An engineer, a physicist, and a lawyer all die on the same day, and find themselves in line outside the Pearly Gates. As they approach the entrance to heaven, they are greeted by St. Peter. Peter says to them, “We just have one very simple question for you to gain entrance to heaven.” The question is this: “How much is two plus two?”
The engineer is first in line. She leans over to St. Peter and whispers confidently in his ear, “four.” And, as she does, St. Peter waves her in to Paradise. The physicist then approaches, and gives the same answer. “Please, come on in,” replies St. Peter. The lawyer is last in line, and is asked the same question by Peter. “How much is two plus two?” The lawyer looks over one shoulder, and then the other, and leans forward to whisper into St. Peter’s ear: “How much do you want it to be?”
As a recovering lawyer myself, I feel I have permission to share this laugh at the expense of my former profession. I do so today because our lessons are very much about the “law” and our relationship to it, and this joke, while corny to be sure, has a kernel of truth to it: human beings have a deep-rooted tendency to try to work around the requirements of the law and to take matters into our own hands. We see the law as something that is imposed upon us from the outside that prevents us from doing what we’d like to do, or want to do, or think we need to do.
Moses’ prophetic career, which is the subject of our first lesson from Deuteronomy, is a classic illustration. Having received the Torah from God’s hands, and being commissioned to lead God’s people through the wilderness and toward the Promised Land, Moses spends most of his time and energy watching the people rebel against God’s law. Every time, it seems, that the people get hungry, or thirsty, or weary, they set aside what God has told them, believing they know better. All of this comes to a climax in our first reading, which comes near the end of Moses’ life. Knowing that his time is almost up, in this farewell discourse Moses gives an impassioned plea on behalf of Torah.
Living in accordance with God’s law, Moses says, is a matter of life and death. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live . . . but if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish . . . . I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”
At the core of Moses’ message are three deep theological convictions:
First is the insistence that human flourishing requires turning toward God alone, depending upon His loving care, and trusting in nothing else. Time and again, human beings are tempted to rely on their own counsel, their own desires, their own sense of what is right, but that way lies folly. God is our only guide. As the Psalmist says, “Happy are they who walk in the law of the Lord . . . who seek him with all their heart.”
Second is the conviction that Torah, far from being a set of restrictions on our freedom, is in fact a life-giving framework that allows our freedom to find its healthiest expression. Law is blessing, not curse. By loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and strength; by loving our neighbors as ourselves; and by otherwise aligning our lives with God’s law; we find our truest identities as God’s children.
Third is the conviction that the law is not primarily a rulebook for individuals, but rather a constitution for a people. Ever since the Enlightenment in the West – ever since Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am” – there has been a shift towards individualism as a basic philosophical orientation. Yet the biblical perspective is very different: it is a people with whom God covenants; a people to whom God gives the Law; a people whom God saves. Our salvation lies in community, not in self-reliance or individual accomplishment.
In short, says Moses, to “choose life” means: to love and depend upon God alone; to view Torah as a life-giving blessing that allows human freedom to flourish; and to know that we are intended to live in community and not in isolation.
As Christians, of course, Moses’ view of the law, as rich and right as it is, is not the last word. And so we turn to our gospel, and another section from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. That Jesus gives his sermon on a “mount,” reminiscent of the giving of the Law to Moses on another mount, is of course no accident. Jesus is the new Moses, the new Law-giver. Jesus comes, as he told us last week, not to “abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill [them].”
And so, Jesus does not set aside what Moses has done and said, but instead Jesus takes us deeper: into the very heart of the Law. The specific examples Jesus takes up in our text were undoubtedly problems that confronted Matthew’s church: problems of anger, adultery, divorce, breaking promises made under oath. These challenges, of course, persist today. Underlying Jesus’ treatment of each of these issues is the basic insight that what ultimately matters to God is right relationship to others, not merely complying with behavioral norms or legal externalities. It’s not just that we should keep from murdering our neighbor when we disagree; we should learn affirmatively to love and be reconciled with her. It’s not just that we should avoid adulterous behavior; we should learn to cherish all covenanted relationships and honor one another as God’s children. It’s not just that we should avoid using God’s name in vain; we should treat all of our promises as if they are sacred commitments.
In short, Jesus is inviting us to view God’s law not as an external code of conduct, but as something written on our hearts, something that is integral to our very being.
Well, if you’re like me, your reaction to all this is fear and trembling. On the surface, it seems like Jesus is asking the impossible of us. It sounds like he wants us to be perfect. And the truth is: He does.
But here is the saving grace: We are not called to be perfect as individuals; for as individuals we will certainly miss the mark time and again. Rather, we are called to be perfect within the Body of Christ, and it is through, and only through, our participation as a community in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, made possible in our baptisms, that we are able to become citizens of this heavenly realm where right relationship with God and neighbor is perfectly possible. Whereas under the Mosaic law, God’s people endeavored to live out God’s law by adherence to the 613 commandments of Torah, for Christians, that very same Torah has been embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, and he has taken upon himself, for our benefit, the perfect fulfillment of holy living as God’s Chosen One.
So, don’t be disheartened if in your individual lives you fall short of the holy life Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount – because we all fall short on our own. The good news to keep near your heart is this: by prayerfully organizing our communal lives around Christ’s teaching, by encouraging and supporting one another in our common life, and by participating in Christ’s life through the sacrament of bread and wine we are about to share, we are able, through grace, to become the redeemed people and beloved community God desires us to be.
Many of my students at Harvard are asking me in these troubled and dark times, what can we do as Christians? What ought we to do? Our lessons today suggest one answer: first, anytime we are confronted with human laws, policies, or practices that are inimical to the law of Christ, we are called peacefully yet boldly to resist such human distortions of God’s will for us. And second, and perhaps even more importantly, as Jesus’ beloved community, we are called to model for the wider world as best we are able the alternative vision for humanity described by the Sermon on the Mount as it is perfectly embodied in Christ’s life. This is our primary vocation: to lift up the person of Jesus Christ himself — not Christianity; not the Episcopal Church; not a social agenda; not a political philosophy – but the person of Jesus Christ himself. Amen.