Boudreaux and his brother Pierre were not the most religious folks in town, in fact they really only went to church twice a year so that they could be considered “members in good standing.” As they were leaving the Church, the priest said, “Boudreaux, it sure would be nice to see you and Pierre here more than once a year!” “I know,” replied Boudreaux, “but at least we keep the Ten Commandments.” “Well I suppose that’s a start,” the priest said. “I’m glad to hear that you keep the Commandments.” “Yep,” Boudreaux said proudly, “Pierre keeps six of them and I keep the other four.”
The Ten Commandments are the beginning of the Law handed down to Moses. From there it grows to a total of 613 laws outlined in the Old Testament. Everything from the first of the Ten, “you shall have no other gods,” to laws like Leviticus 11:12, “Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you,” which means no more lobster, shrimp, crawdads, or Unagi (a tasty little morsel you can find at a sushi bar.) Breaking any of these laws comes with repercussions ranging from death by stoning to having to make a sacrifice.
By the time of Jesus the religious leaders were experts at interpreting the Law and enforcing it on the people to such an extent that it became a form of enslavement. Perhaps this was not their intent, but through their zeal for adherence to the Law, they missed the point and sent the wrong message to the people.
A story tells of a frail old man who went to live with his son, daughter-in-law, and four-year-old grandson. The old man’s hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred, and his step faltered. The family ate together at the table, but the elderly grandfather’s shaky hands and failing sight made eating difficult. Peas rolled off his spoon onto the floor. When he grasped the glass, milk spilled on the tablecloth. The son and daughter-in-law became irritated with the mess. “We must do something about Grandfather,” said the son. “I’ve had enough of his spilled milk, noisy eating, and food on the floor. So the husband and wife set a small table in the corner. There Grandfather ate alone while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner.
Since Grandfather had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl. When the family glanced in Grandfather’s direction, sometimes he had a tear in his eye as he sat alone. Still, the only words the couple had for him were sharp admonitions when he dropped a fork or spilled food. The four-year-old grandson watched all this in silence.
One evening before supper, the father noticed his four-year-old son playing with wood scraps on the floor. He asked the child sweetly, “What are you making?” Just as sweetly, the boy responded, “Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and Mama to eat your food out of when I grow up.” The four-year-old smiled and went back to work.
Mom and Dad taught Jr. all about how to keep the china intact, the tablecloth clean, and how to maintain proper decorum at the supper table, but in the process they taught him nothing of grace, mercy, compassion, or love.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” The religious leaders missed the point of the Law and enslaved the people, which brings us to one of the many lessons that can be gleaned from our Gospel lesson.
There was one of those funny cartoons that made the internet rounds a short while back. You’ve heard the question: What would Jesus do? WWJD? The cartoon stated, “The next time someone asks you, ‘What would Jesus do?,’ remind them that freaking out and flipping over tables is a viable option.”
The Temple was the place of sacrifice. For this there were very specific rules on how this was to take place. Only certain money could be tendered and only animals that were considered perfect could be used. Therefore, the religious leaders allowed a marketplace to be established to accommodate all the commerce. Yet they allowed this marketplace to be setup within the Court of the Gentiles – a section within the Temple complex – which was meant to be set aside as a place of prayer for non-Jews.
The religious leaders were following the letter of the Law, not violating a single statute. Proper money was used. Proper animals were used. The sacrifices were made exactly to the specifications of the Law. Yet in their zeal to fulfill the Law, they missed the point. It’s not about the blood of animals. It’s about prayer and a relationship with the One True God.
Long before Jesus, King David understood this. In the 40th Psalm, he wrote:
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”
Jesus, through his words and actions demonstrates that it is not through the fulfilling of the Law that we are made righteous. Instead it comes in allowing the Word of God to transform our hearts. What did we say after we read each of the Commandments in the Decalogue? “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” Incline our hearts to keep this law. What does that look like?
The Law says, “You shall not murder.” Yes, it means don’t kill, but written upon our hearts it also means that we should not destroy another person though lies and gossip. It means we shouldn’t neglect those in need, allowing them to suffer. It means we aren’t to tear one another down, but as Paul teaches we are to “encourage one another and build each other up.”
The Law says, “You shall not commit adultery.” In our hearts it means that we are not to see the other person as an object or a means, but to recognize every human being as a child of God, worthy of His love and ours. It means that we love a person, not for what they can do for us, but for who they are in Christ Jesus.
The Law says, “You shall not covet” and in our hearts we need to recognize that there is a point when enough is enough. Written on our hearts that law declares we do not need every new toy advertised on the TV. It asks you to “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”
Do you see how that works? With Jesus, the Law is the minimum requirement. A starting place, but as the great Anglican poet George Herbert states, “he shoots higher that threatens the moon, than he that aims at a tree.”
What Jesus expects and teaches takes the Law to an entirely different level. Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. … For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
When considering the Law or even just the Ten Commandments, don’t say to yourself, “Well, I didn’t kill anybody today, so I must still be right with God.” We must remember that fulfilling the Law as Jesus calls us to is much more difficult than simply not eating shrimp. It involves a transforming of our hearts and a renewing of our minds. Ask the Holy Spirit to be your teacher so that you can more fully understand God’s law as it is written upon your heart.