Matthew 5:17-37: Traditions, Traps, Transformations: Spirit of the Law

In his teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, the Franciscan priest and contemplative Richard Rohr gives a beautiful and compelling framework for understanding Jesus’ words in today’s gospel lesson: traditions, traps, and transformations. Simply stated, Jesus offers his disciples a warning and an encouragement on three laws: do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not take the name of the Lord in vain. He warns that taken on the surface, each of these laws can cause us to fall into a trap. But read more deeply, they can transform our lives.

The trap of the law is self-sufficiency: the belief that as long as we hold to the letter of the law, we can save ourselves. As long as we hold to the letter of the law we are righteous—a word that means in right relationship with God. But each of these laws points to a deeper, root cause of unrighteousness that begets the offense it names: anger begets murder, lust begets adultery, careless speech begets profanity. Jesus is calling his disciples to a deeper spirituality of self-knowledge and self-examination. He is calling them to a deeper spirituality of honoring the God-image in others.

  • Anger itself is neither good nor evil. It is an emotion that arises when we have been hurt or betrayed or offended. But anger that festers and turns to lasting resentment or estrangement is soul-killing.
  • Sexuality itself is neither good nor evil. It is an instinct that binds us others and generates life and love. But sexuality that objectifies and uses other people for self-gratification is dehumanizing.
  • Calling on the name of God itself is neither good nor evil. It is an impulse to prayer that everyone has—whether or not they profess faith in God. But using the name of God to gain an advantage over someone else is idolatry: it turns God into an object that we can manipulate and use to manipulate others. (My sister-in-law was once the assistant bursar at Duke University. She used to say that when it came to avoiding paying their tuition, business students were the most conniving, law students the meanest, and Divinity School students the most likely to take the name of the Lord in vain. She tells the story of one Div School student who tried to get out of paying her bill by saying, “You look like a Christian. I’m just a poor pastor trying to serve the Lord.” Cheryl replied, “Yes, I am a Christian, and you owe this university $10,000.”)

God isn’t ours to manipulate like some chunk of metal, stone, or wood. God is the living spirit of life and love that animates and sustains the world. Jesus is calling his disciples—and us—to honor that spirit of life and love in all aspects of our lives—in ourselves, in others, and in Godself—so that we can be free to serve the Gospel of love and grace. When traditions that were intended to help us honor God’s spirit become ends in themselves, they entrap us and become a means of bondage rather than freedom.

I hope you’ve been reading the Lenten devotional the PC(USA) created about becoming a beloved community and embracing the Matthew 25 call to eradicate poverty, dismantle racism, and revitalize congregations. At our January planning meeting, the Session decided that Butner Presbyterian Church should become a Matthew 25 congregation. Matthew 25 is the part of the Gospel that calls us to be awake and watchful for Christ, like bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive, to be trustworthy with the talents God gives us, and to show compassion for the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned, because “[whatever we do] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, we [do] to [Christ].”

So far, the stories I’ve read in the Lenten devotional tell of people who struggle to go beyond their comfort zones: a woman who wonders if Jesus really means it when he says “bring the homeless poor into your house,” one who is learning how to resist her impulse to fix racism from a position of privilege and instead listen to others as they tell their own stories of marginalization and injustice, a woman who is learning how to let go of stress so that she can help neighbors in need, and a man who sees community connection and attending to God as the path to a world free of gun violence. In all of these stories, folks are waking up to approaches to answering the Gospel call that are counter-intuitive for them and that call them to look more deeply at themselves and their usual way of doing things.

There is much that we do already that fulfills the Matthew 25 commitment: we feed the hungry and homeless at Urban Ministries of Durham, we shelter and nurture children in our Pre-K, we foster love and friendship while funding shallow wells at Wine into Water, we provide Christmas presents for children at Butner-Stem Elementary school, 20% of our little faith community participates in Butner Church Council to foster worship, service, and fellowship across denominational lines. That is a lot of taking the Gospel beyond the walls of this sanctuary. That is a lot of moving beyond our comfort zone.

One day I was looking around the church office for some copy paper. We seemed to be out and so I started poking into every old cabinet I could find. I didn’t find copy paper that day, but I did find stacks and stacks of blueprints: for the fellowship hall (which used to be the sanctuary), and for the sanctuary, and for the office, and for the classrooms and Pre-K, and I don’t know what all else. But it looked to me like a lot of blueprints, and I wondered why they were still hanging around. I wondered what use they might be? I wondered if and how someone who needed to repair or remodel a building would make use of old blueprints.

It occurred to me that we often carry around old blueprints in our heads: we call them “traditions.” They are the way we’ve always done things. The way we think institutions—like church, for example—should operate. The things that we think we should be doing if we are a community of faith, or a food pantry, or a school, or a town, or a nation, or just about any institution that organizes us for action. Sometimes those old blueprints can be useful, they might show us where the load-bearing walls are so that we don’t knock out something that’s holding the structure together. But sometimes they also prevent us from seeing what we might become because we’re still looking back at what we used to be.

When traditions that used to help us honor God’s spirit become ends in themselves, they entrap us and become a means of bondage rather than freedom. We need traditions, but we also need the freedom to serve the Gospel of love and grace in a world that is not necessarily open to receiving it exactly the way we did. Jesus calls us to break free of the traditions that trap us so that we can serve the living God who breathes the spirit of life and love that animates and sustains the world. This spirit is not bound to human tradition. As one writer said, “God is already at work. Let’s turn our attention to God. Let’s trust that God, in God’s mysterious ways, will use” us in ways that sometimes push us beyond the walls of this sanctuary and beyond the narrow limits of tradition. God is already out there. Our call is to follow and to see God-image in the least of these who are members of [God’s] family bear. Amen.