Epiphany 6 – “Letter and Spirit of the Law” – Matthew 5:21-37- 2/16/20


“May we Thy precepts, Lord, fulfill. And do on earth our Father’s will as angels do above;
Still walk in Christ, the living way, with all Thy children and obey, the Law of Christian love.”
(LSB 698:1)

14_-Letter-of-the-LawSt. Matthew tells us that, on one occasion, “a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:35-39)

With His answer to the lawyer, our Lord spelled out the ‘spirit of the Law of God’ – ‘love’. Love God. Love your neighbor. This is what all 10 of the Commandments are about – ‘love.’

Seems a shame though that you have to make laws for that doesn’t it? Love seems like something that we should all just naturally. And in fact there was a time when it did.

“God is love,” says John. (1Jn.4:8) And we were made in the image of God. We were created to ‘love’ because we were created BY love because we were created by God and “God is love.” There was a time when it all came naturally. No COMMANDMENTS necessary.

But as we all know, that’s not who we are now. Things changed. We lost the image of God. Actually, we gave it away. Swapped it for a shiny piece of fruit.

And yet, there does seem to be some lingering memory of the image in which we were created in us. Because deep down inside, (and sometimes a little too deep down inside,) we have a sense that not only is ‘love’ a good thing, but that we ‘ought’ to love both God and our neighbor.

But it’s a shame that now we need to be ‘coerced’ by Commandments that tell us how to love and threaten to punish us if we fail to love.

And here’s where things start getting muddled and messy. Can it be genuine ‘love’ if it has to be spelled out – ‘this is what you must do and shall not do’? And the fact is, it DOES have to be spelled out for us. I wonder how many ‘valentines’ wish they has ‘spelled out’ what they considered a loving gift more clearly than they did. “What am I going to do with this?” “More candy was really the last thing that I need.” That’s what the 10 Commandments do. The spell out in 10 point detail how to ‘love God’ and how to ‘love your neighbor.’

But, can it be genuine ‘love’ if it has to be enforced with threats of punishment? Because after all, they are ‘laws,’ ‘commandments,’ not ‘suggestions’ or ‘guidelines.’ James writes, ‘If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (James 2:8-9) Can it be genuine ‘love’ if it’s done to avoid punishment for breaking the law?

What we’re trying to get at here is the distinction between the ‘spirit of the law’ and the ‘letter of the law.’ The ‘spirit of the law’ is ‘love God love neighbor.’ The ‘letter of the law’ is what is spelled out in the ‘thou shalls’ and the ‘thou shall nots.’

Our problem is that we can’t seem to hold these two things together in the perfect unity IN WHICH GOD GAVE THEM AND THEREFORE THAT TRUE ‘LOVE’ REQUIRES. To hold both the ‘spirit’ and the ‘letter’ of the Law together in perfect unity with each other is what it means to “fulfill the Law.”

Our problem is that can’t seem do that. And so we end up either striving to live by the ‘letter of the law’ at the expense of the ‘spirit of the law.’ Or we try to live by the ‘spirit of the law’ at the expense of the ‘letter of the law.’ And whichever side of the Law that we fall off, this is what means to “relax” the commandments which we heard our Lord sternly warn against doing last Sunday.

In our gospel text today, our Lord addresses the sin of relaxing the ‘SPIRIT OF THE LAW’ for the sake of keeping the ‘LETTER OF THE LAW.’

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” And you said, ‘I’ve never murdered anyone. I’ve kept the ‘letter of the law.’ “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” You have broken the ‘SPIRIT OF THE LAW.’

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ And you said, ‘It’s always been consensual and I’ve never gone too far.’ “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” You have broken the ‘SPIRIT OF THE LAW.’

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” And you said, ‘I did. It was all legal and official and even mutual and I’ve paid every alimony payment on time.’ “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” You have broken the ‘SPIRIT OF THE LAW.’

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” And you said, ‘But I didn’t understand what I was saying, and my situation has changed, and now it’s inconvenient for me to keep my word.’ “But I say to you, do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is His footstool…” You have broken the ‘SPIRIT OF THE LAW.’

In Jesus’ day, the prototype for those who lived by the ‘letter of the law’ types were the Pharisees. They lived by the ‘letter of the law’ at the expense of the ‘spirit of the law.’ It the same for us when we act as though all that really matters is what we don’t do and would never do because I’m pretty sure God would catch me if I didn’t and that wouldn’t be good for me. Where’s the ‘love for God’ and ‘love for my neighbor’ in that?

In our day, there’s also good deal of falling off the horse on the other side. And there probably was in Jesus’ day too. For example, since the spirit of the law is to ‘love God’ that’s what REALLY matters, then it doesn’t REALLY matter if I ‘keep the Sabbath Day holy’ or not.

Since the ‘SPIRIT OF THE LAW’ is ‘love your neighbor,’ then that’s what REALLY matters. The ‘LETTER OF THE LAW’ regarding marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman doesn’t matter as long as they love each other. And if the ‘love’ runs dry, then divorce is perfectly permissible because it’s all about ‘love.’ If we’re not sure we can ‘love’ the fetus in the womb once it’s born, it’s okay to set aside the letter of the law – ‘thou shall not murder.’ The important thing is the ‘spirit of the law,’ the ‘letter of the law’ must adapt.

The apostle Paul waded into this dilemma that we all struggle with. As a one-time Pharisee of Pharisees, Paul is acutely aware of the temptation to live by the “letter” at the cost of the ‘spirit’ – as if that’s what REALLY matters.

The big issue that the early church wrestled with was ‘circumcision.’ Once the preaching of the gospel began to attract large numbers of Gentiles, the question was, ‘can a person be saved apart from “circumcision”? Must one hold to the ‘letter of the law’ to be saved?

The verdict of the Council was ‘no’. Circumcision was a part of a different set of laws, called the ‘ceremonial laws,’ that were not about ‘LOVE’ at all. The ‘ceremonial’ laws were meant to ‘separate’ the people of God from the NATIONS.

There were laws for how priests were to do their duty and about the redemption of property and how to clean your house if there was a disease in it. There was a law that a newly married man couldn’t be drafted to serve in the army or any public duty for a year. There are hundreds of these sorts of laws in the Bible. They’re all ‘FROM GOD.’ But they were entirely specific to people of Israel. And once the Son of God sends His apostles out to “make disciples of all nations,” these ceremonial laws are done with. They’ve served their purpose and now they’re obsolete.

Jesus is not talking about the ‘ceremonial law’ here. He’s talking about the ‘MORAL LAW.’ The ‘moral law’ applies to all people – believer or unbeliever, from the beginning until the end. Even if the bible did not say, ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘you shall not commit adultery,’ ‘you shall not steal…’ people everywhere would come up with laws to prohibit these things.

The 10 Commandments contain God’s ‘moral law.’ And the ‘spirit’ of the ‘moral law’ is ‘love.’ These are ‘laws’ that will never become obsolete until the Last Day comes when the GREAT ‘SEPARATION’ happens and no one needs a ‘law’ to love God with their whole heart and their neighbor as themselves. Perfect love will come as naturally to us as it did Adam and Eve in paradise before their Fall.

Until then though, we dare not “relax” the Law by setting aside the ‘letter of the law’ for the sake of the ‘spirit,’ or visa-versa.

Which if we’re willing to be honest with ourselves, puts us in an impossible position. BECAUSE WE SIMPLY CANNOT RIDE THIS HORSE. We’re always falling off on both sides.

Do we understand that if being saved by God depends on our keeping the Law, we are all damned? “We all fall short” says Paul. We cannot keep either the ‘letter’ or the ‘spirit’ of the Law, let alone both together in perfect harmony. We cannot “fulfill the law.”

What then shall we do? ANSWER: just listen and don’t do anything -YET. Listen to our Lord’s words and how gracious and wonderful they are. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but the FULFILL them.”

“God is love.” And “God so loved the world that He sent His Son.” And the Son of God has fulfilled the law of love perfectly. He has kept both THE LETTER AND THE SPIRIT OF THE LAW perfectly, as only He can, BECAUSE HE IS GOD, and God is love.

And in His perfect ‘love’ for the world, FOR YOU, He says, “come to Me.” “Come to Me, you who are weary… of falling off the LAW on both sides – and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28).

In His perfect love FOR YOU, God counts Jesus’ perfect FULFILLMENT of the Law TO YOU – even while you continue to fall off the Law on both sides
– even while your love is so weak and cold
– even while you continue to confess and ask for forgiveness over and over and over again.

There is a lot of pressure on us these days, both from the outside and from the inside, to forsake the ‘letter of the law’ for the sake of the ‘spirit of the Law’ in the name of ‘love.’ To resist doing so is often rewarded with accusations of ‘hating’ rather than ‘loving.’ How to respond in ‘love’ is very difficult.

We know that to “relax even the least of these commandments” is not the answer.
AND we know that Jesus Christ is the ONLY answer.

And so, very often, the ONLY THING that we can do is the BEST THING that we can do. We commend ourselves and others to Jesus Christ who has fulfilled the Law of Love perfectly FOR US ALL.

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