Suppose we were all good law-observant Jews, and you heard these words of Jesus’ and decided to follow them. The next day I have to go out of town, and I ask you if can look after my ox while I’m gone. You’re a decent sort, and pretty well set up for ox-tending, so you say, “sure!” Unfortunately, while I’m away, the ox catches what you think is a bad case of flu. It gets sicker and sicker and then dies. I come back, and I’m pretty upset about my dead ox, who wasn’t a cute pet, but really essential to my ability to provide for my family (let’s say we’re all subsistence farmers here too). I demand you pay me the price of an ox, something you definitely do not have the resources to do, not without ruining yourself. “Hold on,” you say, “that’s not fair, it wasn’t my fault, the ox just got sick and died.” You remember that the law of Moses actually deals explicitly with this situation, and you’d just heard Jesus say that he hadn’t come to abolish the law. The law says that in this exact situation, all you have to do is swear an oath that the ox’s death wasn’t your fault, and I would have no claim against you. But, Jesus just said no oaths. None at all. And the law of Moses doesn’t say you can swear an oath if you like, it says, Exod 22:10-11, in this situation, you must. The debt-collectors are at your door, and they’re telling you, “follow the law, the law God gave on Sinai, if what you’re saying about the illness is true, and swear the oath. If not, cough up.”
That’s when something clicks for you. What did he mean when he said, ‘fulfil’? Some of the time he just meant ‘add’; like the law said not to kill people, but he added, don’t even be angry with them. That seemed hard. But, it seems like ‘fulfil’ can really mean change as well. Origen, an early Christian theologian, said that ‘fulfil’ here means like what happens when a child matures into an adult. It’s the same person in a really important sense, but in another sense, you’re not the same person you were when you were five. New teeth, new hair, new dreams, new sorrows. No oaths any more. ‘Fulfil’ really does involve a real measure of change.
But, he said that not one small letter, not even a part of a letter, not a jot or a tittle, would pass away before heaven and earth pass away! So, maybe they have. This is exactly what Jesus is saying. In his incarnation, in his total obedience to his Father heaven and earth have really started to pass away. Paul says the same thing: the “rulers of this age” are passing away. And the end is much like the beginning, the beginning when we lived as God made us, wholly loving of creation, of each other and of God. So no oaths any more, and no more divorce, because there wasn’t any in Genesis, not until Deuteronomy. No anger, no lust, because there wasn’t any before the Fall.
And that sounds really hard. And it is. I started with the oaths bit, in part because it’s the most clear cut example that Jesus does say that some obligations of the Law of Moses have passed away. He says that that’s because his life has so radically altered the world, and he’s bringing us back to the garden, where the standards are different. I also chose the oaths to start because it’s the one example that probably doesn’t cut so close to our cores today. The rest of it all sounds really hard.
And Jesus has two responses to this in the Sermon on the Mount. One we heard near the start of our reading today. Remember he said that whoever breaks these commandments is least in the kingdom of heaven. Well, in my better moments, I’m just fine with that. It’s like that joke: what do you call someone who graduated bottom of their class in medical school? A doctor. In my better moments, I remember that being least in the kingdom of heaven is still being part of the kingdom of heaven, and that that’ll be amazing enough that what will care if I’m least or not!
But we shouldn’t be too okay with being least in the kingdom of heaven. It is meant to smart, at least a little bit. If we smarts enough that we think we’d turn down a place at the table just because we have to sit at the tail end of it, that’s a problem. But remember in the beatitudes, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? It should profoundly bother us that we don’t live up to this, not in a way that makes us despair, but in a way of gut-level hunger. And Jesus says, paradoxically, that we’re happy when we’re hungering, because we know God will fill us. We’re trusting even as we long. We’re acknowledging that we can’t fill ourselves, and we find a strange happiness in that.
Jesus’ second response, we’ll actually hear next week. He continues with these “you have heard… but I say” sayings, telling us to love our enemies, and give a reason for that: for God makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust. God makes the sun shine. How amazing is that! If God can make the sun shine, maybe he can make us holy, can make us perfect, can make us love like him, make us live this vision. Drop the maybe. God has rent heaven and earth that we might love like Him. And we only receive that gift by daring to try to live it. Let’s dare to try.