In hindsight, I know there were parts of me that needed to die so I could be resurrected. Or at least reshaped into who God needed me to be.
I think this is something that happens to anyone who goes on a spiritual pilgrimage or seeks a deeper meaning of life. Our old selves must die, in order for our new selves to become what they can.
Jesus was a perfect example of this. By his life, death, and resurrection, we know the way as we make our way towards the very heart of God.
For the season of Lenten, we’re going to abandon the lectionary and keep our focus on the Sermon on the Mount. This is the longest, and in my opinion, the best teaching Jesus gives. If this is all we had of him, it would suffice. It provides us with all that we need to live faithfully and righteously with God.
In these three chapters of Matthews gospel, Jesus awakens the sacred scriptures in a way that will shape the character of his disciples. The sermon on the mount is a perfect example of how Jesus stretches our understanding of scripture and what he meant when he said, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”
Jesus also expands our understanding of how to do fulfill the law. How to live our life that he said must “surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees” if we want to begin to understand what the kingdom of God is all about.
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 I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment...
This section of the Sermon has traditionally been called the “Antitheses.” Scholars called it that because Jesus seems to be making a comparison between two different schools of thought “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you”.
The problem with calling this “Antitheses” is that the name itself suggests Jesus is contradicting the law or telling us to do the opposite of what it says. That’s simply not true to Jesus’ character. He’s not contradicting but expanding the law - making it more applicable to every aspect of life.
Jesus says: “You know the command ‘Do not murder.’ Seems simple. But then he expands it saying, “I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with another, is guilty of murder.” Talk about cranking it up to 11!
Let’s be real, the chances of any one of us becoming a murderer is slim. But getting pissed-off to the point that you hate someone…well that’s almost a sure bet. Jesus does not see a difference between the two. Both kill relationships, which can keep us from becoming the kind of people who live their life in God’s kingdom.
I know I have told this story before, but the year I decided it was time to take Lent to the next level, a friend dared me to give up the 10 commandments. Although he was joking, that night I secretly resolved to fast from one of them: thou shall not murder.
Since I was pretty sure I could go 40 days without intentionally killing someone, I decided to expand my interpretation to see where I could take it in both my personal and professional life. You see, as a creative director I had the power to kill people’s ideas and concepts, their visions, and dreams. As a result, this made it easy to also kill a person’s spirit, joys, and passions. Pushing the limits of my fast forced me to really pay attention to my actions; what I said and did.
Thankfully, this was also that year I learned Lent was not just about fasting, but it was also about feasting as well. What’s the antithesis of killing? Giving life. As I intently focused on what not to do, my thinking naturally began to shift towards what to do. Before I knew it, I was thinking about lifting people up instead of tearing them down. As a result, I began to be transformed from the inside out.
Jesus did not come to change the law. He came to change us, so we could fulfill the law in a way that God intended. Scripture is the seed Jesus plants deep into our core where it can take root, and become a part of who we are, instead of some ancient rules to follow.
Joe Pagano notes, "Jesus knows that we can pretend to be righteous but still treat others as if they were dead." Jesus invites us to go within ourselves, to look at our heart where our actions and deeds germinate so "we can have the chance to look at others - not with anger but with love."
Love is the key to exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Love is the way of the Kingdom of God. If we follow Jesus closely, we will see that true righteousness comes from practicing love, mercy, and justice - especially to the vulnerable.
This is why Jesus turns up the volume in everything he does. He’s trying to wake us up so we will step up. His words and deeds push the boundaries and expand the way we interpret the law only so we can understand how "the greater righteousness is to love others as we would have them love us, even when they are our enemies."
Jesus steps it up on murder because he knows how simple words can kill.
He raises the bar on adultery and lust because he knows how easy it is for a heart to be corrupted.
He pushes the limits on taking oaths because he knows how tempting it is to manipulate words so we can get our way.
He expands our thinking on reconciliation because he knows the practice of retaliation only keeps the vicious cycle going.
Lent is the season for us to look inward, to reflect on how we can become grace-filled people through the ways we outwardly practice compassion and mercy - at the level by which God shows it to us.
Lent is a spiritual practice. One that takes a lot of practice. No one is LeBron James overnight. Not even LeBron James. Achieving the skill level of a pro-baller, is a day-by-day activity. In the same way, to grow into our Christlikeness requires active engagement.
We must have constant focus on what God is calling us to do. This might require creating the kind of good habits that can transform us from within.
The Apostle Paul makes this plea. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.”
Jesus calls us to follow the commandments righteously not simply religiously.
He’s not asking us to become the world’s moral rule keepers. He’s inviting us to take them, above and beyond their basic intention, so that our hearts and minds will exceed above and beyond what is good, acceptable, and perfect to God.
Jesus calls us to live and be moved by the spirit of the law so our hearts and minds can become the type of people God needs us to be - people formed and fashioned for a kingdom life.
As we make our way through the pilgrimage of Lent, moving towards the cross and through the Easter tomb, let us step it up and take these sacred words into Anamesa, using them as guides to lead us through the space between heaven and earth.
May the words of Christ forever stretch our imagination and be our encouragement for the formation and transformation of our character so that we might truly become the kind of people who actually love God, love others, and serve both.
Pagano, Joseph S. Intensifying the Law. February 16, 2014 (accessed on February 24, 2023)
Stassen, Glen H. and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003).
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An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”