But To Fulfill ~
Jesus goes on address a number of the laws that have been a part of the ancient story’s telling since its earliest iterations. As Matthew’s initial audience so revered the Law and the Prophets—that was what they called the books that made up the Bible of their day—he records a big but among Jesus preliminary remarks: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus assured that he has a high regard for the law. He warned that those who disregard the law will be considered the least of his followers, “but …” He continued, “whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great.” Jesus ended this thought with a glancing blow: ‘Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the recognized religious leaders of the day, you’re lost.’ On second thought, to those religious leaders, that’s more like a kidney punch.
The Big But
The big but of Matthew 5 appears repeatedly as an instrument in Jesus’ teachings:
“You have heard it said … but I tell you …”
The first has to do with the law concerning murder. Jesus reminds the people of what has been the standard all along: You’ve heard it said, ‘Do not murder and if anyone does commit a murder they will be subject to judgment.’ Jesus used the big but to move beyond the letter of the law—But I tell you anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. It is not a matter of the act, but a matter of the heart. Someone who harbors hatred in his heart towards another has broken the intent of this law. We tend to think of laws from the perspective of what they prohibit. If we take a look at the law from the positive side—considering what it promotes instead of what it prohibits—we have a wonderful picture of the value that God places on a life. On every life. Life is so very precious, not only is it to be protected, it’s to be appreciated.
In human justice terms we tend to qualify the taking of a life in categories—we differentiate between murder, manslaughter, self-defense, mercy killing, and so on. Even within those different categories, we allow for differing degrees—pre-meditated or negligent for instance. Jesus calls us back to the beginning. What was God’s intent? God’s ancient story began with the announcement that He made mankind in His image—male and female, His image bearers. He placed inherent value on every human life. When we act in taking a life, we reject that value. When we treat any life with contempt, we mar that image. Jesus draws that lesson in a parallel: there are laws against slandering someone. If you say something injurious about someone you can be held accountable in a court of law. More than that, God will hold us accountable for devaluing life.
Just how important is this to the heart of God? Jesus completed this teaching by instructing that if there are issues to be dealt with in relationships, God would have you deal with them before you come to worship. First, be reconciled—then come to bow before God. If you come in to worship and there is hatred in your heart, you’re going through religious motions. You’re play-acting. Likewise, if there is a pending matter of litigation, reconciliation is more important than rights. Settle the matter. Be reconciled.
AN EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER FIVE, BIG BUTS OF THE BIBLE: A REVEALING LOOK AT JESUS CHRIST