Acts 10:9-17, 24-28 ; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
If someone were to ask you, “Which is more harsh—the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) or the New Testament?”—how would you answer? I’m guessing most of us would say, “Old Testament.” When we think of the story of God’s people during the centuries before Jesus we think of laws, rules and regulations. Many Christians, in fact, think of the Old Testament as representing “law” and the New Testament “grace.”
Today’s gospel reading seems to throw a bucket of ice water on that idea! As he continues his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of traditional Jewish teachings. Over and over he says, “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” And each time we expect him to choose an example from the Old Testament that seems harsh…and then offer comfort and assurance. What we want—what we expect him to say—is, “Don’t worry about all that fire- and-brimstone stuff from the Old Testament. I come preaching love and forgiveness and God’s grace.”
Compare our expectation with what he actually says! 21You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
Jesus not only makes it more difficult for me to obey God’s original law; he makes it impossible for me to obey! Have I been angry with others? Yes! Have I insulted others? Yes! Have I ever said, “You fool”? You bet! Jesus teaches, If you’ve done any of these things, you’ve broken God’s commandment against murder. In the eyes of God, he says, there is no difference between insulting a person and killing them!
And that’s just the warm-up. From there he takes on other “easy” issues (!) like…lust, adultery, divorce and making oaths. In each case he takes the original commandment (which was hard enough)…and makes it more difficult! No—actually, he makes it impossible to obey! And in each case he seems to promise dire consequences.
How does that leave you feeling? Do you feel hopeful about yourself? Do you feel like you can go out and live a life that meets God’s standards?
Peter thought he could. He was a faithful, religious man. He knew the rules and did his best to keep them. One important set of rules for Peter and other Jews dealt with diet. It’s still important for many Jews today. Some foods, according to Jewish law, were acceptable–kosher. Others were forbidden. Even many Christians know, for example, that pork was—and is—forbidden for many observant Jews.
But Peter had a dream—or fell into a trance—in which he saw a huge sheet lowered by its four corners from the sky. In the sheet were many animals—all forbidden by Jewish law to eat. Then he heard a voice that said, “Peter, kill and eat!” Peter was horrified. “No way, Lord!” he answered, “for I have never eaten anything unclean!” And the voice replied, “What God has made clean you shall not call profane.”
Peter was sharp enough to understand the meaning of the vision. He understood that it wasn’t really so much about food. It was about people. Right after his vision Peter was asked to come to the aid of a non-Jewish man–in fact, a Roman centurion, who by rights would be considered an enemy of the Jewish people. And yet, Peter remembered the voice he’d heard and said, God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.
Peter was re-learning what he’d heard on that hillside years before when Jesus was still alive. “You have heard it said…but I say unto you.” We human beings tend to be faithful in obeying laws that serve our self-interest. We tend to ignore those that seem…inconvenient. Our attempts at obedience of God’s laws sometimes have less to do with God and more to do with our need to exclude others in order to feel better about ourselves.
This is the point of Jesus’ teaching. We cannot keep God’s laws, no matter how hard we try. One time he even went so far as to say that breaking even one of God’s laws means we’ve broken them all! Jesus levels the playing field with those we are inclined to judge or exclude by showing us that we Christians are no more moral, no more just, and no more obedient than anyone else. We, like the whole human race, have no choice but to rely on God’s mercy and grace.
And at our best, that’s what we do!
Both Peter’s vision and Jesus’ teaching show us that even our best intentions are of little use if our goal is to earn God’s favor. Our efforts always are laced with self-interest; in fact, sometimes they’re dead wrong! Peter thought he was being faithful and obedient to God’s law by excluding certain people. But the very people he had been judging were the very ones God was calling him to embrace!
So–where are you in the story? Which of God’s laws do you feel most strongly about? Which ones are “non-negotiable”? Which ones, not so much? In what ways can you see a bit of Peter in yourself, convinced that you would never change your mind about what’s right and what’s wrong?
Who, in your view, needs to be judged and excluded because they have not lived up to God’s laws? Or, your interpretation of God’s laws?
Jesus set the bar impossibly high, not in order to condemn anyone but in order to drive all humanity into the arms of a gracious and loving God. He says to us, “You have heard it said—from pastors and teachers and parents and friends– what is right and what is wrong, who is in and who is out. But I say unto you: Love one another. Work hard at keeping the commandments, not in order to earn God’s favor, but out of love–and for the sake of the world God loves!