February 2, 2014
“What Do We Do With the Old Testament?”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
19 Therefore, 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.
20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
I am a member of a group on facebook called the Young Clergy Women Project and a few weeks back one pastor posted a question. She was starting a sermon series on “Things We Wish Jesus Had Never Said” and she was inviting contributions. Here were some of the posts:
“I come, not to bring peace, but a sword.”
“I wish Jesus hadn’t said that bit to the Syrophoenician woman about throwing the children’s bread to the dogs. (Mark 7:24-29)”
“ I also struggle with “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26.”
“No one comes to my Father but through me. I just find it so difficult and exclusionary.”
“Be perfect, therefore, as my heavenly Father is perfect.”
“The part about there always being poor among us. It is way too often badly used to justify not helping the poor!”
“Let the dead bury the dead.”
“Just looking at someone with lust is committing adultery.”
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains.”
I might put our passage from today on that list, at least I think some scholars would put this on their lists as they have wrestled with its meaning for nearly two thousand years. We have little to do with Old Testament laws.
We don’t understand what God has against shrimp. We don’t make grain or animal sacrifices any more. And yet here is Jesus affirming the law, telling us that it is really, really important.
First thing to do is to consider the community of Matthew and who Matthew is as a writer. Matthew is writing some fifty years after Jesus’ death. There wasn’t a biographer who followed Jesus around, capturing is every word and deed.
His sermons and sayings, and the stories about him were collected and Matthew is pulling together eye-witness accounts and a collection of sayings, and weaving a biography of Jesus.
Matthew is from a distinctly Jewish context, meaning that he was a good Jew before he became a good Christian and his faith community is the same, and they are struggling to figure out what it looks like to be Jewish Christ-followers.
They have hundreds of years of history with God which are as familiar to them as breathing, but the Messiah has come, so Matthew’s church is no longer “a people waiting for the promised Messiah” – they are now a people trying to figure out who to be and what to do now that the Messiah has come.
And that is not an easy thing. There are 613 Mizvot in the Torah – 613 laws in the Law of Moses, and different kinds of laws: laws that tell you to do something, laws that tell you not to do something. Some are moral laws (“Do not kill”) and some are purity laws (“Do not wear clothing woven of two different kinds of material”).
So as Christ-followers, Matthew’s community is wondering what matters and what doesn’t, especially since Jesus seemed to have his own approach to the Law (sometimes he kept the Sabbath and sometimes he didn’t seem to, he touched unclean lepers, he ate unclean food).
As modern day Christ-followers, we may also be struck by the inconsistency in our own practice and understanding – we think that the Ten Commandments are a good thing (hopefully), but we also eat ham and cheese sandwiches. We think because we have Jesus we don’t need to follow anything from pre-Jesus.
And then we hear Jesus say things like: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
And now we are confused.
So here’s hopefully some clarification: Jesus tells us that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. That word, fulfill, is a tricky one – it doesn’t mean that Jesus came to “do” the law (as in he personally performs each law himself), and it doesn’t mean that Jesus came to interpret the law in a new way, and it doesn’t mean that Jesus came to sum up all the law and the prophets.
The best way we can understand this is “completion.”
And it helps if instead of looking at individual laws we look at the whole arc of the Old Testament. Those moral laws tell us of the character of God, who is loving and just and longs to be with us, and longs for us to see other people as he does. Those purity laws tell us about our reality – our separation from God — and offer a temporary means of setting it right.
The Old Testament devotes a good amount of space to describing the various sacrifices that were to be offered in the tabernacle (and later temple) to atone for sin so that worshippers could approach a holy God. As part of that sacrificial system there was also a complex set of rules for ceremonial purity and cleanness. You could only approach God in worship if you ate certain foods and not others, wore certain forms of dress, refrained from touching a variety of objects, and so on. This vividly conveyed, over and over, that human beings are spiritually unclean and can’t go into God’s presence without purification.
But all of it, the laws and the prophets, point ahead to something coming that will complete, fulfill, the story – someone who will make it unnecessary to have to make sacrifices to make up for our mistakes and misdeeds, someone who will take away our sins by his own sacrifice, who will tear down the wall dividing us from God, someone who will make God knowable as never before. And the fact that Jesus fulfills the point of God’s whole history with those who came before him, doesn’t make the law obsolete, it affirms the law.
A dedicated member of the family Sonstegard created a family tree – it follows the lineage of the Sonstegard family all the way to King Halvdansvarte of Norway who died in 860. Quite a history really – and if I were to suddenly ignore of forget my genealogy, then I lose a significant part of my identity – it doesn’t make sense to abolish it for it is part of my story.
The law and the prophets are our genealogy – they tell us where we stand in relation to God, and they show us the heart of God. The prophet Hosea describes God as a husband who still desperately loves his wife (us) who has become a prostitute. They show us how Jesus completes the story.
There was an early heretic, Marcion and his followers, who decided they didn’t like the Hebrew Bible. They thought the God of the Old Testament was inferior to the God of the New Testament and so they wanted to get rid of the Old Testament. Jesus doesn’t give us that option. We don’t get to pick and choose the passages we want to pay attention to as Thomas Jefferson famously did with his own Bible.
And Jesus goes on to say that not one letter, not one stroke of the pen, will pass away from the law until it is all accomplished. He is referring to the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the yod, and the smallest strokes that distinguish two letters from each other (beit and kaph, ב and כ). It is Jesus’ way of affirming that the whole story matters, you can’t toss away parts of it, especially those parts that we think don’t matter anymore.
But affirmation does not necessarily mean repetition or continuance of the original law. Jesus, by his life and teaching, demonstrated what mattered most – mercy, justice, love, and loyalty are how all the laws and practices should be judged.
Later in Matthew Jesus makes this clear – a lawyer asks him which commandment is the greatest and he says, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
So what does all this mean for us? That we read the first part of our Bible and take it seriously, that we learn from it and allow it to enrich our faith, that we hear its call for justice and mercy, that we see it pointing to the kingdom that Jesus came to bring, and that we see Jesus more clearly because of it.