The Higher Morality
Scriptures: Matthew 5:17-20; Matthew 22:34-40
In a book on parenting I came across this letter from the mother of two small children. She writes,
A few months ago, I was making several phone calls in the family room where my three- year-old daughter Adrianne, and my five-month-old son, Nathan, were playing quietly. … I suddenly realized that the children were no longer in view. Panic stricken, I quickly hung up the phone and went looking for them. Down the hall and around the corner, I found the children playing cheerfully in Adrianne’s bedroom. Relieved and upset, I shouted, “Adrianne, you know you are not allowed to carry Nathan! He is too little and you could hurt him if he fell!” Startled, she answered, “I didn’t, Mommy.” Knowing he couldn’t crawl, I suspiciously demanded, “Well, then, how did he get all the way into your room?” Confident of my approval, she said with a smile, “I rolled him!” (Parenting Isn’t for Cowards, pp. 101-102).
This is an example of following the rules, but missing the point. It is very much the kind of thing Jesus criticized in the scribes and Pharisees of his time. For example, in Matthew 23, verse 23, Jesus says,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”
The scribes and Pharisees were so scrupulous about their religion that they gave 10% of all their crops as an offering, even 10% of the spices they grew in their window boxes. But they did nothing for the poor who had no land to farm and who struggled to survive on whatever minimal wages they got during harvest.
In our first scripture reading Jesus is approached by a Pharisee and asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus replies,
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
For Jesus, there is a point to the commandments in the Bible, and the point is love. We only understand the commands in the Bible when we understand how they point us to love.
Which Jesus proceeds to illustrate in the verses that follow. I did not try to include the whole of Matthew, chapter 5, in our scripture reading this morning, but the rest of the chapter 5 is mostly an illustration of what Jesus is talking about in verses 17 when he says,
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
The paragraphs that follow illustrate this. For example, in verse 21 Jesus quotes one of the Ten Commandments:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’”
But then Jesus adds his own commentary on this commandment, verse 22:
“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Then Jesus says in the next two verses:
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Growing up, I thought I was doing pretty good not to kill my brother. But here Jesus says I’m supposed to love him, because that is the point of the commandment. It is not just about avoiding murder. It’s about being reconciled to the people from whom you are estranged.
In the next paragraph Jesus does the same thing with adultery. First he quotes the commandment:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’”
But then Jesus says,
“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
In other words, for Jesus, the issue is not just to avoid adultery but commit yourself whole heartedly to loving and caring for your spouse. The point of the commandment is faithfulness.
There is a wonderful commentary on all ten of the Ten Commandments in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Even though most of the Ten Commandments are worded in the negative—don’t do this, don’t do that—Luther gives each of them a positive spin. For example, when discussing the commandment “You shall not murder,” Luther says,
“We should fear and love God, and so we should not endanger our neighbor’s life, nor cause him any harm, but help and befriend him in every necessity of life.”
Notice the positive twist. Suddenly the commandment against murder has become a mission statement. Hunger relief, shelter for the homeless, medical care, feeding and caring for children—all these things are wrapped up in this commandment. It is not just about avoiding murder; it is about serving one another in love.
Luther does the same with the next commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” He says,
“We should fear and love God, and so we should lead a chaste and pure life in word and deed, each one loving and honoring his wife or husband.”
Marriage is not just about avoiding an affair. It is about a mission God gives us to love and care for our spouse.
My favorite is Luther’s explanation for the commandment “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” He begins with the obvious:
“We should not tell lies about our neighbor, nor betray, slander, or defame him.”
But then he goes a step further:
“But (we) should apologize for him, speak well of him, and interpret charitably all that he does.”
Imagine if instead of condemning people or making fun of them, we tried to explain their actions in the kindest way possible. That does not mean agreeing with them or condoning anything they do. But it may soften our attitude toward other people as we try to understand the situations or life experiences behind their words and actions.
Each of the negatively worded Ten Commandments has an opposite:
- The opposite of murder is reconciliation.
- The opposite of adultery is faithfulness.
- The opposite of stealing is sharing.
- The opposite of lying is speaking the truth in love.
- The opposite of coveting is gratitude.
One of my teachers in seminary put it this way: The Ten Commandments are the structure of love. The higher morality of Jesus is not less than the Ten Commandments but more. The command to love one another does not void the commandments against murder, adultery, lying, stealing, or slandering. Love fulfills those commands. But the commands are still important, because they are the architecture of love, pushing us toward reconciliation, faithfulness, compassion, honesty, and gratitude.