You Have Heard It Said, But Jesus Says...
In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus begins his greatest sermon, his essential teachings: The Sermon On The Mount. One of the interesting aspects of The Sermon On The Mount is the pattern in which Jesus teaches.
He begins each new teaching with these words: "You have heard it said..." These words indicated that he was reminding them of the religious rules and regulations that they were supposed to follow as faithful, covenant people of God.
But then Jesus did something unexpected. He would follow up his "You have heard it said," explanations of the religious laws with a new way of viewing the old commandments, and he would begin these new teachings with the words, "But I say to you..."
It would go something like this: "You have heard it said, you must not murder... But I say to you, if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be judged."
Or like this: "You have heard it said, you must not commit adultery... But I say to you anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
Jesus also had this to say, which always lands on me like a ton of bricks: "I tell you that if you are no more obedient than the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven."
So what was going on here?
Basically, Jesus was saying to the stuffy, pompous, judgmental religious people of his day was, "So you kept the rules... the bare minimum rules... Bra-vo." I can almost see him slow clapping the religious folk as he says it.
I see this in Christian circles all of the time. There's a litmus test for what counts for right beliefs and practice. So, if you refrain from certain behaviors, if you read the right authors, if you go to the right churches... then you can be considered to be the right kind of Jesus-follower.
But all of the rule-keeping and law-giving that passes for Christian faith and practice in so many Christian communities does little more than lower the bar for what it means to follow Jesus.
Jesus tells the regular people listening to his words, "If the sum total of your commitment and relationship with God is just do what's expected of you--you're just not getting it." The problem that so many of us Christians have is that we worry if we don't "hold the line" on the rules, then the rules will always end up being broken.
Jesus has another idea. Why don't you do whatever you can to be in relationship with God and then you will discover that the old rules, the old litmus tests aren't good enough.
God doesn't want my compliance, which is secured by fear and dread. God wants obedience, which is marked by trust and love. God doesn't want me to focus on drawing lines in the sand, God wants me to stumble after his Son as I try to follow Jesus' footsteps in the sand.
May you discover a new way to be in relationship with God that isn't defined by rule-keeping or breaking. May you trust and lean not on your own understanding, but on the hope and joy that comes from a life spent stumbling after Jesus.
And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.