“Does Love Follow Rules?”
“Does Love Follow Rules?”
Exodus 5:1-17; Matthew 5:17-48
Dr. Kenneth Peters
March 21, 2021
So, we have come to the end. Of the Ten Commandments, we like to call them. It’s not like you’re getting them from Moses this morning. I thought about putting on a wig and a fake beard and come in holding two tablets with some funny looking writing on them, but I would probably have dropped one, like Moses does in the Mel Brooks movie. Moses has three tablets, but he drops one, so that instead of having fifteen commandments we have ten.
That’s fine with us, I expect, because keeping ten is hard enough, which raises an interesting question: Which is the hardest of the commandments? Not murder, surely, none of us has done that. Not worshipping graven images seems easy enough. What about theft or bearing false witness or taking the Lord’s name in vain? What does your report card show in those subjects? We’ve had a year, now, of not being able to come to church. How well have we done at keeping the Sabbath? Speaking for myself, not so well as I should have.
So some of the commandments are harder than others. What about the Tenth Commandment? “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not cover your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” The other commandments are about doing something; the tenth is about wanting something. Surely wanting your neighbor’s house isn’t as bad as doing something dishonest to get it. Surely thinking lasciviously about your neighbor’s wife isn’t as bad as actually committing adultery, is it? Surely wishing you had your neighbor’s ox or his ass or his car or his bass boat isn’t as bad as stealing it. Hating your neighbor isn’t as bad as killing him, surely.
But what if it were? That’s something we would just as soon not think about, isn’t it? If the motive is as bad as the crime, if thinking is as bad as the act, which is what Jesus says about adultery, that puts us in a rather compromising position, doesn’t it? If the hardest commandment is what we are worried about, maybe it is the tenth. Let’s just be glad Moses dropped and broke that third tablet coming down Mount Sinai. Who knows how hard the fifteenth commandment might be?
But we really don’t have anything to worry about, do we? You remember the old Beatles’ song or at least some of us remember “All You Need is Love.” That’s all we need. We are no longer bound by the commandments, we are subject only to the law of love. We do not have to follow rules; all we have to do is follow Christ. We are not Pharisees, squinting at gnats and swallowing camels, we are free from all that. “Let us sin all the more that grace may abound,” the Corinthians seemed to think. Do we agree with that? Did Paul? Would Jesus?
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets,” Jesus said. “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until it is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”
We think of Jesus as standing outside the conventions of his people, but that is simply not true. He was raised in a typical Jewish household. He studied in the synagogue school. He worshipped in the synagogue. It says that when he returned to Nazareth, his hometown, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, “as his custom was.” Call them what you will – rules, conventions, customs, mores – the fact is that this was the way his society was organized, and he was loathe to simply cast that aside.
But a very common notion these days, about our secular and especially our religious life, is that love knows no rules, that love is subject to nothing but itself, and that it expresses itself best when it operates outside all boundaries. The most blatant example of this I can think of concerns the Swiss writer and philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau, who gave us many romantic notions about how love knows no rules. Rousseau made a practice of living off other people, of taking advantage of their generosity, even to the point of stealing from them. “Thou shalt not steal,” the commandment says, to which Rousseau would have replied in so many words, the free man is not bound by rules.
So he got someone to steal for him. He trifled with the affections of a maidservant, and after she had stolen for him he let her take the blame for it.
He had broken – let’s see – how many of the commandments? Stealing, bearing false witness, coveting a maidservant, or at least pretending to; technically, not adultery; if not murder, character assassination. That girl’s life was ruined forever, and letting her be punished for him, Rousseau excused himself by saying his heart was never so full of love for anyone as it was for that girl. His feeling for her – Rousseau was strong on “feelings” – was so tender and so loving he could hardly believe what a good person he was!
Surely none of us could be that crass, but is it not the case that we slide very easily, if not willingly, into this notion that Christian faith is just about love, and that love follows no rules. What we mean is that rules do not have the last word. They are not sacrosanct. In the end, they are subject to love, in the end, it is love that has the last word. But what does that Mean? Not, I am afraid, what many people think it means.
Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come to fulfill them.” He fulfilled the law by meeting its requirements, by meeting its requirements and then going beyond that. “For I tell you,” he said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” It is not enough not to kill someone, one should not hate anyone. It is not enough not to commit adultery or bear false witness. If anyone strikes you on the cheek turn to him the other also; if anyone needs your coat give him your cloak as well; if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
That last saying is interesting, the part about going the second mile. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, should we not ask, “How can we go the second mile without going the first?” and yet how easily we trick ourselves into believing that somehow we can. Just this last week, some celebrity made an offensive comment for which it was expected he might apologize. He replied that his spiritual journey was taking him far beyond the need for apologies. We all want what is at the end of the second mile, it is going the first mile that is the problem. The children may remember the story of the little red hen. I might have told it as the children’s sermon today, except that we heard a much better one. At any rate, nobody wants to help the little red hen plant the wheat, or harvest it, or take it to be ground into flour, or bake the bread. But everybody wants to help her eat the bread.
More sophisticated examples of this could be multiplied a thousand times over. The problem with the story is that the little red hen should have forgiven them all and shared the bread with them. Jesus would have said, “forgive them. If someone wants one piece of bread, give them two.” Looks like I hoist on my own petard, but you get the point, I’m sure. Often we want to go the second mile without going the first. Why be bothered with something so mundane as following the commandments when all that effort can be avoided by appealing to love? We don’t need the religion of the Hebrews, we sometimes think. Ours is the religion of the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t know how many people I’ve heard say that. Really, I wonder, when was the last time you read it? We read some of it this morning: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Love your enemies, turn the other cheek and go the second mile.” Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses by going beyond it.
He also universalized it. We think of the Ten Commandments as having a universal application, being true at all times and all places for all peoples. But that is not what they were intended for in the beginning, as I am sure Bobby and our other Ten
Commandments preachers have emphasized. In the beginning they were given to the Hebrews to set them apart. I have brought you out of Egypt, the Lord said. I have set you apart. You will not live by other codes and other customs, God said. You will live by these.
It was only much later in their history, mainly through the prophets, the Hebrews learned the Lord was not just their God, but the God of all peoples, and that to represent God to all peoples was why they had been set apart and given the commandments. But it was Jesus who fully represented this God, not only to the Jews but to Gentiles alike, it is clear this message was not always gratefully received. Being better than other people was important to many of Christ’s own people, and I wonder if that is still not the case. More often than we would like to admit, when we talk about avoiding rules which govern ordinary conduct, that is, the conduct of others, it is because we don’t think the rules apply to us.
Finally, Jesus fulfilled the Law by making it subject to love. So I guess that answers our question. Maybe all you need is love, but it is important to know what this love is like. It demands a higher, and not a lower standard. A harder, and not an easier standard. Let your righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees, Jesus said. Go the second mile. But we cannot go the second mile without going the first. Should we follow the commandments? By all means. “You have heard it said ‘You shall not kill’”, Jesus said, quoting the sixth commandment; now go beyond that: “’Do not commit adultery”, the seventh commandment; now go beyond that, and let your thoughts be as virtuous as your actions. The ninth commandment says, “Do not swear falsely, but I say do not swear at all. You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
So be perfect, that’s all. In some future sermon, I am counting on Bobby to tell us just how we are supposed to do that. My job is done. I’ve gotten us through the Ten Commandments. “Whoever does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said. But then he went further, this in the thirteenth chapter of John: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” Ah, love one another, so all we need is love, but let him finish: “That you love one another, even as I have loved you.” Amen.