Matthew | Self-regulation, the law and the prophets

Participation in Jesus’ new community calls for self-awareness, self-regulation and love. (Listen.)

If I said I’d never thought, ‘You nincompoop!’ of someone, or even, once or twice, actually muttered it in anger—well, I’d be a liar. If I claimed my eye had never once wandered, that, too, would be a falsehood. If I denied I am an adulterer because it’s not me but my husband who’s divorced, I’d be playing the sort of legalistic game which Jesus doesn’t seem to think much of. And if I claimed my every ‘yes’ was a wholehearted promise, then let me say now: I’ve been known to prevaricate from time to time.

So it’s a bit shocking to think that, according to Jesus, I’m like a murderer liable to judgement, and an adulterer who should rip out her own eye; I’m living in a sinful marriage; and my words are from the evil one. (You have been warned.) So, am I beyond redemption? By which I mean, did Jesus come to give us a stricter set of guidelines than the law? Are we all being set up to fail? How should we understand his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount?

In thinking about these questions, the first thing to note is Jesus’ claim regarding the law. ‘Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the law or the prophets,’ he says, ‘I’ve come not to abolish but to fulfil.’ (Matthew 5:17). Then he talks about the importance of the law, before setting down his new, higher standards. So we might hear his words as a more rigorous law, a more impossible mandate: but what exactly is ‘the law and the prophets’?

At this point we could make a full survey of the Hebrew Bible, but that would take a very long time. Conveniently for us, however, later in Jesus’ own sermon, Jesus himself gives us a summary: ‘In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 7:12).

So the law and prophets can be summed up as neighbourly love, whether our neighbours are enemies or friends (Matthew 5:43ff). In other words, gentleness, generosity, integrity and peace; lending a hand to anyone in need; prioritizing care for the vulnerable; and, of course, justice.

In the Hebrew Bible, the purpose of the law was always about good neighbourly relations. The Israelites emerged from a ragtag bunch of people who escaped slavery. For hundreds of years, their lives had been regulated by slave-drivers. They had had no freedom of movement, no freedom of marriage, no freedom to buy, sell or own property, no freedom of culture, speech, religious practice or even thought. They had been born and raised in a 24/7 economy, a place where unwanted children were drowned in the river and, no matter how hard people worked, they could not meet their quotas. Leaders were violent and fickle, people were infinitely expendable, and love and justice were in very short supply.

So there on a mountain in the wilderness of freedom, God laid down the law. To a people accustomed to external regulation, God set out right relations between God, people and land. All aspects of life were addressed so that a new community could be woven together through healthy, harmonious relationships.

Now we’re on a mountain again, and Jesus is weaving together his new community from people largely marginalized by the old. And while we tend to hear his words as instructions to individuals, and individuals certainly come into it, he is speaking to his disciples as a group. The ‘yous’ are plural, and his teachings set out how we as a body can incarnate heaven’s culture right here on earth.

It’s not surprising, then, that the things he addresses are all about relationship. Conflict. Desire. Divorce. Broken promises. Because each of these can tear a community apart. Not many communities can manage significant unresolved conflict. Not many can cope with unregulated desire. Not many can hold both parties of a divorce or broken relationship. And not many can stay together through half truths, empty promises, or breaches of trust. Indeed, most of us could tell a story of a church torn apart by vicious conflict, a messy divorce, a ruinous affair, or a string of betrayals and lies.

In this light, Jesus’ words to the group ring loud and true: ‘It is better for you to lose one of your members that for your whole body to go into hell.’ (5:30). He’s referring to those organs which lead to predation: the eye, the hand, the member: for some behaviours are so destructive of community that it is better for that member to leave. But better still to work towards reconciliation. Better to aim for self-giving love. Better to aim for the health of the body: to ‘be mature, as your heavenly Father is mature.’ (5:48).

Indeed, for the new community to thrive, we do need to be mature; and this means ongoing work. As I said a couple of weeks ago, we don’t need to strive for God’s love and grace: these are already ours. But if we want to enjoy the culture of heaven among us, there’s always work to be done, and this includes the ongoing work of self-awareness and self-regulation.

What I mean is this. If we want to embody the kingdom together, we as members need to know ourselves. For example, we need to understand what triggers our anger. We need to notice when we become angry, and learn to interrupt or sidestep it before we do harm. Murder is terrible, but so are all the other things we do when we cannot control our anger.

We also need to recognize what arouses our desire. There’s nothing wrong with experiencing the flickers; that’s normal. But when desire arises outside the bounds of a committed relationship, we need to recognize it. And then we must refuse to fan the flames; we must refuse to rehearse it in our minds, because we don’t want that fire to burn out of control.

In the teaching on the mountain, Jesus also talks about divorce. But instead of taking the usual line that women are responsible for seducing men, he reverses the onus by placing the responsibility for divorce upon the person with power. He says to the men, do not let your eye wander; don’t objectify women or reduce them to the male gaze. Why? Because it leads to injustice; it leads to harm. Remember that, in those days, a divorced woman had no source of income and nowhere to live; she was reduced to prostitution. Hearing his words today, it suggests that we need to be aware of all the ways we treat people as expendable, whether within or beyond the bounds of marriage; and, if divorce is unavoidable, we need to work out just arrangements so no vulnerable person is left behind.

The new community also requires us to practice reconciliation. Here Jesus again places the onus on the powerful. It is not the one who has been hurt, but the one who realizes that a member of the community has something against them, who is cautioned to act. So we need to take responsibility not just for our hurts, but for all the ways we ourselves can hurt others. We must be able to admit wrongdoing, enact justice, and seek peace.

And we need to be honest with ourselves. So many of our prevarications, half-truths and lies are about our own refusal to live in the light. They are born out of fear; they are born out of a self-protective need to hide; they are born out of oppressive conditions where honest speech leads to punishment. We didn’t grow up in slavery, but many of us grew up in families or churches where honest speech had bad consequences. We no longer, I hope, live under these conditions; for we have been adopted into the new community. And so we are called to speak and act with integrity through and through—or else choose the wisdom of silence.

Of course, we live in a world which hardly models this culture. Instead, we are told that everyone is expendable and everything exploitable and everything is someone else’s responsibility or fault. Distractions are everywhere, and whole industries encourage us to yield to each and every impulse. In this context, self-awareness and self-regulation can sound a bit hard.

And it’s true. The way of love is hard. It requires effort. It requires discipline. It requires painful self-knowledge and the giving up of illusions; it requires loving people we might not choose; it requires us to know and love ourselves; it requires careful, honest speech. But Jesus reckons we can do it, and so do I. Because those who gather around Jesus and trust in him have been told who they already are. Jesus states it plainly at the beginning of his sermon: You are blessed. You are salt. You are light. In other words, you got this. Even better, we do not do this work alone. We do it as his disciples, with his companionship, being transformed by his Spirit, and with the support and encouragement of each other.

So let’s accept our responsibilities, live with integrity, and keep learning to manage our speech, anger and desire, that we might grow ever more fully into the body that Jesus calls us to be.

And the good news is that, in this community, nobody is beyond redemption. Where truth is upheld and peacemaking prioritized, where people work to build healthy relationships, good humour and forgiveness are poured out like wine. Even on adulterers. Even on divorcees. Even on those who mutter ‘You nincompoop!’ from time to time. So let’s show maturity, nurture our relationships,  and be the new community, so that we can keep sharing God’s blessings all around. Ω

A reflection by Alison Sampson on Matthew 5:21-37 given to Sanctuary on 12 February 2023 © Sanctuary 2023.

Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. This week, we keep flipping between heat and cold. One moment the sky is grey and glaring; the next, pure cerulean blue. Sadly it was overcast when we tried to see the comet. It’s the first time seen here for 50,000 years. And I wonder: what stories have been handed down about that comet from when the people who live here saw it last time? I pay my respects to elders past and present. The peace of the land be with us all. Amen.


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