“You have heard it said…but I say to you…” — Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32
There were 613 religious laws in Jesus’ day. The legal experts (“lawyers”), rabbis, priests, and groups like the Pharisees and Sadduccees really enjoyed debating them. What constituted work on the sabbath? What made you clean or unclean? Along with such debating came the satisfaction of feeling righteous and of feeling indignation at the others who didn’t live up to your level of righteousness.
So, you can imagine the shock/anger they felt when Jesus started his inaugural sermon in Matthew by totally reshaping the playing field. “You have heard it said:” what followed was one of hundreds of standard laws. “But I say to you:” what followed was a total reinterpretation of it. He went beyond simplistic legalism. He got to the original intent behind the rule. Love God, love your neighbor. Period. Don’t use the letter of the law to dishonor either. Be so focused on loving God and caring for another that you forget to be self-righteous.
Legalism is a way for people to love themselves more than God or others. Jesus bent a lot of rules in order to connect with those rejected by the righteous ones. He partied with sinners, healed on the sabbath, forgave sins, and conversed with women.
Maybe an antidote to self-righteousness is to occasionally imagine what Jesus would say regarding rules and laws we’ve encountered.
“I have heard it said that you must be a Christian to get to heaven, but Jesus says to me: ___________”
“I have heard it said that what you believe is more important than how you live, but Jesus says to me: _______”
“I have heard it said that people with alternative lifestyles are sinners, but Jesus says to me: _________”
“I have heard it said, ‘America First,’ but Jesus says to me: ___________”
Jesus always viewed rules from that larger perspective of honoring God/loving neighbor. Questioning rules from that viewpoint can be a liberating thing. It also keeps us in awe of the insight and compassion of the One we follow.