"Breaking rocks in the hot sun, I fought the law and the law won.
I fought the law and the law won.
I needed money ‘cause I had none, I fought the law and the law won,
I fought the law and the law won."
These are the opening lyrics to a great rock n’ roll song by Sonny Curtis, "I Fought the Law," which was later covered by a plethora of artists including the Bobby Fuller Four, the Clash and Green Day. I love the spareness of the lyrics: "I needed money ‘cause I had none." That gets to the point. As does, "I fought the law and the law won." The image that is left after listening to this song is clear, if you want to mess with the law, the law will mess with you.
The Sunday Gospel for the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, a passage which continues Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, has Jesus teaching about the law of God and initially it seems a fairly straightforward teaching.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses
that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."
Follow God’s law, don’t fight it, for "whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven." But the complexity is found even within this passage. Those who break "one of the least of these commandments" will not, it seems, be breaking rocks in the hot sun, but "will be called least in the kingdom of heaven." Yet, if you follow the law, you "will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven." And, finally, "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." Your attitude to the law, and its righteousness, has everything to do with your place, or absence from, the kingdom of heaven. The reason this is so significant, especially for those worried about swinging a hammer in the hot sun, is that Christians today demonstrably do not follow the law as Jews in Jesus’ own day did and as Orthodox and other Jews do today. Why don’t Christians follow the law as Jesus encouraged us to do?
An answer, or at least the hint of an answer, is found at the beginning of this passage. The disciple of Jesus is also told that Jesus has come to "fulfill" the law, which has the sense of bringing it to completion or even "completeness." How does Jesus fulfill the law and what does it mean to his followers? I think the second part of the reading gives us an internal clue as to what Jesus is driving at. In the "Antitheses," which as a whole run from Matthew 5:21-48, but in this reading take us to v.37, Jesus gives us a number of aphorisms set in an identical format: "you have heard that it was said...but I say to you." Here is one example from the passage:
"You have heard that it was said,
You shall not commit adultery.
But I say to you,
everyone who looks at a woman with lust
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye causes you to sin,
tear it out and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one of your members
than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.
And if your right hand causes you to sin,
cut it off and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one of your members
than to have your whole body go into Gehenna."
Yet, when Jesus says, "you have heard that it was said," he is not disputing whose version of "I Fought the Law" is best (the Bobby Fuller Four’s naturally, which I prefer to the Crickets' own version) or whether Jerusalem would beat Damascus in the upcoming chariot races (wasn’t Damascus known as TitleTown, Syria in the ancient world?), but deepening and transforming the law given by God. When Jesus says, "you have heard that it was said," he is responding to God’s own divine law and adding, "but I say to you." On what basis can anyone say this about God’s law? Who has this authority? This is the precise issue at stake. We are subject to God’s law, but Jesus himself, as God’s own son, brings it to completion and fulfillment. The law does not, therefore, come to an end, but to its messianic completeness. Adultery is not hereby allowed, but in Jesus’ teaching the source of adultery, in our hearts, minds and wills is addressed. It is not just a matter of Jesus saying, "don't do it, you might get caught and then there'll be, literally, hell to pay," but of Jesus asking us to think of how we reach such a point of decision. Lust begins and then we begin persuading ourselves it is okay and giving ourselves permission to do it. Jesus is not just transforming the law, but asking that we as his followers transform ourselves. This transformation includes accepting that we ought not follow the law simply to avoid punishment, but because it is best for us and our human nature. This is not an overt and showy piety we are being called to fulfill, but a deeper, richer sense of what it is to be human, captured in the transformed law, which includes all what God knows is best for us. It is good, after all, not to break rocks in the hot sun, but it is better to love God and all he desires for us because we know it brings us to him and to true joy. Don't fight the law, just let it make you who you were intended to be.
John W. Martens
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