Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Today I’d like to offer us a challenge . . . but first a brief introduction:
One of the first sermons I preached here was titled, “What Do You Know By Heart?” My introduction noted that when asked that question, I can recall things like the batting order of the 1961 New York Yankees or the starting lineup of the Boston Celtics of that same vintage. I could give you the lyrics of some of the songs of my high school days, and I most certainly could recite several portions of the Bible as well as the books of the Bible (Thank you Mrs. Rich, my 3rd grade school and Sunday School teacher!). But now, I recall much less by memory . . . I mean, I would panic if my contact list on my cell phone vanished, because I can barely remember my own phone number, much less others. Let’s face it, with all the modern technology we don’t memorize things as did our forebears.
Just think about it. In Jesus’ day it was not unusual for a young man by the time of his bar mitzvah to have memorized the entire first five books of the Bible, the Torah. Or push forward a millennium or so to the time of Shakespeare. Have you ever considered how disciplined an actor had to be? They didn’t have copying machines for scripts. What’s more, they had little time to rehearse. Thus, much responsibility was placed on the actors to learn their lines. And this was often made more difficult because, with plays being done back to back, they were required to memorize one play while doing another. Fast-forward again to just a century or so ago when schoolhouses were equipped with “recitation benches” where children would be called to recite full poems or materials, most often at least fifteen minutes worth. (By the way, that is where we get our phrase, “toe the line” . . . the teacher would say to the student, “Toe the line,” which was the summons to begin to recite.) I wonder if we would even consider employing something similar in our Sunday School classes? Hmm . . .
Back to the challenge. What if during this forced time of isolation we might try to do something old-school? What if we tried to memorize the beatitudes or the entire Sermon on the Mount (which will serve as our guide for the following days of our coronavirus containment)? Just a thought.
Now, I mention all of this in light of the words from Jesus this morning: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. It appears that Jesus is calling us to be diligent in our study of the Torah and its commands. My feeling is that Jesus wasn’t suggesting this to use the Torah as some kind of strict set of laws to punish us when we get out of line, but rather as a set of guidelines to meaningful living.
The other thing that is obvious here is the undeniable fact that Jesus was a Jew. If we don’t understand the Jewishness of Jesus, we miss much of his teaching and preaching. Amy Jill-Levine helps us with that. Dr. Levine is an orthodox Jew who teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School. That’s right, an orthodox Jew teaching Christianity. She is a brilliant scholar and stem-winding lecturer. In her books, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the scandal of the Jewish Jesus, and Short Stories by Jesus, she helps us get a fuller understanding of Jesus. In an interview she explained:
Jesus was a Jew by practice, belief, culture, and ethos, and the Gospels make it abundantly clear how central his Jewish identity was to him: his focus is the G-d of Israel, and how that G-d understands justice, compassion, and the human community. He finds the Torah central enough to argue with fellow Jews about how best to practice it; he honors the Sabbath and keeps it holy; he teaches in the synagogues of Galilee and the Temple in Jerusalem; he keeps the laws of purity and so practices sanctification of the body; his teachings consistently evoke the Scriptures of Israel…. He fits fully within his Jewish tradition and expresses that tradition with his own memorable manner of teaching. Unless we understand Jesus as a Jew, we’ll misunderstand him and we’ll misunderstand the Judaism of his time.
For Jesus, the Law (Torah) and the Prophets were important books to know. And here, in his most famous sermon he is calling for us to pay careful attention to those as well. This appears to be one of his sayings that doesn’t get a lot of consideration these days. In fact, there was a book by Bruce Barton awhile back that captures this, The Book Nobody Knows. It is true, tragically enough, that for all the attention and fanfare we give the Bible, it is, for the most part a book which fewer and fewer of us know. I know this to be true because in every church I’ve served, I’ve given a very simple quiz – a quiz on Bible basics – and found that on a regular basis, less than 10% of the people pass! And these are churches chock-full of bright, intelligent, sophisticated people like yourselves. It can be seen in the number of Bibles that are lost at church every year. There are always a host of Bibles in the “Lost and Found” of any church, most of which stay there for up to a year or so. It’s not so much that they get lost; it’s that they stay lost!
Now, the meditation today is not to induce a guilt-trip, but rather to offer ourselves a challenge, to hear and heed the words of Jesus. If we are to understand the Kingdom of Heaven, one of the best places to learn is the Bible. It is as P.T. Forsyth once said, “The Word of God is in the Bible like the soul is in the body.” When we open up the book it opens up a new life for us. It can be a “lamp unto our feet, a light unto our paths.” The Bible is a guide for the adventure God has in mind for us.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- One of my memories in growing up was how much my mother and grandmother not only read their Bibles but wrote in the margins. Both of those Bible went to others in the family, but I have often wished I could read their thoughts on particular passages. Interestingly enough, I do have my Czech grandmother’s Bible, and she, too, wrote in the margins. However, she wrote in Czech. So, until I master that language, I’ll just have to imagine. Who for you inspired you in their study of the Bible? Give thanks for their example(s).
- What is your favorite passage(s) of Scripture? What do they teach you about God’s love?
- What texts might be helpful for you and yours in these days of coronavirus?
A Guided Prayer: Frederick Ohler at the Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church in western North Carolina
Great and holy God
awe and reverence
fear and trembling
do not come easily to us
for we are not
Old Testament Jews
or sensitive enough.
for slouching into Your presence
with little expectation
and less awe
than we would eagerly give a visiting dignitary.
neither Jehovah nor a buddy —
neither “the Great and Powerful Oz” nor “the man upstairs.”
to want what we need . . .
and may the altar of our hearts
tremble with delight