitrary, and certainly far from punitive. Observing God’s laws enlivens our sense of the divine: it fosters a relationship with God that is shameless, that is close, that is blessed.

A life of blessed closeness with the Spirit. A life beyond shame. Can you imagine? For those of us who seek such an experience, the question becomes not “should I follow?” but, rather, “what do I follow?” After all, in our preserved record of God’s word, we have numerous covenants, laws, and teachings. What law do I follow? Which do we choose: all of them? Some of them? The easiest to observe? The hardest?

Mercifully, the Gospel According to Matthew provides some guidance. Come, now, First Church: we’re getting close to the law by which we must live, so imagine with me now.

It is late morning, or perhaps early evening; the Book of Matthew does not tell us, opting instead to let us set the scene. There is still light in this day, and so a copper-skinned, Jewish man in his early thirties, probably with wooly brown hair and eyes that people find compelling, goes on a hike up a mountain only so far from the Mediterranean Sea. With him are his closest followers, maybe they are even his friends: the people he spends his days and nights with, the ones who have studied him closely—more closely than so many others. Maybe they exchange jokes on their hike, or comment on the foliage that surrounds them, or attempt to ask questions of this teacher with whom they spend so much time and whose effect upon crowds they have witnessed, but about whom they seem so often to be confused. Finally, they come to a clearing where they can comfortably sit; sipping water, catching their breath, a hush descends and the teacher begins to speak. He tells them about the laws of their tradition; laws they have heard time and again. And then he adds things to those laws; things they have never heard.

Remember how they used to teach that we should not murder, and that, if we do, we would be judged?

Well, I say to you that if you are angry with another, you are liable to be judged.

I say to you that if you insult another, you are liable.

If you so much as call another a “fool,” you are liable.

Do you see, First Church, what this teacher named Jesus has done?

We find him in a familiar role as interpreter of divine laws that he holds up alongside the teachings he now brings. And those teachings raise the stakes. In other words, the code of ethics that Jesus introduces raises the bar for how we live our days alongside one another.

How so? Well, we can no longer go through the Ten Commandments at the end of the day and so swiftly determine whether you or I fulfilled God's law. It is easier, after all, to answer the question, “Did I murder today?” than to answer the questions, “Am I angry? Have I insulted someone?” Or consider the questions Jesus gives us just a few verses later: “Did I commit adultery” versus “Did I commit adultery in my heart?” How much more difficult it is to discern if we have fulfilled or fallen short of God’s law when Jesus speaks to us. With this teacher, we are now called to live according to divine precepts, ordinances, commandments, laws, ethics, and teachings that are more difficult to walk in, because they are more subtle; that require more of us, because they require a discerning heart. But if by living according to these teachings of Jesus we are brought closer to the presence of God, then surely we must struggle to fulfill them.

So, what does fulfilling divine law, as delivered by Jesus, look like? Especially now, when public attention is more focused than usual on the way that human laws threaten to change our lives? Especially now, when these laws and executive orders affect not only individuals, but also our collective existence—when these laws target not just our private lives, but the public sphere by limiting who may exist freely, publicly, and visibly within the borders of this country? I think we, too, must resist publicly by fulfilling the teachings of Jesus not only in our individual lives, but also in our collective life together. So, if our theology must address “the problems of the public sphere” and our example for this kind of theology is the life of Jesus, who “declared himself to be on the side of […] those who are rejected and oppressed,” then what of our own lived-theology? (1)

For me, this is the lived-theology of Bayard, the gay, Black organizer who, in less than two months, pulled together the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the largest demonstration in this country’s history at that time. This is the lived-theology of Dorothy and Peter, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933 that has produced hundreds of hospitality houses across the country, houses that, still to this day, welcome the stranger, the dispossessed, the lonely, and any who wish to overcome the isolation of our individualism in favor of the familiarity with difference that living in community grants us. But this kind of faith in the public forum is not just a relic of yesteryear. It is with us today. This is the lived-theology of Mijente, a new national hub of Latinx community organizers that calls us to, get this, “imagine a movement that is not just Pro-Latinx, but pro-Black, pro-woman, pro-queer, pro-poor, because our community is all that and more.” This is the lived-theology of Charlene, National Director of the Black Youth Project 100, who calls us to not only declare that Black Lives Matter, but also to Build Black Futures by reminding us that you cannot talk about racial justice without talking about economic justice, because our systems of race-based oppression are intimately linked to our systems of economic and class-based oppression. This is the lived-theology of the people who struggled alongside Bayard, Dorothy, Peter, Mijente, and Charlene, because we know that none of them do it alone.

And this might yet be our lived-theology. For some of us, public demonstrations and organizing against the oppressive laws of this country is new. For some, organizing or resisting is old news, but perhaps seeing that work as the expression of religious beliefs or ethical convictions is new. For others of you, it is second nature. But what matters more than our history of resisting in the past is what we do today, in the inescapable present.

For many of us, the question is not whether we will act. It is how we will act. Will we live according to the ethics of our own conscience, or by the ethics of that copper-skinned, Jewish teacher? Will we march along streets to affirm the equality of women and be done, or will we, like Jesus, also intervene when an armed mob threatens to stone a woman—whether overtly, through physical violence, or more subtly, through the common manifestations of sexism in the classroom, the streets, and the workplace? Will we offer sanctuary to those who most fit our idea of a life that is worthy of our concern: upwardly-mobile, well-educated lives, young, employed lives, socially-lauded and publicly-presentable lives? Or will we, like Jesus, eat with the socially forlorn: for him, these were described as tax collectors and sinners. For us, we use words like “poor,” or “homeless,” or “criminal.”

My point is not to disparage certain forms of resistance. Let me be clear: it is likely that all of these forms and actions are needed. We will each have to decide for ourselves what we are willing to do, what social risks we are willing to take, what human laws we are willing to challenge and break. We will each have to interrogate why we are willing to take certain actions, but not others. I certainly can’t tell any of us what to do; no one can.

But I can say that living into our ethics, our beliefs, our theologies will require imagination and a discerning heart. If we can imagine Jesus giving the sermon on the mount, certainly we can imagine ourselves living in ways that honor that sermon. For those inspired by the story of that Jewish teacher from the region of Galilee, living the teachings of Jesus will likely require us to raise the bar of our ethical aims.

For me, this is a level of ethical living, self-reflection, and moral analysis that is difficult. Maybe some of you find it easier than I do to follow in Jesus’s footsteps; but who among us has not fallen short of the glory of God? Living into that glory is effortful. It far exceeds the effort required to measure my actions against a list of hard-and-fast rules like codified laws or biblical commandments. It takes time, energy, and effort, all of which seem to be in short supply.

But I remember the promise that awaits those who live according to God’s law: closeness with God. An experience of blessedness, whatever that might entail. A life beyond the shackles of shame. In this time of human laws and executive orders that are changing the public sphere, we must unabashedly live out our ethics in that public sphere so that it might be changed for the better. Go live in a state of effortful ethical discernment, First Church. Judge your resistance not by what we have heard it said we must do according to the laws of old or even our well-worn personal moral standards. Judge, instead, by the ethical standard epitomized in the life of a copper-skinned, Jewish teacher we call Jesus the Christ. Amen.

1) Metz, Johann Baptist. Faith in history and society: toward a practical fundamental theology. Translated by James Matthew Ashley. New York: Crossroad Pub. Co., 2011, 87-9.