Sunday, February 16, 2014

'But I say to you': Christ's call to holy living

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

There are three important points that I'd like to tease out of our Gospel reading today. The first is notice how Jesus presents each of the various nuggets of teaching he is giving to his disciples: he begins each by saying 'you have heard it said' in front of well known teaching from the Old Testament, followed by 'but I say to you' and then he expands and deepens that teaching. And the way he presents his deepening is important. Think about how the Old Testament prophets presented their teaching. They never said 'but I say unto you;' they always said something like 'Thus says the Lord.' They wanted to make it absolutely clear that they weren't speaking on their own authority. Sometimes so much so that they would say 'thus says the Lord' many times in a passage, sometimes even repeating it several times in a single sentence. They do that so often that I am sometimes tempted to say as I'm reading 'OK, OK, I get it; you are only saying what the Lord has given you; you are not speaking by your own authority. This is not your teaching but the Lord's.' But that is not what Jesus does. He says 'But I say unto you …' He's making it clear that he is speaking by his own authority. And the Jews of the days got it; remember the passages where they are amazed and say things like 'what is this? A new teaching – and with authority?' They recognised what Jesus was doing. And they also recognised the implications of it. Jesus is putting his teaching on the same level as that received by the prophets; and he claims no other authority for doing so than his own; he is taking for himself divine authority.

The next point is that consider very carefully what he is doing with those Old Testament texts – he is deepening and expanding them, but he is not denying them. Sometimes I hear people talking about the Old Testament as if it were old fashioned or somehow not very important. We have the New Testament and Jesus, they say – what do we need with all that stuff going on in the Old Testament? But Jesus, by his authoritative interpretation of these texts is validating them – and of course he is, for what did we hear him say in the passage that comes before the one we read today, the one we read last week? He says he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. And he goes on to say that whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Christ places his own divine authority four-square behind the Old Testament; for how can any deny that it is the word of God when the Word made flesh himself has declared it to be the revealed word of God according to which we must live our lives?

And the third point is this: you will sometimes hear people try to say that God in the Old Testament is harsh and judgmental, but God in New is gentle and loving. Yet from the passage we read today we see that the law that Christ lays down in the New is even stricter than that of the Old. Thou shalt not kill, says the Old Testament; and indeed you shall not. But anger is violence too, and if you allow yourself to fall into that temptation, then judgment awaits you for it. Thou shalt not commit adultery; and indeed you shall not. But allowing yourself impure thoughts is no better; and if you do not fight that temptation also then you will tremble before your God on the last day. And this is not an isolated passage; consider these verses from the Gospel reading for Holy Communion last Wednesday: For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’  (Mark 7.21-23)

Pretty strong words from our Lord – all this and more is evil and it defiles you and a look or a thought can do it as easily as a deed. Far from being 'softer' on sin than the Old Testament, Christ calls his followers to a very high standard of personal holiness indeed.

All of which adds up to making living the Christian life a seemingly daunting affair. But the same Lord who by his divine authority reminds us of the necessity of living our lives according to God's laws also is there to help us. He was made man to teach us, lead us by example, and to the pay the price for our past sins; and he will help us overcome all the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, if we want him to and let him. Rather than being daunted we should be joyful – God has not abandoned us to the evil that defiles us and separates us from him, but instead he reaches out to us to help us overcome it so that we might be with him for all eternity. And the same Christ who warned us of the evils of this world with divine authority also, by that same authority, taught that there was a place for us in heaven; and that the way to attaining it was through him, for he was the way, the truth, and the life … through him we can overcome evil and attain heaven … and I pray that all here and elsewhere will. Amen.


  1. I hate it when blog entries make my heart go fast with fear. This one was a much-needed reminder.

    And the first point about the authority of Jesus... I remember reading a book by Dr. Scott Hahn that delved into that very topic. I had never thought of the wording until it was pointed out to me by him. I forgot about that until you mentioned it here. Thanks for that reminder, too!

    Blessings to you.